Spiritual Tax-Collectors — The Sick Leading the Sick

As Jesus left from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting in a tax-collecting office. Jesus said to him, “Be my student!” And Matthew got up and became his student. And it turned out that Jesus and his students went to Matthew’s house for dinner. But when the lay-ministers saw that Jesus was eating there, they asked Jesus’ students, “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and lowlife scum?”

Jesus heard their question and answered them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, do they? But sick people do! When you leave, I want you to go and learn what the Bible means when it says ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ because I didn’t come to call those who are honorable. Instead, I came for the scum of the earth.”

~ As Matthew Tells It
The New Peace Treaty: A New Translation of the New Testament

Many years ago, I was home from seminary. I was invited by my church to preach the sermon that Sunday. During the week, I ran into a friend I had not seen in years. I invited her to church that Sunday because I was preaching. She told me she wanted to come, but was afraid the church building would collapse if someone like her went stepped into the church.

What an amazing job Christians have done making those whom Jesus called feel uncomfortable! What an amazing job Christians have done making sure the wrong sort of people do not dare step foot inside their churches, when those churches were built for the wrong sort of people in the first place! What a wonderful job the Christians have done forgetting that they too are “the wrong sort of people” and that they should not be judging others for their sins, when they themselves are sinners!

One Christmas Eve, also years ago, a colleague of mine in seminary dressed as a homeless person and went to a strange church to worship the birth of our Lord. The congregation, which was celebrating and talking about how a carpenter and his fiancé were essentially homeless, wandering the streets of Bethlehem looking for a place to stay, finding that there was no room for them anywhere, made no room for this “homeless” person who wandered down their aisle. Every pew she approached suddenly seemed to fill up so that there seemed to be no room for her — because at Christmas, who wants to sit next to a poor homeless person. They may smell, or ask for money, or worship wrong, and that would be intolerable and ruin our holiday.

The calling of Matthew the tax-collector to be a disciple, is the calling of the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low, a criminal — worse than a criminal, a criminal who preys on his own people. Tax-collectors were not merely hated because they collected taxes and everybody hates to pay taxes; they were hated because they worked with the Romans — the pagan conquerors who occupied Judea. Tax-collectors like Matthew helped keep Rome in power by collecting the Empire’s taxes, funding the military that oppressed them. Tax-collectors were hated because they were Roman collaborators. They were Quislings!

Yet, it was more than just the fact that Matthew and his kind worked with the Romans. They also got rich doing it! The Romans had a farming system in which they would require a certain amount in taxes from a region. Tax-collectors would pay the amount, and then collect taxes from the people to make up the money they paid. Because they wanted to make sure they made back the money, and because they wanted to feed themselves and their families, they charged more than was needed to pay the tax so they could make a profit. They were merely entrepreneurs providing a service for a fee. The collection of taxes often required strong-arm tactics, and it often coincided with extortion, abuse, threats, and violence. So the people generally regarded tax-collectors as Loan Sharks.

Immediately after Jesus pronounces that He has the authority to forgive sins, he goes to a tax-collector and calls him to be a disciple. Matthew accepts and throws a dinner party, inviting Jesus and the other disciples. The Pharisees (the right sort of  religious people) see Jesus, who is supposed to be this super-religious teacher and prophet, eating with tax-collectors — the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. Therefore, they think to themselves, “If this is the company Jesus keeps, then Jesus must be the lowest of the low too! Jesus must be the scum of the earth! After all, Jesus is eating and hanging out with robbers, cheats, and Roman collaborators, so what does that say about Jesus?”

It is like today when people are shocked to see a priest in a barroom, or in some place that they decide priests should not be, even though they are there themselves. Religious people who go to bars think “A priest shouldn’t be in a bar with a bunch of drunks!” even though they themselves claim to be religious and are in the bar themselves. It’s like when religious people say: “A priest shouldn’t talk that way, or use those words,” even though they themselves talk that way and use those words.

The Pharisees are not bad people. They are well-meaning people who think they are protecting their religion. But over time, they have become comfortable with how things are and have become more focused on rules and proper behavior than on why the rules and the behavior were established in the first place. They were so focused on the “How” of their religion that they lost sight of the “Why” of their religion. More than that, “How” became more comfortable to live with than “Why” — but Jesus is the “WHY” in all capital letters and bold type. This shatters religious complacency and comfort — comfortable, complacent, “good” religious people hate that, whether they are Pharisees in first century Judea, or “Christians” in twenty-first century America!

