Summary: The messy business of Jesus and the church is the invitation and welcome to sinners such as us.
When Jesus begins his ministry, people are filled with wonder at what he can do – cast out demons and heal the sick. “Wow! I saw Jesus command a demon to come out of a man!” “That’s nothing, I saw him heal a man born blind.” “Well, I saw him cleanse a leper!”
It isn’t long, though, when they become a bit unsettled at what he is doing as well. “But why did he touch the leper? That gives me the creeps!” “And what’s that business about forgiving sins? Who can forgive sins but God?”
Jesus keeps taking the opportunities around him to “up the ante,” so to speak. Just how much can he say and do before he pushes his credibility and popularity too far? In our passage this morning, we will see him add to the stakes.
We begin with the calling of Levi, also known as Matthew. The calling is very similar to that of Simon and Andrew, and James and John in chapter one.
14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
1:16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
You have the same elements. Jesus teaches, then walks along. He sees the men at work. He tells them to follow him. They leave what they are doing and immediately follow. What is Mark indicating? That Levi received the same calling as the other men to be a disciple, and that he responded with the same determination as the others. Okay, that’s fine to know. What’s the big deal? Well, Jesus committed another gasper. He showed the audacity to call into his company a notorious sinner.
How do we know Levi was a notorious sinner? By his occupation: he was a tax collector. IRS agents may have an unpopular reputation today of being over zealous in collecting taxes. The tax collectors of Jesus’ day had a reputation of being corrupt. The system itself encouraged such vice. How so?
Our taxes are paid directly to whatever is the appropriate government agency – local, state or federal. The people who collect the taxes are government employees who are paid a salary. They are not so much tax collectors as they are tax receivers for the majority of the people. They actively collect, i.e. go out and get what is owed, when they suspect fraud of some kind. They can exact more money as penalty, but that money goes to the government, not to themselves.
But tax collecting was a franchise business in the ancient world. It worked like this. Officially, the Alachua County Commission decides to tax every commercial truck passing through 2% of the value of its cargo. But what really matters to the county is not getting a percentage of everything, but getting enough money to meet its budgeted income. What it really needs is to earn $100,000 each month through the taxes. Instead of setting up a tax division and paying salaries and benefits to employees, the commission lets private businesses bid for the opportunity to collect the taxes. Bob and Jim, two ambitious men, bid for the opportunity. Bob offers to do the work for $15,000 a month with a guarantee to bring in $100,000 monthly. Jim, however, bids a mere $10,000 with the same guarantee and gets the job. Is Jim more thrifty than Bob? No, he’s more ambitious.
Here is his strategy. He sets up tax collecting stations on the roads throughout the county, and instead of hiring employees to man the stations, he puts them out to bid as well. He sets an income figure that he has to receive from each station. All together they total $125,000 a month. Who keeps the $25,000? Jim does. Doesn’t the county commission care? Not really. They are getting what they need, and they would prefer not to examine all of Jim’s records. Are the station managers upset? No, they are doing the same thing as Jim. Tom, who has to turn over $5,000 each month, is averaging in collections $10,000. The extra $5,000 is all his. Is there really that much tax money owed by the truckers? Well, not really. Some are getting charged 3% or 4% tax. They don’t know what the tax is supposed to be. Some just pay a flat fee so they don’t have to keep getting stopped.
And that system just covers transportation tax. There are many other taxes that affect the locals in every area of life. Bob missed out on the transportation tax business, but he’s making out all right with collecting taxes from the farmers and ranchers. It’s a great business – little overhead and minimal government regulation. All you need is a love for money and a callous heart. You certainly can’t get soft. If you don’t collect your quota, you make up the difference from your own funds.