The Tax Collector
Pp Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32
The call of Matthew
Eating with Tax Collectors and Sinners
The two parallel passages again give us extra details which we would otherwise miss if we were to solely rely upon the testimony of Matthew’s Gospel. For instance, Matthew nowhere records for us in these verses that this Matthew was a tax collector or that, upon his decision to heed Jesus’ call, that he welcomed him into his own house.
All we are told here is that Matthew was ‘sitting at the tax office’ and that a subsequent meal took place in ‘the house’. By implication, however, we could accept the individual as being a tax collector - even more so if we were to read Mtw 10:3 which speaks of the choosing of the twelve disciples and which lists one ‘Matthew the tax collector’ - and that ‘the house’ must necessarily mean Matthew’s.
But Luke 5:27 specifically mentions that the man Jesus is calling to follow Him is a tax collector and Luke 5:29 that his response was to make ‘a great feast in his house’.
Apart from this, Matthew’s Gospel seems to differ in no major way and is of a similar length to the passage as it appears in both Mark and Luke with the one exception that the latter two writers give the name of the tax collector as Levi, Mark 2:14 adding that he was ‘the son of Alphaeus’.
When the twelve are chosen, both Mark 3:18 and Luke 6:15 only record the name of ‘Matthew’ with no explanation that this man is the same as ‘Levi’ who was both a tax collector and whose call was recorded earlier.
Why, then, did both Mark and Luke seem to obscure the identification of Matthew by their use of the Jewish name ‘Levi’? That question will never be satisfactorily answered - if indeed it is right to assume that there was any intention to obscure the name by either Mark or Luke. Mattask certainly seems to accept the explanation that
‘...Mark and Luke wished to disguise the fact that Matthew was a [tax collector]...’
but just why that should have been when they both don’t hide the fact that Jesus came for the ‘unacceptable’ of society (see, for instance, Luke 18:9-14) and as they report Jesus’ defence of eating with tax collectors in the parallel passages to Mtw 9:9-13.
Marklane consigns to a footnote the work of another commentator who has recorded that there are certain
‘...Nabatean inscriptions where one finds the term ”surnamed” between two Semitic names. [Lagrange] suggests that Levi had Matthew as a second Semitic name’
and, if this is the case, Matthew would need to be seen as a second name that already belonged to the tax collector before he received his calling from Jesus at the tax booth. There’s also evidence in the NT that men had more than one name and Thomas seems to have been surnamed ‘the Twin’ in John 11:16 while the equation Bartholomew = Nathaniel is often accepted by commentators because of a comparison of the lists of disciples recorded in Mtw 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:14, Acts 1:13 with John 1:45-49 and John 21:2.
Perhaps more significant is John 1:42 where, upon meeting Simon for the first time
‘...Jesus looked at him, and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter)’
and it remains a possibility that Jesus gave Levi a secondary name after His call to reflect the person he was to become (translated as ‘gift of YHWH’). Mathag sees no such need to presume that the secondary name was given by Jesus, however, and comments that it
‘...may have been the Christian name taken by Levi after his conversion to indicate his new life...’
Whatever the exact truth behind the difference in names, it’s best to follow Marklane’s comments here in the main body of his text, where he notes that the writer of the Gospel of Mark
‘...is concerned to illustrate the radical character of Jesus’ call and that it is the nature of the call, rather than the name of the one called, which is of primary importance’
The significance of the difference in Matthew’s Gospel has often been attributed as the reason the Gospel bears its name - that is, that the writer (presumed to be Matthew the disciple) who knew that Levi was actually himself, changed it. But it could just as well be argued that the Gospel got its name simply because it differed in its use of the name in this common passage! Again, it’s impossible to be certain about the reasons for the difference even though there are a number of possibilities which are both plausible and possible.
But the incident must have been significant for all three Synoptic writers to have mentioned it. The point of the passage, however, is not just the call of one of the twelve but the response of Matthew as he gathers friends together and Jesus’ acceptance of that section of society who were both despised and rejected by both the religious leaders and the common people (see below).
