Perhaps you have heard someone say when making a prediction, “I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet, but I predict that ________.” I like to embellish that by saying, “I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet, and I work for a non-profit organization, but I predict that _______” That’s actually hilarious in my estimation, but most people don’t laugh when I say it. They need to lighten up!
Today, we talk about tax collectors. I’m not a tax collector, but I am the son and the grandson of tax collectors. It’s true. Both my father and his father before him served in our rural New Jersey township as the local property tax collectors (for over 40 years total). It was an elected position and a part-time job. What it meant at that time is that people came to our house to pay their taxes, most often in cash. On an average day, we probably had six or seven people knock at the door and come inside to make payments. They would come during dinner, late at night, early in the morning … you never knew when someone would show up. And they would frequently sit for long periods of time and complain about what they had to pay. My father tried to tell them that he had nothing to do with assessing the amounts due, he was simply the guy who collected and did the accounting. But that didn’t often stop the grousing.
In the times of Jesus’ sojourn on earth, tax collectors worked as agents of the Roman government. The Romans had an amount they expected to receive, and tax collectors were well-known to add their own personal fees and additions to that figure. The Romans didn’t care, and the tax collector had the authority of Rome behind their extortion. It was quite a racket and scam! Tax collectors were seen as the worst of the worst in terms of selling out to the gentiles, thereby being the greatest of sinners. Frankly, that viewpoint was a supportable position in many ways.
So Levi (Matthew) is not an expected type of person who would identify closely with a genuine religious teacher by following him as a disciple. How would you react if on Sunday I introduced a known drug dealer in Hagerstown as having come to know the Lord, with me announcing also that he was going to be joining the elder board of the church next week?
The Pharisees and teachers would never associate with such a person, and they would be very confident in the purity of their position. So seeing Jesus attending a dinner at the home of Levi, along with his extortionist associates, was more than they could accept. This was clearly wrong, as they voiced their opposition to the disciples of Jesus.
And as so often happened, Jesus dropped them with one brief utterance… “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Let’s fill that out by adding all of the inferences… “It is not (those who are self-deceived into thinking they are) healthy who need a doctor, but (those who internally understand and admit that they are) sick. 32 I have not come to call the (ones who arrogantly believe themselves to be) righteous, but (those who know within themselves that they are hopeless) sinners to repentance.”
This pattern of Jesus’ association with down-and-outers has always been a challenge for us to apply in our modern context. To what extent should we be willing to be associated with people who have sinful patterns of life and who frequent untoward places with a sketchy environment? There is reason for certain cautions and considerations about propriety. But I’m pretty sure I can safely say that most of us have erred over the years of our faith by overly shying away from taking the gospel to people deeply engaged in the allures and darkness of this sinful world.
Many people from our church will soon be serving for our annual week at the REACH cold weather shelter for the homeless. And each year, many of our folks are surprised at the way they can serve and be a blessing by building a relationship with some of the most unfortunate and disenfranchised people imaginable.
Additionally, as many of you at TSF have heard me in recent months talking about a new partnership with multi-cultural, inner-city churches, this involvement will likely draw us into some closer ministry connections with people whom we may otherwise never meet or associate with. We will need wisdom, yet these people need Christ … desperately. Pray for us; serve with us. We might just see God use us to bring some “Levi” types of people into the Kingdom.
Luke 5:27 – After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”