Love to Love the Unlovable!
Let’s spend a moment to talk about tax-collectors.
I know, I know. This is something that keeps you up at night with curiosity. In all seriousness, a quick dive into the first century middle east tax-collector will help us understand the type of people Jesus loved to love.
Tax-collectors in Jesus’ day were not Roman citizens. They worked for Rome, but they were Jewish. This is part of the “brilliance” of the Roman Empire. Instead of infiltrating societies with Roman men, they would pluck people from the lands they seized to do the dirty work. Like collect taxes.
Tax-collectors were Jewish men. Men that would have grown up with the very people they were robbing and slapping across the face. Yes, exchanges of money can often become violent. Can you even imagine?
Try for a moment. Imagine knowing that the person you grew up reciting the Torah with was now taking, not only the tax cut, but an inflated amount on top to stuff his own pockets; imagine being confronted when you simply didn’t have enough and being slapped across the face by the man you grew up calling friend (or at least neighbor).
Tax-collectors were considered traitors; individuals who had given into their greed and were willing to sacrifice the value and stability of others to fill that greed. And to add a little fuel to the fire, look at the coins being used in these exchanges.
Perhaps you don’t see anything, but you’re about to be offended.
On the left you have a portrait of Augustus, the ruler of the known world. On the right, you find a man (seemingly a Roman soldier), restraining, and even pushing down, another man. Take a swing at who the oppressed man was supposed to represent. . .
You got it. . .the Jews.
As an Israelite (and a Jew), these are the coins that you would look at every day as you saved up over months; these are the coins you would hand over to the collectors to pay your tax; these are the coins that would be handed back to you by a fellow Israelite as he said, “have a nice day.”
Why am I so fascinated with tax-collectors and how tense the relationship would have been between them and their fellow Israelites? Because of what we read here:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. Matthew 9:9
You cannot understand the dynamic of this moment unless you understand the tension that rested between tax collectors and everyone else. Yet, despite that tension, Jesus calls Matthew to follow him! Not only did Jesus bring Matthew closer to what we was doing, but he got Matthew to gather up all his greedy, roughneck friends:
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. Matthew 9:10
This is who Jesus wanted to be around and it made a lot of people mad. I’m not going to go down that trail, but you simply need to read the next couple verses to see that what Jesus was doing was not popular and completely ‘head-scratching’ worthy.
But here is something I find absolutely fascinating about this entire scene.
Not only did Jesus want to be with the tax collectors and the sinners, but they wanted to be with him. Really sit on that statement for just a moment because when the reality of it hits you you’re going to feel it.
There is no doubt the majority of those at that dinner party knew what Jesus was about. Jesus was not shy about his mission or about calling people out who did not align with his teaching. Shoot, we are coming off the sermon on the mount where he just preached about greed, and treasures in heaven, and the needy.
These people knew that Jesus stood against everything that they stood for and they still wanted to be with him.
There was something about Jesus that attracted people to him, even people who were nothing like him. There was something about Jesus that left people wanting more and forced them to tell their friends about. Jesus had something to offer that the people actually needed:
We started off by talking about tax collectors, now let’s talk about you.
I don’t know the mistakes you have made or where your heart is right now. Here is what I do know: you are not defined by your mistakes; you are defined by Jesus’ love for you. No matter how filthy, worthless, letdown, or disposable you might feel right now, there is someone who views you as clean, and worthy, and extremely important. So, important in fact, he was willing to die for you.
Now, do you share that same view with those around you who are nothing like you? Look at those 4 words above once more. Which of those are you really good at expressing and which of them do you have the struggle?
Jesus says that humans are never more like God than in the moment they extend love and generosity towards the people who look, act, think, and believe nothing like them (Matt. 5:43-48).
That’s right, even the tax collectors.