THE TAXMAN COMETH
Colleen told me a story about Children’s Church last week. She was walking around her classroom as her students drew pictures. She noticed this one little girl drawing so intently she asked her what she was drawing. The little girl said she was drawing a picture of God. The teacher kind of laughed. I can just imagine her saying, “Oh Honey nobody really knows what God looks like. The little girl without missing a beat said, “They will in a minute.”
Over the years I had gotten out of shape and knew I needed to start exercising. I decided to join an aerobics class. On the first day, I bent and twisted and gyrated back and forth, jumped up and down, perspired for over an hour. But by the time I got my aerobics outfit on the class was over.
But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” 12 Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
Matthew the Tax Collector
13 Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. 14 As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.
15 Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. 16 And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
17 When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Today is Pentecost Sunday. At Pentecost, the Fire of God came as a gift to the gathered disciples. The fire was a symbol indicating a change in the life of each one “touched by the Spirit”. When the disciples were “touched by the Spirit” their life was changed, cleansed, and each had a burning desire to share the Gospel with others. It all began at Pentecost, one of the annual Jewish festivals that was held in Jerusalem. This is one of the three annual festivals or celebrations that all Jewish men were required to attend.
Passover is celebrated to remind the Jewish people how God set them free from Egyptian slavery. The Passover feast consists of unleavened bread, bitter herbs and lamb. The unleavened bread reminds them of their hasty departure. Pentecost was an agricultural celebration where thanks were given for the “first fruits” of the spring harvest, and in some Jewish traditions, it was also associated with the giving of the law and the renewal of the covenant. Pentecost actually used bread that had leaven in it, symbolizing how God would use the impure to hold His blessing, which is actually what Jesus encounter with the Taxman prefigures (shows in advance).
The triple prong of the story goes like this: 1) Jesus performs a revolutionary act (descriptive), 2) the Pharisees and Scribes argue with Him about it (challenge), 3) Jesus makes a statement that silences the critics (end of argument). It is important to understand that Jesus begins with the same basic assumptions as His antagonists, the people are sinners. Jesus just arrives at a different conclusion in His interpretation concerning the treatment of sinners and His outcome. Jesus defeats His challengers with an argument on a base assumption they agreed with and acknowledge. He does this six other times (2:1, 23; Matthew 12:22, 21:15; Luke 11:37, 13:10).
1) TEACHING TIME
13 Transitioning from the healing of the Leper to the acquisition of the Taxman would be less complicated in the narrative had Mark not recorded two things, the peoples’ amazement at the what they saw in Jesus, and the crowds who were gathering to press into Jesus at the seashore. Jesus withdrawal to the seaside was abrupt, and it is a recurring pattern that Mark records repeatedly. After ministering to the multitude, Jesus withdraws from the populace into lonely places, like mountains, wildernesses, or seashores. The significance of these retreats are more than rest. Twice Mark tells us about tempestuous storms that were raging and powerful (4:37, 6:47). Just like the driven force of the wilderness encounter with temptation, the move to the sea signifies a deliberate entrance into the forces that manifest their hostility against God. We will soon see Jesus returning to the battle, confronting darkness, and renewing His vows to perform His Father’s will. The consequence will lead to the calling out of a disciple, the meditation of Messianic forgiveness, and the renewal of the conflict with the religious rulers (15-17).
14 Jesus takes up where He left of before the confrontation with the Scribes, he began to teach the people. I’m reemphasizing this point as Matthew and Luke omitted this fact, but Mark’s inclusion is significant, as it lets us know that wherever Jesus went, wilderness or a home, seaside or a roadway, Jesus did the same thing. He taught. However, He never sought out the crowds. To the contrary, whenever the massive explosiveness of the Kingdom broke through, Jesus common practice was to retreat from the crowds, not run to them.
But when the crowds would congregate, He would teach them, instilling hope. This is an important fact for a number of reasons. If you remember, earlier we observed how Jesus teaching was really different from the teachers of the Law, the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus taught with authority. In other words, when Jesus speaks, things happen (1:22-27). Mark now addresses this attitude as amazement (v.10).
2) ACTION TIME (TEACHING IN ACTION)
This is Matthew the tax collector from Galilee. He worked for the hated Edomite Herod Antipas. Herod was an outcast from traditional Judaism and Jewish Society. He was considered to be the same as the lepers. His office was called the Seat of Customs, and they would exact taxes from everyone who traveled the road between Galilee and the Decapolis, the territory of Herod Phillipi, and all the fish taken from the sea. Jesus is now in the Northern end of the Town and Sea.
The Jewish people carried a nationalistic prejudice against Rome and tax collectors, and Herod’s henchmen. If you worked for the Roman’s you were hated.
When Jesus laid his hands up on the lepers and cleansed them, new life was released to them. It was the same way with the tax gatherer. Matthew received a new lease on his life.
Matthew became one of the founding members of the new society of the Kingdom of God.
He was one of the 12 new patriarchs, in the same sense as the tribal, and of the New Israel that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, (Luke 22:30).
We now get to bear witness to a whole new way that Jesus stood in opposition to the religious and pious rulers who served as the establishment of the day. They avoided sinners. Jesus seeks them out.
This truth is highlighted as Jesus calls this hated tax collector to His side as a newby follower. Matthew’s calling is referenced in the same way as the earlier calling of the fishermen. It’s really brief. Levi (Matthew) may have known Jesus. He might have even put His taxes together using Turbotax at the local H&R Block. Seriously, Levi probably knew Peter, as this wasn’t a huge city.
The point is there wasn’t a huge build up. Jesus called. Levi followed. It’s really that simple. Mark draws our attention to the only adequate reason why anyone follows Jesus, “He called me and I followed.”