Finally, the inference from Mark 2:1 and 2:13 is that Matthew was a tax collector who sat near the outskirts of the city of Capernaum, Jesus’ new home town. Mtw 9:1 and 9:9 would indicate that the incident could have occurred some way off from the city but, as Matthew would have had to have been on a major trade route for him to have made his livelihood pay (or at least near the disembarking of boats who journeyed on the Lake from the eastern shore) and Capernaum was a fairly significant city in the region, it is probably not going too far to assume that his jurisdiction was over a road and region that was close to the city.
The Tax Collector
There was a structure amongst the tax collectors of first century Israel who were scattered throughout the length and breadth of the land and who collected money from those who passed their way. Jeremias, citing Josephus from Antiquities, mentions the tax collector Joseph in the second century BC who directed the collection of taxes from his residency in Jerusalem, over an area which stretched through Syria, Phoenicia, Judea and Samaria.
Although this is before the time of the Roman dominance over Israel, the mention of Zacchaeus in Jericho as the ‘chief tax collector’ (Luke 19:2) would indicate that individuals who bought the rights to collect taxes may have been only a handful of people in specific areas and that, by dividing up their right of collection by sale to people beneath them, were able to receive a regular income and an increase on the money which they had paid to those above.
Just how far this delegation of authority to collect taxes went is far from certain, however, and Zondervan infers that there was just one mediator between the Roman authorities who received the taxes and the tax collectors who sat in various places throughout the land.
Mostly, the chiefs of the tax collectors were Romans but Zacchaeus is a notable exception here who seems to have been able to have collected sufficient funds together to buy the rights of taxation for his own distribution to others who did the work for him.
The ‘chief tax collector’ then gave the right of collection normally to Jews who situated themselves in appropriate places throughout the land. Taxes were various under Roman occupation but the poll tax (levied on every male over fourteen and female over twelve - the old aged being exempt) and the land tax seem to have been collected solely by Romans as they travelled throughout the land and were not given over as part of the remit of the chief tax collectors.
More importantly for a tax collector such as Matthew was the right to collect taxes from all imports and exports, including the transporting of slaves across recognised boundaries. They would have sat at strategic places such as bridges and on roads and examined the goods of any or all who passed by their way - Galilee, being on the edge of at least two national boundaries close to the lake (the Tetrarchy of Philip to the north-east and the Decapolis which lay east and south-east), may have been a prime spot in which to have a tax booth, and the frequent trips of those with boats on the lake would have surely brought back goods from the other side of the waters that could have been subject to the local taxes.
Marklane also notes that, in two inscriptions from Magnesia and Ephesus, there is reference to a tax being levied on caught fish and it remains possible that such a practice was being imposed on all the fishermen’s catches in the Galilean area.
Jeremias also notes that there were taxes imposed on everyone who made it to Jerusalem to sell their wares and that this levy was ruthlessly extracted by those who had the authority from the Romans to collect the tax. This needn’t concern us here, however, for the collection of taxes in Galilee would have been far removed from what took place in Jerusalem.
It’s hardly surprising, even from the little detail recorded above, that the tax collector was part of one of the most despised sections of society amongst the Jews. Not only would the religious leaders have hated them because of their direct trading with Gentiles above them, but the ordinary people who were trying to make ends meet only saw their wealth being whittled away by the collectors who excised their own share of the profits even when they had performed no work.
Kittels speaks of the Rabbis as regarding the tax collectors
‘...as people who try to gain money dishonestly [and] treat them as in a special way unclean...Indeed, they classify them as thieves or robbers...Whereas they view direct taxes [the poll tax, for instance] as a sign of subjection, they regard indirect taxes, especially tolls, as a form of injustice and chicanery’
Therefore, the Rabbis instruct the Israelites (Baba Metzia 10:1) that
‘...None may take change for money from the counter of excisemen or from the wallet of tax-gatherers, or take any alms from them...’
because the money which is received while they’re at their business is considered to be stolen money from the children of Israel. The tax collector’s uncleanness is again cited in Tohoroth 7:6 where the Mishnah records that
‘If tax-gatherers entered a house [all that is within it] becomes unclean...’
but, in the same verse, it’s noted that only the part of a house where a thief treads becomes unclean. The tax collector, therefore, was considered to immediately bring uncleanness to any habitation they entered whereas the thief only contaminated the places where they set foot.