The shocked and horrified Pharisees, whose religious sensibilities are offended by Jesus ask an appropriate question:  “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and lowlife scum?” The Pharisees ask the disciples, not Jesus Himself. They are putting the followers of Jesus on the defensive and trying to foment division among Jesus’ own disciples. The Pharisees were saying, “If Jesus is a man of God and a teacher, how can he be seen in the company of people who are religiously unclean? To be in their company is to become contaminated and unclean also. And to follow him as disciples means that you are deliberately and knowingly making yourself unclean too!”

The disciples, however, do not have to defend Jesus, or defend themselves for following Jesus. Jesus overhears the Pharisees’ question and responds on their behalf: “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, do they? But sick people do!” The Pharisees were worried about being contaminated by the “sickness” of common people and people they deemed unworthy. The Pharisees saw those people as “Contagious,” spreading their sin and uncleanliness throughout the population. Jesus, however, is contagious! The forgiveness and love and righteousness is what is contagious. Jesus is not contaminated by their uncleanliness, but they are cleansed by His presence!

The “religious” are often only interested in themselves; those governed by love (the merciful) think primarily of the needs of their brothers and sisters. There is no need for Jesus to spend time with the virtuous, with the already converted, any more than a doctor needs to spend time curing someone who is already well. The Pharisees say: “We’re good and virtuous; they are bad and unclean; therefore, you should be spending your time with us!” Jesus responds to the Pharisees: “You’re all healthy, and they’re all sick. You all don’t need my services, but they do!”

“I want mercy and not sacrifice…
” is repeated by Jesus later in Matthew’s Gospel. It is derived from Hosea 6:6:

For it is loyalty that I desire, not sacrifice,
and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Jesus reminds the Pharisees that God does not want people to be obliged to sacrifice because they are forced. God wants people to want to sacrifice because it is a grateful response to God’s love, providence, and grace. If people sacrifice, donate money, pray, attend worship, only because they are compelled to, then it is not a sacrifice or worship, it is a tax. Making people live up to religious demands is a spiritual tax, making the Pharisees no better than tax-collectors. In fact, they are worse because:


By telling the Pharisees that by demanding sacrifice and ignoring mercy, they have placed themselves in the same position as “the scum of the earth — sinners. But fortunately for the Pharisees, Jesus “didn’t come to call those who are honorable,” but instead, “came for the scum of the earth” — even if they turn out to be Pharisees.

This is the Sermon on the Mount being lived by Jesus. It is the Beatitudes being expressed in real life terms. Tax-collectors and “the scum of the earth” are the poor in spirit. They know they are lacking, and yet, they are blessed by Jesus’ care and presence. The Pharisees are the rich in spirit. They have no spiritual need, or so they think, so they are not blessed by Jesus’ care and presence, and worse than that, align themselves against Jesus as His enemies. Jesus, the disciples, the tax-collectors, the scum of the earth are the merciful, and they are receiving mercy. The Pharisees are without mercy and they receive judgment and condemnation.

The danger we have as faithful people reading and hearing the Gospels is that we can often dismiss the Pharisees and others as simply being enemies of Christ, and therefore, they are of no concern for us who are Christian. Yet, the Pharisees are a cautionary tale for the “religious” Christians: we can get so caught up in our own purity and righteousness, we forget that we are sinners like everyone else, and we demand people be like us, instead of being with them wherever they are — we demand sacrifice and ignore mercy. We become spiritual tax-collectors — abusing, extorting, threatening, coercing in the name of God.

Christians cannot look at the Pharisees simply as foils for Jesus, or simply as enemies, or as bad people. Christians must look at the Pharisees as who we become when we forget to be poor in spirit. For when we decide that we no longer have a spiritual poverty, we begin to act out of our sense of spiritual opulence, forgetting that any spiritual wealth we may have is on loan to us from God, and we become disdainful and hostile toward those people who should freely and abundantly receive our mercy. We become spiritual tax-collectors, spiritual bandits, spiritual extortionists, who may one day discover that we have been unwittingly collaborating with the enemy.

Treat others the way you want God to treat you. If you want mercy, then be merciful. If you want forgiveness, then be forgiving. If you want to receive, then give. If you want to get well, then heal. If you want the Kingdom of God, then be poor in spirit.

© 2013 Bishop R. Joseph Owles



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