They were unlikely friends.
One man had betrayed his family and culture to work for the corrupt, overbearing government they despised. His old friends now counted him among the thieves and murderers. They even refused to worship with him.
His associate was part of an anti-government movement. This occasionally militant group aspired to wage war against the government and return to the glory days when their culture and religion ruled.
These men had little in common, and they should have been enemies. But they decided to lay aside their past and their politics to work together for the common good.
This story sounds naïve and unrealistic. In today’s divisive world, everything is divided into camps of red and blue, black and white. We can’t even imagine a scenario in which two people this different could find a way to work together.
But this is no made up story. This is the true story of Matthew the tax collector and Simon the zealot, two of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
- “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:1-4, emphasis added)
Matthew and Simon could not have been more different. In his old career, Matthew worked a well-paying job as a tax collector for the Roman government his Jewish peers despised. Simon the zealot was a Jewish nationalist who strongly upheld Jewish traditions and culture.
Matthew had worked for the government; Simon wanted to burn it down. An Occupy Wall Street protestor and a Tea Party patriot would have more in common than these two.
But Jesus called both of them, along with ten other underqualified disciples. And for the better part of three years, they spent every day beside each other.
Together, they learned at Jesus’ feet. Together, they huddled in a crowded fishing boat as Jesus calmed stormy seas. Together, they watched Jesus cure lepers, give sight to the blind, cast out demons and raise the dead. Together, they heard Jesus teach with life-changing power and authority. Together, they saw him unjustly arrested, tried, beaten to a pulp and nailed to a cross. And together they witnessed him after he rose from the grave, nail-scarred hands and all.
So while Matthew and Simon had starkly different pasts, I imagine they learned to get along and minister together — not because they completely agreed on every political matter, but because the Jesus they had in common was more important than the politics that sought to divide them.
The Jesus we have in common must be more important than the politics that seek to divide us.
Today, we need to remind ourselves of Matthew and Simon’s story. Our communities are bitterly divided on just about everything, but especially politics. Many of our institutions reinforce these divisions. News channels cater to right- or left-leaning demographics. Politicians one-up each other with divisive rhetoric. Our Facebook feeds only show us the headlines we want to read.
In this divided world, we will be tempted to make our politics ultimate. We will want to make politics the standard by which we judge everything and everyone. Ultimately, we will want to allow politics to sow division — even in the church.
When we gather on Sunday mornings, our ultimate standard won’t be scripture; it will be the voter guide.
But Jesus’ mission is far too important for such division.
Yes, we all have political pasts and preferences, formed at the intersection of our personal convictions and life experiences. And, yes, these political convictions are deeply important. We need to think critically and pray fervently about the positions we advocate and the politicians we elect.
But, like Matthew and Simon, the Jesus we have in common must be more important than the politics that seek to divide us. The Word he gave us must be more valuable than our party’s platform. The mission he gave us must take precedence over our political agendas. And the unity to which he called us must supersede any petty political differences.
The Jesus who made comrades out of a tax collector an zealot can do the same out of a Republican an Democrat.
We can make such sacrifices because, as the church, our ultimate identity is no longer “tax collector” or “zealot” (or “Republican” or “Democrat”). We are first and foremost sons and daughters of the Almighty, purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ, sealed by the Holy Spirit and called to join in the mission of God.
Yes, politics is important, but Jesus and his mission are far more important. And, ironically, when we commit ourselves to this Jesus and his mission, true, lasting, counter-cultural unity is possible.
After all, the same Jesus who made comrades out of a tax collector and a zealot can do the same out of a Republican and Democrat. We have a Savior greater than our divisions.
This article originally published on July 12, 2016.