Indeed, so much so did the Rabbis despise the tax collector that Nedarim 3:4 specifically instructs the Jews (my italics) that
‘Men may vow to murderers, robbers or tax-gatherers that what they have is Heave-offering even though it is not Heave-offering; or that they belong to the king’s household even though they do not belong to the king’s household’
in order that the burden of tax collection upon the Israelites might be lessened.
The tax collectors stood throughout the land as the representatives and reminders of the Roman Empire over them and, on seeing them, they were continually reminded of the slavery that their nation was living under. As Zondervans notes
‘They were considered to be renegades, who sold their services to the foreign oppressor to make money at the expense of their own countrymen’
Indeed, of all the groups of people common in the land, the tax collectors have to have been the ones who were more like social outcasts than any of the others (apart from the lepers) and who would have needed to have grouped together for some form of self-preservation (as Mtw 5:46 may indicate). It seems likely that their own lives must have been in danger on numerous occasions - if not continually.
In the NT, tax collectors are linked with ‘sinners’ on more than one occasion and the use of the phrase indicates just how little honour they were held in (Mtw 11:19, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:30, 7:34, 15:1), even being linked by Jesus with harlots when in conversation with the chief priests and the elders (Mtw 21:23,31-32). Indeed, they’re also contrasted with the Pharisees in the story of the two Jews who go in to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14), a contrast which demonstrates the two extremes within Israelite society.
To the religious leaders, the tax collectors couldn’t be reached by their legal understanding of God’s requirements of men and women and by their hatred of anybody who associated themselves with the Roman overlords for personal gain. But both John the Baptist and Jesus saw no such difficulty in speaking to them of the Kingdom of God and of demonstrating the power of God in their midst.
John, approached by tax collectors, simply told them (Luke 3:12-13) to
‘...Collect no more than is appointed you’
rather than to tell them to give up on their career and to take up a more ethical lifestyle such as farming. Jesus also didn’t insist that the collection of taxes was impossible to be reconciled with a life that wanted to please and obey the will of God, and Zacchaeus’ statement (Luke 19:8)
‘...Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold’
is not met with a response from Jesus that, in order to continue in the Way he must forsake his livelihood but that (Luke 19:9-10)
‘...Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost’
Matthew only gives up his livelihood because it would stand in the way of being fully committed to Jesus as He travelled around, not because it was inherently sinful and an affront to God Himself.
Additionally, Jesus’ statement in Mtw 21:31-32 indicates that the tax collectors and sinners were acceptable to God simply because they had accepted the message of John the Baptist rather than reject it as the religious leaders had done. Although one would have expected society’s outcasts to turn against God just as they had turned against the interpretation of the Law by the Pharisees and scribes, they were the very ones who responded so positively to the message for they saw how God’s righteousness could be achieved (naturally speaking) in their own lives.
On a separate occasion when Jesus was speaking to the crowds about John the Baptist and his ministry, it’s recorded that, when they heard Jesus’ words (Luke 7:29-30)
‘...all the people and the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John; but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him’
Those who were supposed to know God showed, by their rejection of the message, that they didn’t - while those who thought they had rejected God by their failure to follow the religious, found that God was willing to accept them as they came to Him in repentance.
We would do well to consider, therefore, that certain occupations which we would reject as being impossible to continue in and to maintain a right relationship with God in are really only prejudices we’ve developed and which hinder us from being fully able to accept certain believers as genuine disciples of Christ.
