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Calling the Tax Collector

"The Calling of St. Matthew" by Caravaggio

There was once a sign that said:

Lost dog. Large cash reward for finder. Dog has three legs, is blind in the left eye, missing a right ear, his tail has been broken off, he was neutered accidentally by a fence, he’s almost deaf, but he answers to the name Lucky.

Let me tell you: that dog is not lucky. That dog, like most of us, has been through a whole lot of mess. However, that dog is blessed because he has an owner who loves him and wants him back.[1]

The same is true of you and me. We may not be lucky, but we are blessed because we have an owner who loves us and wants us back. His name is Jesus and we see his tremendous love and his relentless search for lost human beings in our passage for today from Mark 2:13-17….

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

This morning I would like to take several key phrases in this text as jumping off points. The first phrase is: Jesus went out…

William Barclay has written,

Steadily and inexorably the synagogue door was shutting on Jesus. Between him and the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy war had been declared. Now he was teaching, not in the synagogue, but by the lakeside. The open air was to be his church, the blue sky his canopy, and a hillside or a fishing boat his pulpit. Here was the beginning of that dreadful situation when the Son of God was banned from the place which was regarded as the house of God.

The same thing has happened to many of Jesus’ followers. I think of John Wesley who was barred from the pulpits of the Church of England two hundred and seventy years ago. Wesley, like George Whitefield before him, took to the open air, and God used that preaching beyond the four walls of the church to transform a nation.

George MacDonald was another follower of Christ who was kicked out of his Congregational Church in England one hundred and fifty years ago. MacDonald took to writing books that presented the good news of Jesus through narrative and became one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century.

We make a grave mistake if we think that God’s work is confined to the four walls of the church. God the Father used his Son Jesus to spread the good news beyond the synagogue and he can use us to spread the good news beyond our church building if we will let him.

The second phrase I want you to notice is: As he was walking along…

Jesus did most of his significant ministry while going about his everyday life. This shows us that Jesus was never “off duty”. He was always looking for someone new that he could draw closer to his Father in heaven.

William Barclay explains that Jesus used a method of teaching and gathering disciples that was common to the Rabbis of his day….

As the Jewish Rabbis walked the roads from one place to another, or as they strolled in the open air, their disciples grouped themselves around and walked with them and listened as they talked. Jesus was doing what any Rabbi might have done.

However, the next thing Jesus did was something no Rabbi would have done in his day. While Jesus was walking along, near the Sea of Galilee, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth. You must understand that tax collectors like Levi (also called Matthew in the Gospel that bears his name) were among the most hated people in their day. Any other Rabbi would have had nothing to do with a tax collector because such a person was in league with Rome, the great oppressor of the Jews.

Tax collectors have never been popular people, but they were hated even more in Jesus’ day for more than one reason. People were never sure exactly how much they had to pay. Therefore, the system afforded the tax collector the opportunity to gouge people for money and line their own pockets with the excess. Even a Greek writer like Lucian, writing in the first century, ranked tax collectors with “adulterers, panderers, flatterers and sycophants.”

By calling Levi to follow him, Jesus demonstrated that he wanted the person no one else wanted. Jesus offered friendship to the person whom everyone else wanted to avoid. The same is true today. You can never say that you have never been loved. Even when you feel that the whole world hates you, it is a fact that Jesus loves you.

Have you ever wondered why Levi got up at that moment and followed Jesus? I imagine he was a person, as Barclay says, “with an ache in his heart.” Working in Capernaum as he did, Levi could not help but have heard about Jesus. He may have even listened to Jesus teach. He may have seen Jesus call others to follow him, like Simon, Andrew, James and John. However, Levi probably thought he was always going to be the one left out of the party. He never could have imagined that Jesus would call him to follow. Yet, here was Jesus doing just that. Levi probably never had anyone speak to him in a civil tone or even show an interest in him before this. However, Jesus changed all that. I think when Levi got up and left his tax booth, he was responding to the simple offer of love and friendship he sensed in Jesus’ invitation.

I think of my father’s work in New York City. After seeing some of the gang kids commit their lives to follow Jesus Christ, my father naturally wanted to introduce them to the church. He had a difficult time finding a church that would welcome them. Finally, he found one. At first, the church tried to “mainstream” the teens from my father’s group into their regular Sunday school classes. However, the church did not feel that was working too well. Therefore, they offered my father a room to conduct his own Sunday school class. In the end, the church was uncomfortable with the gang kids at all. Some of the girls were pregnant. Some of the boys were just too rough and tumble. It wasn’t a good fit.

Unfortunately, that is how the church through the ages has often treated the people that most need to hear and feel the message of Jesus’ love. When that love is spoken, and demonstrated in a way that is real, people will follow, they will go anywhere to experience it.

I imagine Levi never felt any love from the prim and proper people of the local synagogue. However, when Jesus showed an interest in him, Levi was ready to follow.

Furthermore, think of what Levi gave up. Of all the disciples, Levi may have given up the most to follow Jesus. Simon, Andrew, James and John could always go back to fishing. However, once Levi left his tax collecting booth there was probably no way the government would let him return to his job. As Barclay says, “It takes a big man to make a big decision, and yet some time in every life there comes the moment to decide.”

It is true that Levi gave up a lot to follow Jesus. However, it is also true that he gained some important things.

First, Levi gained a clear conscience. Doing the kind of work that he did as a tax collector must have made him feel bad deep down. He must have known it was not right for him to steal from others as he did. But what could he do? He needed the job.

Now that he was following Jesus he had no more conflict in his conscience. He knew, maybe for the first time in his life, that he was headed in the right direction. He might not have the luxuries of life anymore but he could lie down in bed at night with his heart at peace.

Secondly, Levi gained a bigger job. He left everything behind at the tax booth except one thing: his pen. Scholars do not think that Matthew’s gospel, as it stands, was the work of Matthew, whom Mark calls Levi. Too much is borrowed from Mark’s Gospel for that to be the case. However, in Matthew’s Gospel there are many stories and sayings that are not in the other Gospels. Where did these come from? Some scholars think that there was a Gospel, written in Hebrew, upon which Matthew’s Gospel draws. Furthermore, that Gospel may very well have been written by this man Levi. With his orderly mind, his systematic way of working, his familiarity with the pen, Levi may have been, the first person to give the world a book on the teaching of Jesus.

If that is true, then Levi gained a third thing when he chose to follow Jesus. It was something he never could have imagined gaining: worldwide fame. Levi’s other name, Matthew, will forever be connected to the story of Jesus, even in the minds of those who do not know very much at all about Christ. They at least know that Jesus’ story is recounted in four books named after four men: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If Levi had chosen not to follow Jesus on that day two thousand years ago, he may have had some local infamy as a tax collector, but he would have remained a person whom everyone hated. However, since Levi chose to follow Jesus, he eventually gained worldwide fame as one of the key men to record the works and deeds of his Master.

A third phrase I would like for us to examine is: As he sat at dinner…

Levi liked this Jesus so much his first inclination was to invite him to dinner in his home and introduce Jesus to all his friends. What could be more natural?

Who were Levi’s friends? They were his fellow tax collectors of course. However, Mark also uses the word “sinners”. Why does Mark call Levi’s friends “sinners”? Does he want to rub it in that they were bad characters?

Barclay explains….

We need not for a moment suppose that all these people were sinners in the moral sense of the term. The word sinner had a double significance. It did mean a man who broke the moral law; but it also meant a man who did not observe the scribal law. The man who committed adultery and the man who ate pork were both sinners; the man who was guilty of theft and murder and the man who did not wash his hands the required number of times and in the required way before he ate were both sinners. These guests of Matthew no doubt included many who had broken the moral law and played fast and loose with life; but no doubt they also included many whose only sin was that they did not observe the scribal rules and regulations.

The bottom line is this: do we know people who are outside of the church, who are non-religious, who maybe don’t know Jesus in a personal way? I am sure we all do. Over 80% of the residents of Lamoille County do not identify with any faith. I believe Jesus wants us to introduce these people to him in any good way we can.

A fourth phrase I want to focus on is: When the scribes of the Pharisees saw…

When the scribes of the Pharisees looked at these tax collectors and “sinners” that Jesus was eating with, in fact when they looked at Jesus, in fact when they looked at anyone, they looked with eyes of judgment. That is why they asked, “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?” That is a question that only a card-carrying member of the morality police would ask.

Why did the scribes of the Pharisees have this attitude toward tax collectors and “sinners”? Again, Barclay explains….

A clear distinction was drawn between those who kept the law and those whom they called the people of the land. The people of the land were the common mob who did not observe all the rules and the regulations of conventional Pharisaic piety. By the orthodox it was forbidden to have anything to do with these people. The strict law-keeper must have no fellowship with them at all. He must not talk with them nor go on a journey with them; as far as possible, he must not even do business with them; to marry a daughter to one of them was as bad as giving her over to a wild beast; above all, he must not accept hospitality from or give hospitality to such a person. By going to Matthew’s house and sitting at his table and companying with his friends Jesus was defying the orthodox conventions of his day.

The attitude of the Pharisee to the “sinner” was made of two things. One was contempt. “The ignorant man,” said the Rabbis, “can never be pious.” As Barclay says, “The Scribes and Pharisees despised the common man; Jesus loved him. The Scribes and Pharisees stood on their little eminence of formal piety and looked down on the sinner; Jesus came and sat beside him, and by sitting beside him lifted him up.”

The other thing that controlled and compelled the attitude of the Pharisee was fear. Like a doctor afraid of helping a patient from whom he might contract an infectious disease, the Pharisees were afraid to get near those whom they considered “sinners”. The Pharisees were afraid of contracting impurity from people who did not keep the Jewish law as they did. By contrast, Jesus could care less about such ritual impurity. He cared more for people than he did for keeping religious laws.

This leads us to the last phrase we need to examine: When Jesus heard this…

When Jesus heard the Pharisees’ question, when he sensed yet again that they were looking at the world through the eyeglasses of the judge, he said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

What did Jesus mean? Did he mean that he had no use for good people? No. I believe what Jesus meant was that he had no time for those who thought they were good enough. He had no patience for those who did not realize they were sinners just like everybody else. Jesus did not waste time on those who did not realize that they needed a Savior.

By contrast, Jesus was more than willing to spend time with those who knew they needed him. He lavished himself on those who were humble enough to realize they needed a Savior.

That leads to a question: who are we like? Are we more like the Pharisees or more like the tax collectors and “sinners” with whom Jesus spent most of his time? As amazing as it might seem, it is safer to be more like the tax collector and less like the Pharisee, because in the end what really matters is not who you are and what you have done in life, but whose you are and where you are headed.

If we start spending more time with Jesus than we do with the Pharisees then we will start seeing people the way Jesus sees them. Instead of seeing others through the eyes of a judge, we will begin to see others through the eyes of a doctor. If we spend more time with Jesus, instead of looking at those outside the church and asking, “Why have anything to do with them?” we will look at the world and ask, “Where are the hurts that God can use me to heal?”

[1] Philip Griffin, from the sermon "A God Who Redeems"


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