Theme: First Century Tax Collectors
This week’s lessons show us the depth of the mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, who continues to call, not those who believe they are righteous, but sinners into his kingdom.
Scripture: Matthew 9:9-13
Now it’s interesting to focus on Matthew because the one thing we know about him, almost the only thing we know, is that he doesn’t say anything in all of the Gospels. He never speaks a word, and we’re given very little to tell. But the one thing we know about him is that he was a tax collector, that is, he worked for the Roman government under Herod and was one who collected the revenue that kept this occupying power in business, that paid for the troops that occupied the land, subjected the people, and, in many cases, took advantage of them. It means he was an outcast, of course, because nobody liked tax collectors. And in order to understand the story we really have to take a little bit of time to appreciate what that meant.
You recall that when we were in the preceding chapter and I was talking about the centurion, I talked about this Roman centurion also as being one who was outside of this cultural situation that prevailed in Palestine. Jews had their way of doing things, and this man who was a Roman centurion, and therefore a foreigner and a member of the occupying power, did not belong. And yet when we come to Matthew the situation is far worse. Matthew was a Jew. He wasn’t a Gentile. And yet the way the Jews looked at tax collectors was a far more terrible way of looking at someone than they ever looked at this particular centurion. The centurion may have been a Gentile and he may have been a soldier, but he was commended by the people. They said because he had shown an interest in Judaism and had even built a synagogue in his hometown, Luke tells us in his account that this man is worthy of the people’s favor. He had a good reputation among the Jews. This was not true of Matthew, who had exactly the opposite reputation.
Not long ago I heard a sermon by Dick Lucas, who was speaking at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology. He picked this passage of Jesus’ calling of Matthew as a text for talking about his theme, which was the grace of God. I greatly benefited from what I regard as one of the most brilliant sermons I have ever heard. I do recall what he said about tax collectors, who were outcasts in at least three ways. Matthew was an outcast because he was religiously unacceptable, because he was politically unacceptable, and because he was socially unacceptable. And each one of those were very, very weighty.
Take this matter of his being politically unacceptable, first of all. He worked for the occupying power. He was an underling of Herod, whom everybody despised because he had collaborated with the Romans. He was a vassal of their government, and he was the means by which the strong arm of Rome oppressed the Jewish people. Anybody who would in any way link up with that and support and encourage that kind of military occupation was obviously on the outs with the Jewish community. If the disciples had had any say in the matter of who Jesus called to be a disciple, none of them would have wanted Matthew.
Not only was he politically unacceptable, but he was also religiously unacceptable. Why was he unacceptable to the religious establishment? Because in his profession he had to associate with Gentiles. That was just the nature of the job, and anybody who associated with Gentiles was by that very act ceremonially unclean. It meant they could not participate in the worship in the temple. We know that the Jews considered this a very serious matter because even at the time of Jesus Christ when they were doing their utmost to have him convicted and executed before the beginning of the Passover, they would nevertheless not even deign to enter Pilate’s judgment hall because if they did that they would have defiled themselves and would have been unable to participate in the feast. Now here was Matthew every single day associating with Gentiles. Why, a man like that was as inappropriate for salvation as anybody could possibly be. So if his political affiliations were not bad enough, well, his religious problem was bad as well.
And then he was socially unacceptable. Tax collectors generally were because most, if not all, of them were assumed to be dishonest. Commentators tell us how their job worked. The tax collectors were given a certain figure that they had to produce, and anything they could get over that they could keep for themselves. So the people who were good at this job were the people who were the most unscrupulous and the most dishonest of the masses. If they could collect a lot they became rich, and probably Matthew did. Everybody knew that, and there was nothing they could do about it except to keep paying their taxes that were undoubtedly higher than they should have been. So nobody liked tax collectors, but if you were greedy and wanted to make a lot of money, you did not care whether your own countrymen liked you or not.
What do we know about Matthew from the Gospels?
How were tax collectors viewed in Jesus’ day, especially Jewish ones? Why?
Reflection: To help sharpen our understanding of what people thought about Matthew, and thus our appreciation for what Jesus will do for him, what are some parallel occupations today that would draw a similar rejection?