If Jesus failed to condemn society’s outcasts, why should we raise barriers to their acceptance as the Pharisees did? After all, for the first couple of years of my christian life, I continued as a Betting Office manager in central London, something that many people would have said was an impossible thing to do - indeed, I did consider at one time, shortly after becoming a disciple of Christ, that I should just resign my post and see what God would do but, contrary to my expectation, when I asked Jesus about it, I was told plainly that I should stay put for the time being and not be in any rush to get out.
Any christian Pharisees who were around me would have immediately condemned my choice as being unethical - after all, who’s heard of a christian turf accountant?!
The call of Matthew
Matthew the tax collector must have at least heard of the things that had been happening in that region. As has been assumed above, he probably sat near the outskirts of the city of Capernaum on a main trade route and it could not have escaped his attentions that Jesus’ ministry was beginning to have a significant effect on the people who were coming to see and hear Him.
Besides, the crowds who were flocking to be near Him would have been the very same ones who Matthew would have been trying to tax as they made their journey!
Perhaps Matthew had even heard Jesus speak and seen him do great wonders - after all, it’s not impossible that he was with the crowds who were present during the discourse on the Mount in chapters 5-7 or that, being the end of a sabbath, he journeyed in the early evening to witness what was taking place near Peter’s house (Mtw 8:16).
And he would have also heard the reports from men and women that he’d been coming into contact with - though his friends were probably limited to fellow tax collectors seeing as his profession was despised by his fellow countrymen.
Therefore, Jesus shouldn’t be thought of as ‘unknown’ to Matthew and Lukgel’s comment is significant when he notes (my italics) that the tax collector
‘...had no doubt heard and seen a good deal of Jesus in Capernaum and felt particularly drawn to Him’
The problem was, however, if we’ve understood the situation correctly, that Matthew just couldn’t bring himself to accept the possibility that, being a man sent from God, Jesus could choose someone such as him who was considered to be both unclean and despised by his fellow Israelites. After all, if He was religious, surely He would follow the line laid down by the scribes and Pharisees (noted above).
Although I am attempting to describe a situation which is not stated in the narrative of this passage, I feel it must be that Matthew already wanted to be a follower of Christ but that the social stigma attached to his career was what prevented him from being wholehearted in his commitment.
After all, it was alright for him to stand at the back of the crowds and hear and see what Jesus was doing, but to be accepted by this religious man as a disciple? How could that have been possible? Therefore, it’s not without some anguish of heart that Matthew now sits at his tax booth and watches the approach of Jesus down the road, expecting Him to pass by with crowds all about Him.
The problem was that Jesus isn’t passing by but coming towards Him and, while Matthew’s mind is turning over the question
‘What on earth is Jesus doing approaching me?’
he can’t help but hope that something significant is about to take place which will change his life forever. All that Matthew needs to hear from Jesus, though, is that word of acceptance
and he needs no second command. The immediacy of the response is what is required from him but, because of what had been going on inside him, it’s never in doubt. Leaving all his collected taxes in his booth (Luke 5:28), he followed after Jesus, realising that acceptance before God was present within Jesus’ command.
I have stated above that the tax collector was acceptable to God even if he continued in his tax collecting after his commitment to Christ. For Matthew, however, the significance of the call demands that he forsake his livelihood so that he can wholeheartedly commit himself to be with Jesus at all times, something that trying to hold down the job of a tax collector would not let him do.
This is extremely significant for Matthew and we often class him as giving the same sort of commitment to following Jesus as people such as Simon Peter or John, the fishermen. But, as Lukmor points out
‘If following Jesus had not worked out for the fishermen, they could have returned to their trade without difficulty. But when Levi walked out of his job, he was through. They would surely never take back a man who had simply abandoned his tax office’
adding his comments on Matthew (Matmor) that
‘...if he tried to get another job, who would want to employ a former tax collector?’
Therefore, the material sacrifice of Matthew was not just to set aside a career that he could return to - as Peter was able to do after the resurrection (John 21:1-3) - but to give up any hope he had of material gain even at some time in the future.
Although Lukmor is quite correct to state that
‘Matthew must have been the richest of the apostles’
it’s also true that his resources would not have lasted forever. Such commitment is truly amazing and, even today, Jesus calls disciples to leave well-paid jobs, knowing that they can never return to their former employment no matter how their future life unfolds before them. His delight in being accepted by Jesus is demonstrated immediately in that he throws a large feast at which he invites a great many of his fellow tax collectors (Luke 5:29) - no doubt Matthew reasons that Jesus won’t be offended to be with those of his colleagues who also need to hear and accept this Teacher’s words and Matmor humorously comments that
‘...many of the guests were as disreputable as he himself had been’
Finally, we should not overlook the significance of Jesus’ call of a tax collector. Not only has Jesus healed the outcast of Israelite society (Mtw 8:1-4) and ventured into unclean territory (Mtw 8:28-34) but he now also calls one of the unclean to be part of the founding members of His new society, the twelve disciples (Mtw 10:3).
As such, the scribes and Pharisees would have concluded that Jesus was just going too far. But, to the common people, if God in Christ could accept even a tax collector, what had they done so wrong that He wouldn’t accept them? God’s mercy demonstrated to the outcast proves His mercy towards all men and women but, to the Pharisee, it remains an offence.
Eating with Tax Collectors and Sinners
Matthew’s call is a minor introductory verse to this more lengthy explanation of why Jesus felt Himself free to associate with ‘tax collectors and sinners’. Although opposition to Jesus has begun in the previous incident of healing the paralytic (Mtw 9:3), we noted that it was possible (though not likely) that the explanation offered by Jesus was accepted by those who heard His comments.
However, here Jesus flies in the face of the accepted way of the religious for, though they may find it within themselves to believe that God has given authority on earth to Jesus to forgive sins, they would have found it impossible to perceive of a God who would deign to associate Himself through His representative with the unclean and outcasts of their own society.
As Edersheim points out
‘...as Rabbinism stood self-confessedly silent and powerless as regarded the forgiveness of sins, so it had emphatically no word of welcome or help for the sinner. The very term “Pharisee” or “separated one” implied the exclusion of sinners’
The Pharisee’s insistence upon a good (‘good’ as defined by themselves) lifestyle in the individual before they would accept the person was at variance with the main ministry of Jesus who accepted people just as they were into the Kingdom of God. Edersheim again summarises the problem succinctly when he writes that
‘They would first make him a penitent and then bid him welcome to God; Christ first welcomes him to God and so makes him penitent’
Their reaction to Jesus in this incident, however, is justified by their own writings in Demai 2:2-3 where we read that
‘He that undertakes to be trustworthy must give tithe from what he eats and from what he sells and from what he buys [to sell again]; and he may not be the guest of an Am-haaretz...He that undertakes to be an Associate may not sell to an Am-haaretz [foodstuff that is] wet or dry or buy from him [foodstuff that is] wet; and he may not be the guest of an Am-haaretz nor may he receive him as a guest in his own raiment...’
A little explanation is needed here for us to be able to fully understand the intention of their words. As Danby notes in Appendix 1 of his translation, the Am-haaretz (literally the ‘people of the land’) was the name
‘...given to those Jews who were ignorant of the Law and who failed to observe the rules of cleanness and uncleanness and were not scrupulous in setting apart Tithes from the produce (namely Heave Offering, First Tithe, Second Tithe and Poorman’s Tithe). Those Jews who, on the contrary, undertook to be faithful in observing the requirements of the Law are known as ‘Associates’ (haberim)...’
Therefore, Jesus’ stand on eating produce without first observing the rules and regulations concerning the washing of the hands and His defence against the Pharisees’ accusations (Mark 7:1ff) would have had the religious leaders class Him as an Am-haaretz, even though they would have liked to have welcomed Him into their own ranks as an Associate and to have maintained some sort of authority over Him.
