Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jesus and the Tax Man

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Mark 2:13-17

How interesting that Jesus calls as one of His chosen twelve, Levi, a man who was a tax collector. Now tax collectors are hated pretty much universally for obvious reasons, but in the first century there were extra reasons for the Jews to hate a man like Levi. The Roman Empire had conquered Israel and now they were taxing them. Levi, a Jew, had taken a job working for the Romans taxing his own people and giving that money to this occupying government. What is more, it was very often the case in that day that tax collectors would overcharge and pocket some of the excess (Luke 19:8). This Levi, also called Matthew*, was so hated as a tax collector that the Bible lumps him and the other tax collectors together with a social class of people that were known at that time simply as "sinners." Verse 15 tells us that many of these tax collectors and "sinners" followed Jesus.

When you stop to think about it, this is really surprising. If you were to imagine God coming to earth in human form, who would you expect Him to hang out with? Not sinners! Even by the Old Testament understanding the Messiah was expected to judge sinners harshly, not hang out with them. So how do we explain this? Well, Jesus explained it quite nicely in verse 17. In my opinion this is one of the all time mind-blowing statements in the history of the world. Jesus explains that He is like a doctor who has come to bring healing. It's the sick people who need to see the doctor, not those who are well.** It's clear that Jesus knew exactly what his purpose was, and He set about doing God's business. He came to "seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).

What characterizes your interaction with lost people? Some Christians avoid the lost altogether. Like the Pharisees we turn our noses up at them. We create labels that we attach to them in a vain attempt to show our own perceived moral superiority. But this doesn't reflect the love of Christ, and it doesn't advance God's kingdom in our world at all. Other Christians embrace sinners, but they also run headlong after the same sinful pleasures as their lost friends. They emphasize their acceptance of lost people by living a lost lifestyle with them. But this type of behavior doesn't offer the true healing that Jesus came and died to offer. This healing comes only through repentance. Still others, following more closely in the footsteps of Christ, dedicate their lives to seeking and saving the lost. They embrace lost people by showing them the love of God for them that was made manifest in the cross of Christ. In so doing, they show the lost the true cost of their sin and urge them to repentance for the healing of their souls, for the glory of God, and for the exaltation of Christ our Savior. Could anything be more noble a passion than this? Praise God that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost! Praise God that He is still calling them to repentance today! And commit yourself to this most noble of endeavors while there is still time. Love lost people with the love of Christ.

For further reading...

  • Luke 19:1-10- Read another story about a tax collector whom Jesus befriended.
  • Matthew- Read some of Levi's account of the life of Christ. 

*Jesus not only takes this one tax collector Levi into his inner circle of twelve disciples, but Levi is also believed to have later authored the Gospel of Matthew.

**Of course, Jesus' statement is filled with irony. He came to bring a spiritual healing that everyone needed. We are all ill with sin. The difference was that the "sinners" and tax collectors knew they were sinners and were willing to admit it. They knew they needed Jesus' healing. The Pharisees weren't willing to admit their sin, and it is hard to be healed when you don't know and/or won't admit that you are sick.

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