Repenting Tax Collectors?

Repenting Tax Collectors? May 12, 2022

Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Everyone acknowledges this part of the story. He ate with Pharisees too. It is popular with too many Christians to say Jesus shared meals with sinners in order to call them to repentance and to lead lives of holiness. Recently, some claim that Jesus was not being inclusive or accepting. I do not understand that reasoning. Unless it is to avoid the implications of the action.

The Tax Collectors

“Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd gathered of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick, I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.'” (Luke 5:29-32)

Levi, the former tax collector, is courageous. Like Elisha when he was called, he leaves everything behind to follow Jesus. And just like Elisha, he gives up everything he has by giving a party for his friends with Jesus as the guest of honor. Who were the others present? Luke does not say. But to the critics they are “tax collectors and sinners.”

Here is my question; was tax collecting sinful? Did tax collectors need to repent from tax collecting? Jesus did not oppose paying taxes (Matthew 22). In fact, he paid the temple tax (with a little help Matthew 17). St. Paul a self-identified Pharisee was also in favor of paying them (Romans 13:6-7). The profession was not the issue.

Guilt By Association

John told tax collectors before the received baptism that they were not to take “more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:13) Evidently, some tax collectors gouged the public. We assume the practice of some was associated with all. If Levi or others defrauded people, they were sinful in doing so. But, if someone else assumes they did, then that person is in the wrong.

Tax collectors had to be unpopular people. No one likes being required to hand over money and receiving nothing tangible in exchange. An extra problem involved distain for the Roman system that required the taxes. Any unpopular group of people is an easy target. Ambitious people can manipulate others through their resentments. It is interesting how this works.

People who claim gasoline prices are too high appear to have money to buy stickers and apparel with slogans to complain about it. Resenting the price for something they hate having to pay for is not reflected by their disposable income.

Being guilty by association is not to be guilty of any fault of one’s own.

Not Just Tax Collectors

Jesus dined with Pharisees also. The narrative of the woman with the alabaster jar takes place during a dinner given by a Pharisee who judges Jesus for allowing that “kind of woman” to touch him. Jesus mildly rebukes the Pharisee for lacking hospitality and charity. (Luke 7:36-50) The second occasion of a Pharisee inviting him to dine results in Jesus being questioned on hand washing. The resulting dialogue are more forceful rebukes against Pharisees for hair-splitting and disregarding “justice and the love of God.” (Luke 11:37-52) The Pharisees invited Jesus to their homes. Were these invitations tests? Perhaps not. But the hosts were rebuked for an ungodly attitude toward other people.

Jesus claim that he did not come to call the righteous is a back-handed way of saying self-righteous people are incapable of acknowledging their own failures. The sinners, at least, knew they were not perfect.

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all of my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.'” (Luke 18:9-14)

The Others

Luke is clearly showing the sinners were those who did not admit their faults. It had nothing to do with any particular faults. The Pharisees fell short and did not realize it. Their sins had nothing to do with breaking any commandment.

Levi gives up the toll booth to go wherever Jesus was going. He changed his profession. But to those who are quick to condemn other selected people he will always be Levi the Tax Collector. Having once been a tax collector would make him less in the eyes of the self-righteous. Those other sinners he invited to meet his new boss probably considered themselves condemned because there were plenty of people available to tell them so.

Jesus does not reject the other guests. He is not offended by their lives. But they are better off in his presence than anyone who would not share the table because “those people” were invited too.

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