Supping With Tax Collectors and Sinners

By something resembling popular request. I preached this not last Sunday, but the previous Sunday. The Gospel reading is Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26.

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Tax collectors and sinners. These are the kinds of people Jesus surrounded himself with, preached to and healed. He even went into their homes, sat at their tables and broke bread with them.

It was something of a scandal, what this Jesus did with tax collectors and sinners. It got one party of Jewish religious authorities — the Pharisees — angry, and earned their condemnation. Because a righteous teacher does not consort with tax collectors and sinners. A righteous teacher does not sit at their table, eat their bread and drink their wine. Or forgive them their sins.

What is it about the tax collectors, anyway? Nobody much likes tax collectors — I know I’m not fond of them or of the power to tax — but I wouldn’t single them out like this. Why do that? Why are they lumped with “sinners,” and what might that mean, both in this gospel and for us, living so many years later?

Well, to begin with, a little on how taxes were collected long ago. Today, governments have large agencies and bureaucracies employing many thousands of people to collect taxes. The federal government has the much-disliked Internal Revenue Service, the IRS, which seems to know all as it watches just about everyone who receives a paycheck, every employer who hires people, and hundreds of other business and financial transactions to make sure that income is reported and taxes paid. And inflict swift punishment if things aren’t in order. Every state, county and city has a similar agency to collect revenue, from state tax boards to county clerks who make sure that property taxes and vehicle taxes and who knows what else are all paid. Government has no way of making its own money except through taxes, and so the collection of taxes is just one more bureaucratic function of government.

Now, while it’s almost always been true, this fact that governments must collect taxes from people in order to get the money to operate, 2,000 years, the Roman state didn’t have an Internal Revenue Service. The Greek city states did not have a franchise tax board. The empires of Babylon and Persia and the short-lived and far-flung conquests of Alexander the Great did not have county assessors. Collecting taxes was generally not something governments did 2,000 years ago. The ideal, especially in Greece and Rome, was that citizens from the ruling classes would hold short-term — a year, at most two years — elected or appointed posts and would not be allowed to hold the same post two terms in a row. The advantage, as the Greeks and Romans saw it, is that such a system prevented one individual from staying in an office too long and gaining too much power. The disadvantage was that no one could stay in office long enough to learn the ins and outs of how the state really worked.

On top of that, Greek and Roman government was nowhere near as bureaucratic as the government we have today. Greek city states did not collect taxes on their own. Even the power and reach of the most absolute monarch of the era — Pharaoh or the king of Persia — was limited. They didn’t have treasuries that could simply print money or issues bonds. There are only so many taxes you can squeeze out of farmers and artisans before they have nothing left. There are only so many times you can tax a jar of olive oil or a stack of cedar wood before it becomes so expensive no one will buy it.

So, if governments in the ancient world did not have revenue agencies, how did they collect taxes? Because we know, just from reading the Bible, that taxes were collected. Here’s how it worked — a wealthy individual either pays the taxes for a particular region outright, or promises to pay those taxes, in exchange for the legal right to collect the tax in that particular region. It’s called tax farming, and it’s how just about every government in the ancient world collected taxes at the time Matthew is writing about Jesus.

These tax farmers were private individuals at first, and then later associations similar to companies and corporations in our day, with lots of employees, many of them slaves. They didn’t go into this business of collecting taxes out of the kindness of their hearts or out of some sense of civic duty. They went into this business to make a profit — why else does anyone go into business? So they had to collect more than they were due, demand more payment than was required. Often times they used violence. I have no idea what the “margin of return,” to use a business phrase from my time as a financial journalist, was on tax collecting in the ancient world, but it had the potential to be hugely profitable. Who wouldn’t want to go into a business where you could compel someone to do business with you or else?

In fact, in the eyes of many Pharisees (and others, I’m guessing), these tax collectors were no better than thieves and robbers. They also consorted regularly with non-Jews — they had to, they collected taxes for non-Jewish governments, first for the successors to Alexander the Great’s empire and then for Rome — and because of that they were unclean. The whole family of a tax collector was considered unclean and could not participate in Jewish communal or social life. They were excluded from the religious life of the community.

These were the tax collectors Jesus supped with.

