1. The scandal of grace
The work of tax collectors.
In the time of Jesus the Roman empire was a vast organization that required enormous funding.
That funding came through a variety of taxes. There were fixed taxes: land tax, income tax, a poll tax just for being alive. These were collected by Roman citizens.
Then there were duty taxes: sales, import and export, road and harbor tolls. These were farmed out to locals who bid for the collection of a region.
The Romans calculated a base number which would be required from the local collector. That collector’s income came from whatever he gained on top of the base tax rates. This most often came from cheating people with unfair demands.
Tax collectors could stop anyone and charge them whatever they wanted. If the traveler couldn’t pay they might offer them a loan with an outrageous interest rate. They were “trained extortionists”.
The status of the tax collector.
When I tell people what I do it always elicits a response. The vocation of a pastor comes loaded with preconceived ideas. It was the same with a tax collector, though for the tax man the preconception was always a negative one.
“Tax collectors are among the most reviled people in Jesus’ day because of the corruption associated with the office. Customs duties on goods transported through Galilee are among the taxes collected, and it is likely that Matthew, whom we meet in today’s passage (Matt. 9:9), gathers these fees. In his work he collects a set amount for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who in turn sends it to Rome. Matthew is free to assess the value of the goods carried through his region and, like other collectors, demands a tax higher than what the government requires and keeps the difference for himself. This offers ample opportunity for unjust taxation, giving the people reason to hate tax collectors.” -Ligonier
The tax collector was the scum of the earth. There is an interesting phrase that pops up throughout the gospels: “even the tax collector”.
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right
Not only did tax collectors take on work which was often unethical and oppressive, they performed that work for the Romans – the enemy of the people of Israel.
“The Mishnah and Talmud (although written later) register scathing judgments of tax collectors, lumping them together with thieves and murderers. A Jew who collected taxes was disqualified as a judge or witness in court, expelled from the synagogue, and a cause of disgrace to his family (b. Sanh. 25b). The touch of a tax collector rendered a house unclean (m. Teh. 7:6; m. Hag. 3:6). Jews were forbidden to receive money and even alms from tax collectors since revenue from taxes was deemed robbery. Jewish contempt of tax collectors is epitomized in the ruling that Jews could lie to tax collectors with impunity (m. Ned. 3:4)—a ruling, incidentally, with which both the houses of Hillel and Shammai (who normally stood poles apart) agreed. Tax collectors were tangible reminders of Roman domination, detested alike for its injustice and Gentile uncleanness.” -James R. Edwards
When Jesus walked up to Levi at the tax collector’s booth and said, “come follow me”, it was absolutely scandalous. It was even more scandalous when Jesus attended a dinner party at Levi’s house with his social network of fellow tax collectors and sinners. To dine with someone was to commune with them. It involved a connection, an exchange. To dine with someone who was sinful or unclean was to become sinful and unclean.
It was unthinkable to imagine the Messiah lounging at a table with that kind of crowd.
The problem was not that Jesus interacted with sinful people. John the Baptist did that. Out in the wilderness he called the sinful people to repentance.
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
The scandal was that Jesus associated with these people prior to any sign of repentance.
“The scandal of this story is that Jesus does not make moral repentance a precondition of his love and acceptance. . . Rather, Jesus loves and accepts tax collectors and sinners as they are. If they forsake their evil and amend their lives, they do so, as did Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10), not in order to gain Jesus’ favor but because Jesus has loved them as sinners. Jesus’ association with such people is not coincidental. He does not happen to be with them or wait for invitations. He initiates the fellowship, “ ‘I must stay at your house today’ ” (Luke 19:5). We are not told how many sinners and tax collectors repented and reformed. We are only told that Jesus sowed love as profligately and uncalculatedly as the sower who threw seed in unpromising places (Mark 4:3–9) It is this that scandalized the religious leaders of his day, as it scandalizes those who define the gospel in terms of pure moral reformation and character formation of our day. Jesus communicates in word and deed that accepting and following him are more important than following Torah. When the unreformed and unregenerate do that, they will enter the kingdom of God before the scribes and Pharisees. In table fellowship with “sinners and tax collectors,” Jesus scandalously asserts his exousia, his own person over Torah, and the profligate love of God over merit. That is the scandal of grace.” -James R. Edwards
“IN two things chiefly does the fundamental difference appear between Christianity and all other religious systems, notably Rabbinism. And in these two things, therefore, lies the main characteristic of Christ’s work; or, taking a wider view, the fundamental idea of all religions. Subjectively, they concern sin and the sinner; or, to put it objectively, the forgiveness of sin and the welcome to the sinner. But Rabbinism, and every other system down to modern humanitarianism—if it rises so high in its idea of God as to reach that of sin, which is its shadow—can only generally point to God for the forgiveness of sin. What here is merely an abstraction, has become a concrete reality in Christ. He speaks forgiveness on earth, because He is its embodiment. As regards the second idea, that of the sinner, all other systems know of no welcome to him till, by some means (inward or outward), he have ceased to be a sinner and become a penitent. They would first make him a penitent, and then bid him welcome to God; Christ first welcomes him to God, and so makes him a penitent.” – Alfred Edersheim
This is the scandal: love preceded repentance.