There is a difference in the two stories of the called, however. Fishing was a respectable trade. Collecting taxes was not. Tax collectors had to purchase their license to practice their trade, and it did not come cheap. Once you had your Government approved seal, you could begin gouging people for their owed taxes and additional fees that were yours to keep. The more people owed in arrears, the more additional fees you could charge and keep.
In Judaism at the time of Christ, taxmen were not allowed to become Judges. They could not be used as a witness in court. And they were barricaded from Synagogue. Did I mention that their whole family suffered their disgrace? They were part of the hated and despised people in society.
The first part of Jesus radical action was offensive, as it always brought theological issues into the forefront: was it improper to share with the outcasts and ignorant? This was more revolutionary than what we read at first blush. Jesus did more than share a meal with the sinners. V15 says that they reclined at table together with Jesus in some translations. The verbiage is suggestive that Jesus the Messiah and not Levi the home owner served as the host of the party. Levi footed the bill, but Jesus presided over the event. In other words, Jesus was more than a guest, and this infuriated the religious rulers.
3) DINER TIME
2:15 the meal that was presented was by its very nature a reception of sorts for Matthew’s old business acquaintances. This meal served as a meeting ground for new introductions, as Matthew introduced Jesus as his new employer to his old partners.
15-16 This is what is so incredible about Jesus bold move in calling one of societies outcasts into His Band of Brothers. And it wasn’t just one tax collector. Many taxmen and other varied and sundry sinners followed Jesus. This seems to be directly linked to Levi’s calling. All of a sudden, they had hope as this teacher dined with them. This reminds me of the song we used to have the men sing before every meal at Teen Challenge. It goes like this: “Come and dine,” the Master calleth, “Come and dine”; You may feast at Jesus’ table all the time; He Who fed the multitude, turned the water into wine, To the hungry calleth now, “Come and dine.”
16 there were neither excuses, nor condensation, or commendation for past sin. Jesus never excused sin, or gave a pass to people who were sinning. No scribe or Pharisee ever condemned sin more than He did. Those who think that Jesus was soft on sin criticize him wrongly. When you are following Jesus correctly, you’re a sinner no more by an act of grace through placement. However, this does not mean that we achieve a place where we never sin. Jesus freely mixed with sinners. This was because of their needs and his ability to bring transformation to their souls.
16-17 This is Matthew’s situation. He was subject to excommunication from the synagogue, as was his family also. Often men who were considered rapacious and immoral we’re disqualified as both judges and witnesses in court sessions. This was the lot of Tax Collectors.
To fully appreciate the shock and awe aspects of this Kingdom Paradigm Shift, it is important for us to truly appreciate what the implications of the term sinners (ἁμαρτωλός, όν); 1) sinful, guilty, shown to be wrong (RO 7.13); 2) substantivally, as one who lives in opposition to the divine will ) implies, and what it meant culturally to eat with them. Pharisees used the term sinner as a classification or category that that was broad and inclusive. It encompassed more than thugs, murderers, notorious criminals like Michael Corleone and other miscreants. The blanket term sinner also included the common, unlearned people of the Land who were not versed in Rabbinic Law and those who had no interest in becoming versed in the Scribal Law. Sinners were spiritual outcasts.
The thought that was conveyed was that in order to observe the whole Law perfectly like Paul, you had to know the Law. The common person typically could not spend an inordinate amount of time in study of the Law, so they were often ignorant of the finer nuances. This led to an automatic assumption that said the common people regularly transgressed the Law. But ignorance was not an excusable notion when it came to practice, therefore only the learned could be holy. Hillel, the great Rabbi of Jesus time said that “the common person could not be pious.” They were particularly despised because they would not ceremonially wash before they ate and they usually were not Tithers.
The Pharisees even took this idea further with their twisted reasoning by saying that you could not eat with these clod hoppers, or they may make you ritually unclean through their violations. The safe and sane route was to simply avoid sinners. The Pharisees tried to be exclusive in order to avoid becoming unclean, and it was considered a disgrace to recline at table with sinners. Jesus disregard of their time-honored exclusion offended them.
17 The objection to Jesus is becoming more than ruminations within the heart. They approach the Disciples and begin questioning them about Jesus in what little more than a veiled accusation of impropriety. When Jesus overhears the conversation, He steps into the fray and counter punches with, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” The real point to this statement was that when you become a friend of Jesus or a follower of His, you cease to be a sinner. Christ never excused sin nor condoned sin. He simply forgave sinners. The Pharisees recognized this maxim validity even as Jesus implied that He was responsible for the infraction of table sitting.
This determination brings into clarity the point of the table fellowship, as the focus was on Messianic forgiveness and the meal itself served as anticipatory bait for the Messianic banquet they Scribes and Pharisees taught about. When Jesus broke bread with the outcasts, Messiah ate with them at His Table and He extended to them fellowship with God. This is a sovereign demonstration of the forgiveness of sins. The meal is an extension of grace that anticipates the final meal of consummation.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Pharisees were not as righteous as they thought they were. Their own conclusion that they were “well” led them to ignore the real doctor who was in the house, Dr. Jesus. It was the tax collectors and other sinners who were the sickos, and their response to the magnanimity of Jesus was classic, “let’s party!” The breakthrough led to a celebration.
This encounter leads us to grapple with the question who really is well, and who is sick? Who are the truly righteous and who are the real sinners. It’s almost like the scene at the end of Truth or Consequences, where the statement comes, will the real sinner please step forward?
Jesus shocking initiative turned the religious understanding on its head. God was using sinners and taxmen as the dust of a new created order that would exhibit a new type of holiness. The raw material was not the sainted, but sinners, and the heart of holiness wasn’t knowledge alone, nor was it found in observation of rituals and rules. Relationship at the table with Jesus is the new norm.