Hearing this, it sounds harsh, but consider the world of the Pharisee for a minute. The Torah, the law as given to Moses, ordered the world, and adherence to that law was righteousness. A righteous life was lived in accordance with God’s demands. Sinners — that other word in our gospel reading — were people whose lives were publicly and completely and utterly disordered and lived almost in complete opposition to God’s demands for God’s people as understood in the Torah. Not the kind of folks decent people associate with. Now, it wasn’t that people couldn’t repent, because they could. There were ritual ways of publicly demonstrating one’s repentance, of repairing the broken, and one of those ways — for a thief — was to make restitution, to pay back what was stolen and then some more as damages. That’s restitution, and it would have to be made by any tax collector who wanted to be part of Jewish ritual life and the greater Jewish community.

Anyone here think many tax collectors could do that, could easily pay back everything they’d ever taken from someone — twice or three times over if the law required it — over a career spent collecting taxes? What about those people who only worked for tax collectors, or were their slaves, and thus had no resources of their own to make restitution? So the door was closed for most tax collectors to effectively and publicly repent, to be openly reconciled to the life of the community. They, and the sinners they kept company with, were permanently and publicly excluded because there was no way they could ever get their lives together in the way the understanding of the law demanded.

And this is why what Jesus is doing is so scandalous. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees ask Jesus’ disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel, the first words Jesus speaks as part of his public ministry — his preaching and teaching and healing and forgiving of sins — are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is this forgiveness of sins, this utterly unmerited and unearned proclamation of forgiveness from God, that the Pharisees (and the Pharisee in each one of us) are most critical of, because it means that the requirements of the law — that we do something to make the relationship right as part of our earning forgiveness, that we redeem and reconcile ourselves to the community or prove we are worthy of redemption and reconciliation — do not apply. As Hosea says, God desires from God’s people goodness, mercy and kindness, and not sacrifices and burnt offerings wafting into heaven with the intention of covering or redeeming us from our sin. Sacrifice and restitution are not essential conditions of God’s forgiveness.

This is not to say that restitution isn’t good or even necessary. Those of you familiar with AA know that there’s a reason that steps eight and nine from the Big Book focus on restitution, demanding that we make “a list of all people we had harmed” and commit to making “amends to them as well,” and then carrying through on that promise by making those amends “wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” (These are good words for alcoholic and non-alcoholic alike, and that’s why I quote them.) But God’s forgiveness, our redemption and reconciliation with God and with those around us does not depend on our making restitution. Many of us simply cannot. Rather, our making amends is how we live together as redeemed, reconciled and forgiven people. Restitution springs forth from our redemption.

And that is because Jesus, by the mere fact he comes into our lives and sits at our table, breaking our bread and drinking our wine — by being our bread and wine, by going to the cross, bearing our sins and rising again on the third day — is our reconciliation. In him, through him, with him, we are reconciled to God and with each other. We, who cannot save or redeem ourselves, who are sick unto the point of death, are healed by the great physician who is the Messiah, Son of God come into the world. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus tells the Pharisees who are afraid to ask him directly why he is having dinner with sinners. “For I came not to call the righteous but sinners.”

And call us sinners he does. Jesus doesn’t really mess around with the righteous. He calls us — the homeless, the poor, the addict, the thief, the old, the infirmed, the marginalized, the malcontent and the rebel, all of us who have been told by “righteous decent folks” that it’s entirely our fault that we are excluded, and that we must do all the work of reconciling ourselves to the world in which we live. Jesus reclines at our table. The very author of this Gospel was himself a tax collector who Jesus himself called, a tax collector who got up from his place of work and “followed him.” Consider what Matthew likely gave up the day Jesus met him: a reasonably good-paying job with a fair amount of security (because government will never go away, even as governments come and go). Consider the risks he may have taken: he may have been contractually obligated to collect a certain amount of tax which he may still have been liable for, or he may have been bound to an employer who could come and get him and enforce the terms of his contract, most likely with clubs and chains. And all Jesus said to him were two little words: “follow me.”

We are the sinners, the tax collectors, the fishermen working on our nets, the sick woman in need of healing, the hungry crowds, we are the people Jesus has healed and preached to and called to follow, and we are called to preach and heal and live this Gospel of redemption and reconciliation, to show the world around us what the kingdom of heaven looks like, what it means to be redeemed and reconciled to each other. And to God.

One thought on “Supping With Tax Collectors and Sinners

  1. Very well put!!!I had a conversation today with a friend of mine that for the moment seems to be hung up on this ‘repent’ or else…thing. You explained it so well that it is a FREE gift this love of jesus and out of this love our hearts repent.thank you for sharing this truth!

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