You’ve probably often heard someone introduce something they’re going to say, like … “I’m not a whatever, nor the son of a whatever, but I am a something, something, something. One of my favorites in this genre is to say that, “I’m not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, and I work for a non-profit, but I will predict that something, something…”
So, full disclosure here, I’m not a tax collector, but I am the son and the grandson of a tax collector! It’s actually true. In the rural township where I grew up, my father was the municipal tax collector for 28 years, whereas his father did it before him for 32 years. It was an elected position, but I don’t think anyone ever ran against either of them over the entire six decades.
This township now has a municipal building with an office for the tax collector and all else that involves the local government. But prior to that time and during the years of my childhood, the tax collection took place in the dining room of our home. There my dad had a desk, a filing cabinet and a safe. Every year there was the annual sending out of the tax notices. It was the one thing regarding dad’s part-time job that I was required to participate in helping. He would sort out all the bills and envelopes, and I would have to do something like fold them all and put them together by sealing the envelopes and applying the stamps. It took multiple days to get the task accomplished. I hated it!
People could pay their taxes by mailing their checks. But for some reason particularly in those days, folks would come to our house and frequently even pay with large amounts of cash. My mother would often have to take their payments when people came at hours my father was at his regular job. I would estimate that we had an average of 3-4 visits at our home every day of people paying taxes. Often they would stay and chat for a long time. Most folks were very nice and understood that my dad was simply the collector, not the assessor.
But a tax collector in Palestine in the time of Christ was not just a collector, he was a self-appointed assessor as well. There was an amount the Romans needed to receive, but if he wanted to charge more and keep the difference, the Romans didn’t care. The abuse was well-known. Thus there was no person quite so reviled as a tax collector – a publicly-recognized and deputized cheat! And from the point of view of Jewish religious leaders such as Pharisees, a tax agent was the ultimate sinner. To have any social association with such a person was to have their sin rub off on you!
Matthew 9:9 – As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Essentially the same text is repeated also in two other gospels: Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32.)
The quote in verse 13 is from Hosea 6:6 – For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. This is a passage where God through the prophet is rebuking Israel for the nation’s lack of repentance and a true heart for the Lord. Though they went through the motions of sacrifice, it had no depth or meaning since their hearts were cold.
My whole Christian life has been lived within the tension of how to rightly apply this sort of passage we look at today, versus understanding others such as 2 Corinthians 6:7 – Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” There is something to be said for both sides, and I believe there is a way to harmonize them.
My earlier life was in the surroundings of very, very conservative people. We didn’t drink alcohol or even go to any place that would serve it. Other than the most comedic of films, we never went to the theatre; and we had many friends who would take a stand against going EVER – arguing that even seeing a good film, even a Christian-produced one, was to support the vile industry and the theatre operation.
Certainly I was shielded from some very bad things that took down more than a couple of my high school classmates, yet I also became increasingly aware that I knew very few unsaved people. A pastor can work in the ultimate bubble, being consumed day and night by the needs of the church. The only unsaved people you might meet are those who randomly happen to wander in the doors. And living in the country, I had few neighbors with whom there would ever be much conversation.
So, while at my previous ministry in a historically VERY conservative church, I decided to take a risk and “cross the tracks.” This was during the time of my life when I was running marathons and entering road races, so I decided to join the local running club. Of all places, they met in a Knights of Columbus building which was essentially a bar (that was much used during the meetings). It was great to build relationships with those folks, several of whom are friends to this day. As well, it gave me a platform of relationships to host a five-mile race that our church sponsored, which I used as an evangelistic event in the running community (I went to seminary with two of the top marathoners in the world at that time and had one of them come and speak. One of our club members – a woman – would later run in the Olympics in Seoul.).
Some evangelism and some relationship building with Christians who are much different than ourselves may happen naturally. But after decades now of doing this church thing, I’m ever more convinced that very little of either happens without intentional effort. That is the passion of my heart relative to choosing and presenting this series.
I want us to do more crossing of tracks, more eating with tax collectors, etc. We’re going to work to build relationships with the families and community of the nearby elementary school. We’re going to look to build relationships with some of the ethnic churches in town. And I am desirous of us ultimately being a much, much, much more diverse congregational family than we are right now. Can it happen? It is difficult … and won’t happen without intentionality. I’ll need some people who aren’t afraid of going to some new places and around some different people.