Jesus’ first direct conflict with the Pharisees as recorded in the Gospels comes about because of a party. At first, this conflict doesn’t make any sense, because there’s a good reason for this party to take place. A first-century man named Matthew (also known as Levi) was far from God. Matthew would go on to write down his experiences with Jesus into a book we now know as the New Testament book of Matthew. He was wealthy and successful, but he was looking for something more. And then Jesus comes along and changes everything. Look how the book of Luke records it:
“Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi [Matthew] got up, left everything and followed him. Luke 5:27-28
Isn’t that amazing? Matthew had money and success but was willing to leave behind a lucrative business all to follow Jesus. That should have been a cause for celebration, and it was. A short while later, Matthew held a large banquet at his house and invited his friends and former co-workers. He wanted them to experience the same hope, the same life-change, the same salvation that he had just experienced. He wanted those he loved to meet Jesus, so he held a banquet, invited all of his friends, and invited Jesus too.
So what’s the problem? The problem was that Matthew was somebody that a religious person like Jesus had no business being around. Matthew was a tax collector. Here’s what Matthew himself wrote about the experience:
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Matthew 9:10-11
The Pharisees appear and start to question why Jesus would even associate with someone like a Matthew. To which, at first glance, we condemn the Pharisees. How could they be so narrow-minded? How could they be so judgmental? Maybe you know someone who works for the IRS. He probably seems like a nice person. Where do the Pharisees get off judging Jesus for hanging out with tax collectors?
What’s difficult for us to understand is how much a hot button issue this was for first-century Jews. Tax collectors were absolute ground zero for the most polarizing issue of the day: the occupation by Rome. Rome was the foreign power occupying Israel by military might, and freedom from Rome was priority number one for the Jews. In fact, this desire for freedom was so strong that it influenced their expectations of the coming Messiah and helped lead to the disillusionment with Jesus, because he refused to take up arms against the oppressive Roman state.
Anything that was seen as cozying up to the Romans or selling out to the Romans was anathema. Tax collectors were seen as the ultimate sellouts, because these were Jews who turned their backs on their own people and worked for the Romans. Tax collecting in and of itself was scandalous because the Romans only required a certain amount of money from the collectors, but the collectors were free to collect as much as they wanted and keep anything extra for themselves. Tax collectors extorted and stole hard earned money from the Jews, enriching themselves and the hated Romans. The people knew they were being ripped off, the tax collectors knew that everyone knew, and no one could do anything about it because tax collectors had the military might of the Roman legions backing them up. Tax collectors were hated with a bitter bile that rose up in the mouths of the people anytime they walked near. Consequently you couldn’t have a dispassionate discussion about tax collectors. They were traitors and deserved to be judged and condemned. So in this first conflict, the majority of the Jews would have been on the side of the Pharisees, not the side of Jesus. Jesus was hanging around people he had no business being around. Tax collectors were to be excluded, not embraced.
If we as the church walked up on Jesus today hanging out with Matthew and his buddies, would we be on the outside judging with the Pharisees, or on the inside with Jesus and his disciples?