The only thing worse than taxes is the “Tax Man.” The Feds. The IRS. Am I right?
Well, it was even worse in Jesus’ day. It is not hyperbole to say that in that day tax collectors were treasonous traitors who were a simple stone’s throw away from terrorists. They were despicable. Israel was under the political dictatorship of a foreign, heathen, superpower called Rome. Rome dominated God’s people; politically oppressing them by the force of Rome’s mighty military power.
Tax Collectors were Jews, who worked for Rome, betraying their own nation, people, and God, to extract cruelly oppressive tax rates that went directly into the Roman coffers to keep the cycle of oppression going. So why did these Jews do it? The fact was, the Romans did not even pay them! They were simply permitted to extract whatever unfair rate they wanted for themselves on top of the official tax rate. If their fellow Jews would not pay up, the Tax Collector sent in the Roman Centurion to take it. So show up on Tax Day at the tax booth with the exhortation money in hand … or else.
Recently, I was doing a group Bible study on the second chapter of Mark. It includes, among other things, the story of Jesus calling Matthew Levi to follow Him and be His Disciple. It was shocking to me, that in my group study with about 10 other people, they were just not able to handle the fact that Jesus calls Matthew while Matthew is actively engaged in open sin against his nation, people, and God as an extortionist. It is not that Matthew was once a Tax Collector; he is actively tax collecting. In the story, Jesus walks up to him and basically says, “Hey, you, Tax Collector, come follow me, join my team, and be my disciple.”
My group offered all kinds of weird excuses that are not, at all, hinted at in the text.
“Well, Jesus knew his heart.” Offered one lady. To which I countered, “Yeah, Jesus did, Jesus knew that in the heart of Matthew was only extortion.”
“Pastor how can you say that,” said another, “he is one of the Twelve!”
Another added, “I am sure Jesus looked deep into his soul and saw the kind of man Matthew really wanted to be,” offered another person in our group. To which I counter with the question, “To be rich?”
And another continued, “There had to be something we don’t know. Jesus couldn’t have a sinner on his team. People who follow Jesus have to be worthy of that call. We all know this, so it has to be true.”
The text of Mark, chapter two is clear, at the point when Jesus calls Matthew to follow Him, Mathew was an active Tax Collector, which is to say, he was a treasonous sinner of the worst kind, engaging in the ungodly oppression of his own people. But what is even worse, Jesus and the other disciples leave with Matthew and go have a dinner party with Matthew and “many” other tax collectors. So I asked my group why is Jesus going to have a party with such sinners? Certainly, he could not have read all their hearts and seen “deep down inside they all felt bad about their lives”. I pointed out Jesus was having a dinner party with the worst sinners of all!
The group was awkwardly quiet. They did not know what to say. But soon the same old justifications came flooding back. “Jesus, knows things we don’t,” and “There had been some level of repentance in Mathew” and “Jesus couldn’t help that the other tax collectors came.” And lastly, the crux of what I call the “lie,” someone said, “Pastor, Jesus would never let someone follow Him unless they were truly repentant.”
I wanted to shout, “Lie!” But I did not have to. A quiet, yet well -studied lady finally spoke up, dispelling the lie with the truth.
“Wow, I get it! I get it! No one can repent before they meet Jesus. If we expect people to be penitent, to have cleaned themselves up, to become worthy, without having spent time with Jesus, we expect the impossible and put impossible conditions upon receiving the power of the Gospel into their lives! The Truth is, Jesus, invites you to the party, not because you’re worthy of his time, or to be his disciple because no one is. He invites you to the party because the party is the only way the unworthy is changed! We are offered the opportunity to be changed by being invited to the table with Jesus.”
The idea that we must do something to be worthy of the attention of Jesus is a powerful lie many Christians peddle, without having thought it out! It is the old, slippery Satanic slope of needing to have cleaned yourself up before you can come to Jesus, the church, or faith. If we could have cleaned ourselves up, then why would we have needed Jesus, anyway? The Gospel is not that Jesus called Matthew because he was worthy. How is that even good news? That is, at best, reasonable news. The Gospel is that Jesus called Matthew because Matthew was not worthy, and would never be worthy without Jesus coming to him. We can’t even repent, without Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, and the witness of his followers bringing the party of Good News to us. Therein lies the real problem: Church members, too often, want sinners to clean themselves up, in order to be worthy of the church’s attention, love, or help. The reason, really, is that church members don’t want to know or spend time with, much less have a party with prostitutes, drug dealers, thugs, and “undesirables.” But if we can put the conditions of having already been changed to our responsibility to love, care for, or try to redeem them; if we can make “repentance” a condition of our attention, time, and face to face interaction, then preaching the gospel not only just got easier, it got a whole lot more palatable, tolerable, and comfy.
The Pharisees say, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But we do the same, when we see an elder, deacon, pastor, or member, routinely interacting with “suspect characters” we begin to whisper among the elite holy, “Why do they go to that place with sinners? What is their real association? What are they constantly doing over there with those people, they are up to something.”
And understand, the reason we throw such lies and accusations around, most often, has nothing at all to do with any real suspicion. That is it not what it is about. The reason Pharisees make such accusations, is so they can be excused from going and loving sinners, like those they accuse, and still appear Holy.
If Matthew was righteous when Jesus found him, then there would have been no reason to say, “Come follow Me”, for Matthew would not have been collecting taxes at his tax booth, he would have already been following behind Jesus. The assumption that in order to follow Jesus, in order to start attending a church, in order to be loved by the community of God, you have to have cleaned yourself up is a hellish lie that traps people in despair, disadvantage, and destruction. The Gospel is, you are not too far gone, too debased, too deformed, to be loved by God, redeemed by God, and called by God. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, . . . John 6:44 (Emphasis mine)
For those “righteous” who refuse to accept there is nothing they have, or can do, or can prove, that can earn them the merit of the attention of Jesus — Jesus can’t help them. They have all the “righteousness” they will ever get because they refuse the Doctor’s orders.
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
 Matthew is also known as Levi, in the same way, Peter is often known as Simon.