But that is in the future - for now, they fail to be able to comprehend how a righteous teacher such as He can associate with those who they’ve already classed as being Am-haaretz. Therefore, going against their own accepted interpretation of the Law or, perhaps better, their own additions to it, Jesus deliberately falls foul of their religious regulations in order that He may do the will of God.
But this is more than having a few people round to eat a meal. As Mathag rightly points out
‘For Jesus and His disciples, to be at the same table with tax collectors and sinners implied a full acceptance of them’
so that Jesus is allowing Himself to be considered as being the same type of Person as those who He now eats and drinks with. The point that Jesus came to associate Himself with sinners is worthy of full acceptance and is never more forcibly made than here where He allows Himself to be misunderstood by the religious in order that He might fulfil the mission of God.
Additionally, as Jesus pointed out in Luke 7:33-34, the position of the Pharisees and scribes wasn’t consistent for John the Baptist, who neither ate nor drank with anybody, it would appear, was labelled as having a demon whereas Jesus, who eats and drinks, is labelled as
‘...a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
It would have done Jesus no good had He chosen to boycott the feast now put on by Matthew (Luke 5:29) - either in finding acceptance before the Pharisees who were well equipped to misinterpret just about anything and everything that He would do, or in the eyes of God the Father who delighted in the fact that men and women who had previously been living opposed to Him were now being drawn into His Kingdom as obedient servants.
Jesus’ reaction to the religious leaders’ questions is to make an appeal to their own reasoning by insisting that His mission was to effect a cure for sickness rather than to attempt to fatten those who were already well (Mtw 9:12). Of course, Jesus isn’t actually saying that the Pharisees are acceptable to God but attempting to appeal to them on the grounds of their own logic.
Pharisaism, as noted above, could only exclude those who were in need of cleansing for it sought to maintain the purity of individuals rather than to effect a cure by close association. To be near the unclean meant that one became contaminated, so an exclusion was enforced which bound the Pharisee up into a lifestyle that separated Him from any help he may have been able to give to those who were in desperate need of getting right with God.
But Jesus feels under no such restrictions - He has already demonstrated the powerlessness that touching the unclean leper had over His relationship with God (Mtw 8:1-4) and of the uncleanness which the Pharisees would have said would have attached to Him having landed in Gentile territory (Mtw 8:28-34), so how could further association do anything to break that relationship?
The Pharisees who saw contamination wherever they went could never hope to accept Jesus who saw opportunity to remove that contamination by His presence in the situation that the former would shy away from. As Matfran notes
‘...for the Pharisees, the first priority is obedience to regulations, for Jesus, [it is] a mission to people’
Therefore Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to them (see also Amos 5:21-24 and Micah 6:6-8) which says in the original
‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings’
and which emphasises the need not for observance to an external written code which they insisted upon but for mercy being bestowed upon those who are less well off (spiritually) than they are.
Matfran comments that Hosea’s underlying concern is to emphasise
‘...the danger of a religion which is all external, in which ritual demands have taken the place of love...’
Jesus is shown, then, to be the One who comes to forgive and accept in God’s mercy whereas their man-made religion is set against that - to reject and divide up the Israelites through conformity to a written code. Jesus calls those who know they have a need of a work of God - not those who are self-sufficient in their own strength.
Two principles are therefore here demonstrated as we come to consider the type of evangelism which is acceptable to God. Firstly, just as Jesus, we need to go to where the needy people are - that is, those who are conscious of their need - associate ourselves with them and win them for Jesus. We are not to contaminate ourselves with their ways but to heal them with the life and power of the risen Christ, demonstrated on earth even before the cross.
Secondly, we are to preach the good news of the Kingdom of heaven to those who will listen (Mtw 7:6). Those who consider themselves to be righteous (the self-sufficient) have already made their decision not to follow after God (Mtw 5:3, 5:6, 10:11-15). Our spiritual coffee bars must naturally be open for the thirsty and our restaurants for the hungry.
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