The Pharisees couldn’t understand it. The fundamental orientation of the Pharisees in the world was separation.
Jesus operated with an entirely different orientation: association.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
This is the love of God – not that he loves sinners when they repent, he loves them before they repent.
2. The power of grace
That love is powerful.
That love melts hearts and produces genuine repentance.
Zacchaeus, another tax collector, after experiencing the love of Jesus responded to that love with repentance.
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
The love of Jesus that associates with sinners changed Levi.
Luke’s account of the experiences gives us another name for the tax collector:
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.
Levi the tax collector was Matthew the apostle.
It may be that he used two names: one Hebrew and one Roman. It may be that Jesus gave him another name.
The world saw a despised tax collector, scum. Jesus saw a saint, a leader and a writer of Holy Scriptures.
Grace is a powerful force.
I’ve shared with you before the story of Charles Colson – the advisor to Richard Nixon who was charged with a felony for his illegal political maneuvering. Colson was once quoted as saying that he would walk over his own grandmother to get Nixon elected. He was not a popular figure. Just before his trial Nixon experienced the grace and love of Jesus through a group of Christians – Democrats who were his political enemies. Their unconditional love changed him and he gave his life to Jesus. After serving his time in prison, Colson was a changed man. He vowed to remember those he left behind and went on to found Prison Fellowship International – an organization with hundreds of thousands of volunteers and an enormous impact in the world.
Early in his ministry, Colson was hosting a meal for a group of former inmates. One of those in attendance was a man named Tom Tarrants – a notorious racist and member of the White Knights – an extremist branch of the KKK. Tarrants was a marksman and an explosives expert who was imprisoned for acts of violence against Jewish people. After escaping prison, Tarrants was sent to solitary confinement for a year. During that time of solitude, Tarrants began to read the gospels and experienced a profound transformation – giving his life to Jesus. Colson arranged for Tarrants to receive a one night reprieve from his sentence in order to attend a special dinner.
Before the dinner, Colson received a message from Billy Graham – ‘I want you to meet a new Christian and spend some time with him.’ That new Christian was a man named Eldredge Cleaver. Cleaver was a Black Panther, notorious for violent attacks on police. He had fled the country, living on the run for 8 years before finally turning himself in. During a prison sentence in California, Cleaver began to read the Bible and heard the message of the gospel. He gave his life to Jesus.
When Colson realized that he had invited both Tarrants and Cleaver to a dinner party, he decided he had better introduce them ahead of time to avoid trouble. Eldredge freely greeted Tarrants and remarked, “I guess we both have a lot to live down, don’t we?” During that dinner Tarrants and several others gave their testimonies of a life changed by the grace of God.
Cleaver’s wife Maxine, a Jewish woman, was at the party with him. Colson noticed that she hardly touched her food and worried that she might be overwhelmed. He went over to talk with her. “I suppose we may seem a little strange to you – a little crazy perhaps.” Maxine responded, “Well if you are, then the whole world ought to be crazy like this.”
The grace of Jesus is scandalous and it is immensely powerful.
3. The mission of grace
When the scandalized Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples – “why does he eat with sinners and tax collectors?”, Jesus himself responded.
A doctor doesn’t come for the healthy, but for the sick.
“Given that mission, it is as senseless for Jesus to shun tax collectors and sinners as for a doctor to shun the sick. The grace of God extends to and overcomes the worst forms of human depravity. Ironically, in one sense great sinners stand closer to God than those who think themselves righteous, for sinners are more aware of their need of the transforming grace of God.” -Edwards
“You would expect to find a savior among those who need to be saved.”
As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.
Where ought we to find those who serve a savior?
What ought we to find them doing?
Fifteen years ago a woman named Rachelle Starr was driving by an adult theatre when she felt an inward call to go in and share a message of God’s love with the women working there. Those conversations went so well, Rachelle gathered three friends who began to cook meals and make regular visits to strip clubs in their city. That work has grown into a nation-wide ministry with hundreds of volunteers who take the gospel into strip clubs, illegal massage parlors and prisons to reach women with the love of Jesus. They offer Bible studies, counseling ministry, life skills classes and most importantly, friendship for people living in the margins of society. Why?
Because a doctor is found among the sick. And his servants are no different.
“To go down in the filth in order to wallow there is vile; to go down in order to lift others up is Christ’s mission and Christ-like.” -Maclaren
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown