A community of publicans
by Jeff Beneze
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“And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?” (Mark 2:15-16 KJV)
Publicans... A collector of revenue for Rome... A tax collector of sorts. Why the dislike for these people? Beyond the obvious that there may be a general distrust of taxation and those who collect them, the situation was a little different then. Today, once we have moved past the dislike of paying taxes, we have at least a pretense of getting something in return for the tax revenue. It may come in the form of new schools, roads, relief efforts for hurricane or tornado ravaged areas, and attending to the welfare of those who cannot attend to their own. Now, as good or bad as the present system may be, at the time Levi (Matthew) was called, taxes were more of a forced tribute. Somewhat like a school bully extracting lunch money from dozens of kids. The kid either pays up or gets a black eye. So, the debate was rarely an attempt to determine tax rates, a level tax or a progressive tax, or even federal tax verses state taxes. The debate was do we pay at all or not? Similar to the original Boston tea party, the indignation was not about the tax rate. It was something that ought not be paid at all. To top it off, this bully, Rome, had successfully recruited locals to do the tax collecting for them. So one of your neighbors has effectively joined them and extorts money from you. Perhaps this may help to clarify why the distaste for tax collectors.
So, the first big question is why would a Pharisee not want Jesus to go in and “fix” the tax collectors? If these are a sick bunch of people, should this not be the doctor's first stop? The answer Jesus gives in verse seventeen reflects this. So, the follow up question would be, why would the Pharisee not recognize what Jesus was doing as a doctor attending to sick patients? Notice what it was that the Pharisee had a problem with. “...saw him eat with...” There is a huge dilemma in attending to sick patients. Where is the line at which the doctor ceases to become a doctor and joins the patients compared with a doctor who is only there for giving treatments and then leaves letting the patient get well? A manager will only get as close as he absolutely needs to, and even then wear protective clothing, to apply a treatment and then retreat to let the healing process take it's course. Jesus was not merely correcting their actions. He was in there eating with them at one of their homes! It is so difficult for a manager to grasp a proper understanding of the completeness with how Jesus heals. His healing offers a complete forgiveness. His healing offers a chance to genuinely become a disciple that is duly called that can and will follow Jesus everywhere just as was expected of a real disciple. For someone who can understand the completeness of the surrender that Levi (Matthew) had at the moment that he followed Jesus' offer to “follow me”, he would also understand the completeness of the sufficiency that Christ had just bestowed on him. In all likelihood, Levi's ledgers and takings were still back at the tax booth dropped like a bad habit never to be picked up again. This begs another question...
“...for there were many, and they followed him.” Who are “they”? Who are the “many” reclining at this table with Jesus and his other disciples? Did you ever notice that when there are shading dealings going on, no one is ever in it alone? You may not like something that is going on, but when you get into the details it is revealed that there is plenty of finger pointing to go around. It is amazing how an offer pinpointed to Levi is having the opportunity to be heard by everyone around Levi. Some may stick with it and others may not, but the offer that Jesus gives is for you and the whole community around you. If a disease has infected at least one, you want to be certain to offer the cure to everyone. This is another challenge for those who feel they are among the faithful (and may well be faithful). Loneliness. Anytime you feel like you are on the outside, there can be a sense of loneliness. People can jump into some really bad programs to not feel left out, but it is those who take comfort in the singular presence of the Lord that get to see how He can turn the hearts of entire communities.
“But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.” (Romans 11:4-5 KJV)
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