“Even a Hated Tax Collector!”
Sunday 22 September 2019
It seems that the members of most civic societies who are under occupation by a foreign power reserve a special venom for enemy collaborators. History is full of examples where, immediately upon the defeat of an occupying force, the local citizenry turns its attention to dealing ruthlessly with those within its ranks who were seen to be “on-side with the enemy” – especially those who benefitted financially.
This characteristic of human behaviour, regarding enemy collaborators as the worst of the worst, was not absent from the Jewish population of Palestine in the first century AD. The form of collaboration that the high priestly families engaged in was possibly too remote for the citizenry to have too much knowledge of, but the men who sat in their village collecting taxes on behalf of the Romans had no way of hiding their collaboration from their countrymen and women.
For most of us who have probably never experienced enemy occupation, it is probably difficult for us to comprehend the level of hatred and revulsion that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day would have felt for their local tax collector.
The scorn that the Jewish population had for the tax collectors was particularly strong because, they not only collected the Roman taxes that the people so vehemently resented having to pay, it was because they were known to be corrupt and fraudulent in the way that they did it. The individual had no way of appealing the level of tax that was being imposed because the tax collector could simply call on the power of the local Roman military to enforce his demands.
But Jesus did not seem to share this distaste for the tax collectors. He would have known only too well how they were viewed by the populous, particularly by the members of the strict Pharisaic Party. And yet, time and again in the Gospels, we see Jesus being associated with tax collectors, and that other hated group of sinners, the prostitutes – often women who were destitute because of the patriarchal system of the day who resorted to selling themselves as their only means of survival.
Curiously, we only know the paying occupation of five of the Apostles. Peter, Andrew, James and John we know were fisherman. And the other one of course is Matthew, the tax collector. And it appears from the narrative in Matthew’s gospel, that he was the tax collector in Jesus’ home village, Capernaum. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus seems to use Capernaum as his home base. So, this is a very provocative action. Jesus calls the hated tax collector from his own village to follow him and to be one of his closest disciples as one of the Twelve, even though he will be returning time and again to that very village after his various travels.
Can you see some of the problems that this would raise? Firstly, Matthew himself might have felt very sheepish about wandering about amongst the very people that he has defrauded and menaced with Roman military threats without any of the wealth and prestige that was formerly his to protect him. No doubt the other disciples felt more than a little discomfort at times as well as we have plenty of evidence in the gospels that they had not, until after Jesus’ death, resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, fully grasped what Jesus was on about. And it certainly presented problems for Jesus because it gave his detractors more evidence that he was an agent of Beelzebul rather than of God.
But call Matthew the tax collector to be a disciple and apostle Jesus did.
I think there are at least a couple of lessons that we can draw out of this set of circumstances.
Firstly, I think that one thing it tells us is that no one is beyond God’s love and concern. As we have been studying the Gospel of Matthew in our Wednesday evening Bible Study of late, it has been interesting to observe how often Jesus was not prepared to abandon people because of the labels put on them. He did not see “sinners”, “prostitutes”, “tax collectors”. Rather he saw human beings in the image and likeness of God who happened to have been placed in various camps by others. He was determined to show them the love, compassion and forgiveness of God.
Secondly, it shows us how true to his message Jesus was. Nothing seemed to deter him from going after the lost sheep of the house of Israel. He appears to have been unconcerned about the difficulties that a former tax collector within his ranks would have on how he and his followers were treated by others. We often read in the gospels that the crowds were amazed at Jesus because he taught as one with authority. This is an example of where he acted with authority. It was as if Jesus was prepared to take the risk of having this tax collector within his ranks because he thought it was right to do so and therefore, it was for others to review their thinking, not him review his.
Today, as we celebrate the patronal feast of St Matthew, let’s take away those two points that this controversial choice of a tax collector as a disciple and apostle has provided for us.
Let’s never feel that we could ever be abandoned by God. No one is beyond God’s interest and care. No matter what circumstances we may have found ourselves in our lives previously, or now, for that matter, God is always reaching out to us, calling us into closer bonds of love with him and with each other.
And let’s be encouraged by Jesus’ willingness to take risks for the spreading of the gospel of the kingdom of God to do so ourselves.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all people. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen