TAX COLLECTORS AND FRIENDS
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
February 17, 2019
Texts: Psalm 123; Luke 5:27-39
In poor urban communities tax season is already here. The fly-by-night chop shops that pro-mise instant refunds, the best deal on your taxes, and at no cost! So they claim. Most of those so-called tax preparers tell their unsuspecting filers that they will only take a per-centage of the refund, usu-ally a small amount, five or ten percent. But just look at the benefits you’ll get by filing for nephews and nieces and God knows who else, perhaps even a grandmother.
The unsuspecting tax filer agrees and sees a pos-sible large refund, mostly from an earned income credit for children who do not even live in the house-hold. By April 20, if not earlier, the preparers close up shop and move on and when the IRS reviews the refund, the tax-payer has to repay the overpayment with interest.
But, we say, the taxpayer was cheating. Well, con-sider what this fly-by-night operator does and says: Don’t you help to support him and her? Sure, I do, is the re-sponse. Well, then, they’re dependents. No matter whether they live with you or not, they’re told. Some-times the taxpayer doesn’t read the fine print or cannot read it because it’s in English. In the end, they hold the bag and the so-called preparer has skipped town with the ten percent. Add that up and it’s a pretty hefty sum for a few weeks work.
Collecting taxes in Jesus’ time was very different, to say the least. Perhaps the one thing in common was the lack of knowledge on part of the taxpayer, such as how much was due. A short histor-ical note will clarify some questions here. Herod, the one who was named king at the time of Jesus’ birth actually died in 4 BCE. His son Herod Archaelaus became ruler of the entire king-dom but was ban-ished by Rome in 6 CE. At that point the kingdom was split into parts.
Jerusalem and part of Palestine were under direct Roman rule; that’s where Pontius Pilate comes in. How-ever, Galilee was under the rule of Herod Antipas – amazing how someone names his sons after him as Herod who called himself the Great did.
The Romans followed the same policy they had em-ployed toward other provinces and tributaries. They did not interfere with the religion or its worship as long as it did not interfere with the glory of Rome. But the laws of Rome were to be enforced. The presence of Roman soldiers was deeply resented by the Jews, espec-ially in Jerusalem, as you can imagine.
One chief point of contention between the Jews and the Roman government was the collection of taxes. The voluntary contributions and offerings did not provide for sufficient upkeep of the Temple so assessments were laid upon every Jewish house-hold, which was at the time of Jesus, half a shekel, or about 60 cents.
Levi was in Galilee, ruled by Herod Antipas, the one who divorced his first wife Phasaelis to marry Herodias, the former wife of his half-brother Herod II, and who was beguiled into executing John the Baptist for his criticism. This meant that Levi did not work for the Romans but for the much hated tetrarch. John also told tax collectors not to collect more than what was due. As you can imagine, like the so-called tax preparers of to-day, it would have been easy to be dishonest.
So here comes this Jesus walking by the tax booth, scholars believe some kind of customs booth, and looks at Levi and says, “Follow me.” And that’s what Levi does. Levi is identified in Matthew’s gospel as Matthew but here as Levi he is not named among the twelve as disciples in the following chapter of Luke.
Levi then holds a great banquet with other tax collectors and their friends, whom the Pharisees call “sinners.” The complaint is made to the disciples but Jesus answers, Those who are well have no need of a physician.” What would be the equivalent of those sin-ners and tax collectors today? Perhaps the tax preparers and others who fleece the poor and marginalized.
The image of Jesus sitting down with Levi, who according to the text left everything, and his tax collector friends is in sharp contrast to the one of the photos of a president being prayed over by certain evangelicals who then declare that he is obviously on their side and speaks for their agenda. I have to wonder how those who hold economic and political power would respond to “Follow me.”
The Pharisees, those who consider them-selves to be righteous, then goad Jesus with the fact that John’s disciples fast and pray while his eat and drink. The re-sponse is that in table fellowship he can reach out to those considered sinners and have them repent. Rather than taking this as an invitation to necessarily share in the benefits of ill-gotten gain, perhaps this passage could be interpreted in today’s context for how we deal with those we consider sinners in today’s world.
Just in the past week or so we have certainly had enough examples of individual and societal sin to fill volumes. And we have had examples of public contrition in attempts to save political careers. Governor Ralph Northam plans an “apology tour” to heal from the divi-sion caused by his appearance in blackface in his 1984 yearbook. There’s no question that it was and remains disgusting. As one Virginia resident said in a radio inter-view, “In the 50s or 60s, maybe, but in the 80s? I don’t know.”
This incident brought to mind Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 speech supporting the Civil Rights Act. Johnson, as a Texan, considered himself a Southerner. After being elected to Congress he aligned himself with the conser-vative Southern bloc in Congress that for years had op-posed all federal civil rights legislation and fought against Truman’s decision to desegregate the military in 1948.
However, upon becoming President, something changed. He came on television in a national speech and said simply, “I was wrong.” He stated that he had grown and realized his errors of the past. At first he was not believed, but he worked to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed and then the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed. In a sense, he was redeeming himself of his past sins. To be sure, we all have past sins, as it were, that need redeeming.
Levi’s response to Jesus was part of his redemp-tion. He left his day job. He must have acquired a good bit of wealth to hold such a banquet. And you can bet he did not do the serving or the cooking. So, we may ask, after the banquet, then what? Like many other person-ages in Luke’s gospel, he simply disappears.
Although Levi the tax collector is identified as
the son of Alphaeus in Mark 2:14 and is connected to Matthews in Matthew’s gospel as one of the twelve he is not so in Luke. In a sense he becomes one of Jesus’ many unnamed disciples. Most disciples throughout history have been unnamed, and, most likely, many had past sins that needed to be redeemed.
The question for us as a society is whether and how we forgive past sins, how we allow people to be-come redeemed. If we believe in redemption as we say we do, how far does that redemption extend? These are tough questions, especially when the past sins become public ones. When is saying “I’m sorry” not enough? And what do we expect in the person who seeks redemption?
Perhaps the last question is the most difficult because it speaks to restorative justice rather than retrib-ution justice. None suppose Levi had not been an honest tax collector but a person who used his authority as an agent of the state to get a bit – or more than a bit – for himself. Levi quits the job and follows Jesus but how does he do that? He throws a banquet for his colleagues and “sinners,” whoever they might be.
And does Jesus refuse to go to such an unseemly place? No, on the contrary, he seems to relish the oppor-tunity. Good food, good wine, not bad for an itinerant preacher with a bunch of hangers on – those are the disciples. Although the text doesn’t say so, it implies that this Jesus was already well-known – and as some sort of troublemaker. Why else would the Pharisees even bother with comparing him and his disciples to those of John?
Jesus’ response with the two short parables at first may seem curious here but if we look at how Jesus re-sponds to those who would present a narrow vision of God and God’s mercy, they really make sense. The new wine of redemption cannot be poured into an old wine-skin of retribution; neither will the new cloth of God’s grace be stitched onto the fraying cloth of reprisal.
Jesus is telling us that what God requires of us here is that we view our relationships to the world, including other human beings around us in a new light. We need to be as open as is God’s grace. When we consider that this may be difficult, we should remember that God’s grace also extends to us as well. Like Levi the tax collector and his friends, we all need more than a bit of that grace.
Let us come to God in prayer: Merciful One, who extends your grace to all, help us to be instruments of your grace in the world. In the name of him who came to show us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.