Summary: If the gospel is only successful among one stratum of society, it loses its punch. But if the gospel assembles people from both sides of the track (rich and poor), there is an intrigue to the gospel.
Jesus kept the wrong company.
In the later decades of the nineteenth century, Hell’s Half-Acre was known as the red-light district of Fort Worth. While the area was cleared in the 1960s for the Tarrant County Convention Center, it was, as the name suggests, a rough and rowdy district. In the 1870s, the Chisholm Trail was the cattle trail from Texas to Kansas that ran through the lower end of downtown. It was here that you could find two-story saloons, dance halls, and bordellos. The more famous of the Old West were men like Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was in Hell’s Half-Acre that you could find what one newspaper writer said were, “…lewd women of all ages 16-40… the experienced thief, [and] the ordinary murderer…”
We begin a series of messages known as Jesus Loves Sinners. Today, I want to explore with you Jesus’ connections to people on the other side of the tracks.
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “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 5:27-32)
1. Birds of a Feather, Flock Together
There’s a saying that the religious people of Jesus’ day knew well and it continues to our day. Your mother told it to you, “Be careful of the company you keep.” Those with whom you assemble, we soon resemble. And this is at the heart of a religious controversy that swept over Jesus in today’s story.
When the new convert, Levi, threw a great banquet for Jesus, he didn’t limit his invitations to his new Christian friends, the deacons and preachers. Instead, he invited his fiends.
“And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them.” (Luke 5:29)
Soon, the cauldron of controversy began to boil over. This story is found in three of the four Gospel: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And it’s one of several controversial stories where Jesus offends the religious leaders of His day.
Levi is also known as Matthew for people in that day were often known by two names. Matthew is famously known as the person who wrote the first book of the New Testament. Just as Simon Peter could be called by either name, so Levi is also called Matthew. Matthew, as I’ll refer to him throughout the message, was a tax collector.
Tax collectors play a significant role in the pages of the four Gospels as it does in today’s story. Later on in Luke, we’ll meet a short little man named Zacchaeus , who gets up in a tree to see Jesus because of the overwhelming crowds surrounding Jesus. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. While Matthew’s role was not a supervisory role, he was nevertheless a tax collector. Just like Matthew, Jesus chooses to eat in the home of Zacchaeus as well. Jesus’ actions flew into the face of “Be careful of the company you keep.”
Taxes in the Roman Empire were a complex affair. Cities would lease the right to collect taxes to individuals who bid for the right to do so. Usually, the rights to collect taxes would go to the highest bidder. People like Matthew would not only collect the tax that Rome had stipulated, but would also have added a surcharge to meet his expenses. He would be allowed to keep this additional amount. People of Palestine would have a land tax, as we do today, but they would also have a toll tax. Then there was also a tax on all items that were purchases or leased in a region, like our sales tax. It was this tax that would be collected in the major cities of the day. In all, it’s estimated that somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of one’s income went to taxes in the region of Palestine.
Capernaum was the last village located on the road between Herod Antipas’ territory and Herod Philip’s territory. It was there that Matthew set himself in a good position to receive taxes on the goods that passed along this busy road. The system was susceptible to great abuse. Most tax collectors received a considerable sum of the money they collected. Matthew was most likely a wealthy man. People despised tax collectors in Jesus’ day. They were seen as cheats like we see gangsters in our day. People who had to travel for business would be taxed as they traveled through each local city. The Jews of the day considered this robbery. People in Matthew’s chosen profession were notoriously dishonest as they gouged people with extortionate tax rates. They were beyond hope and were grouped with adulterers, pimps, yes-men, and snitches.