Friend of Tax Collectors
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
Let anyone with ears listen!
But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds." Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. (Matthew 11:11-20)
In Matthew's version here of this account the emphasis is on repentance. To repent means to completely change your mind about something. In the story illustration Jesus gave, the children refused to cooperate with others attempting to lead out in what games to play. In the adult world of Jesus' day, the leaders in particular refused to cooperate with messengers sent from God to change their thinking and views about Himself. So Matthew arranges his account to follow this story with Jesus' reproaches of cities to highlight their lack of repentance.
The parallel account in Luke interestingly is followed by a very different story, one taken completely out of sequence chronologically but perfect as an illustration of what Luke wants to highlight in Jesus' teaching. For Luke the main point in addition to repentance is how Jesus related to sinners – especially tax collectors, people thought of as the worst of sinners along with prostitutes. He even emphasis this by integrating it into the reports about John the Baptist.
I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John's baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves.)
To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.'
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children."
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him--that she is a sinner." (Luke 7:28-39)
Again as in Matthew's version, the emphasis is on the fact that the leaders resisted both John's appeal for repentance through refusing to be baptized by him, as well as Jesus' appeal through very different treatment of the kind of people the upper class loathed, despised and refused to associate with themselves. The leaders had the most influence over how people viewed God and His attitude towards them, yet they presented such stern pictures of God to their followers that they were irreconcilable with how Jesus presented Him. Thus the teachings of the leaders became the chief obstacle creating resistance in the hearts of many who otherwise would have been open to embracing the truth about God's goodness as revealed by Jesus.
Matthew follows up this teaching with a story he feels best illustrates what he sees as most important about this teaching – people's resistance to God's compassion and desire to attract everyone into close relationship with Himself. Both versions highlight the fact that Jesus is friends with the religious outcast, but Luke especially wants to make that point by specifically mentioning tax collectors and sinners as being those most ready to respond to both John's stern warnings as well as Jesus' kind compassion for them. Luke chooses the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume to strategically place it here to highlight the attitudes of the self-righteous Pharisees in sharp contrast with the passionate response of spontaneous affection pouring out from the heart of a salvaged prostitute loved into purity by Jesus' ministry for her.
In this version of the story about anointing Jesus' feet there is very little detail compared to John's account. John more accurately places the story in the last days of Jesus' life on earth and fills in more about who was involved and the surrounding circumstances. Luke simply wants to use the story as the most dramatic contrast between the spirit of those clinging to traditional religion, to one who is radically transformed by the kind of love that fills the heart of God. Choosing the story of a redeemed prostitute was the most effective way to get his point across, that Jesus indeed is a friend of any sinner, eager to spend time with them in order to draw them away from their dysfunction and restore them to harmony with the principles that bring life, peace and joy.
Now to look more into the other kind of sinners brought out here and compare these accounts with other instances where Jesus hung out with people hated and ostracized by those caught up in religion. How did God in human form relate to people who had betrayed the honor of their own country to collaborate with the occupying terrorists? To put it another way, how might God feel about IRS agents?
First I want to make something clear. Just because Jesus befriended sinners of all stripes in no way should be taken to mean that He approved of their lifestyle or the dysfunction of their life in sin. This is a common fear that many have that fuels the very prejudice seen in the attitudes of the Pharisees and lawyers and other religious leaders. They feel strongly that to be friendly with sinners is to be complicit in their guilt, so therefore the only godly thing to do is to separate from sinners in order to better achieve purity of life.
While there is some truth in a need to distance ourselves at times from those who can influence us into sins appealing to our weaknesses, there is a big difference between avoiding temptations and treating sinners with contempt. The biggest problem with the attitudes of the religious leaders in Jesus' day was that their disposition towards those they viewed as hopelessly lost presented very dark views leading people to think of God as being much like religious people. Because the leaders were the main sources of what most people knew about God, this darkness was all the more reprehensible to Jesus. Fortunately God does not relate to sinners the way that most religious people imagine He does. Jesus is our only safe Source to believe when it comes to how God feels about any of us. Jesus wanted to make it explicitly clear that God loves sinners and does not share at all in the bigotry of those presuming to represent Him no matter how pious or religious they may be.
This does not imply that just because God passionately loves malfunctioning people that He does not long to transform them, heal them and save them from their malfunction. What Jesus understood though, is that to gain credibility and influence with a broken, messed up sinner one first has to demonstrate sufficiently a heart of love and compassion and a willingness to be humble, kind and endearing to such individuals. Only after demonstrating humility, kindness and concern for someone can a response of trust be awakened in them which then can be used to draw them out of their fears, their guilt and shame to set them on a path to restored wholeness, peace and joy in the family of God.
Becoming the friend of a sinner does not imply that sins are not harmful. Jesus never left the impression with any sinner He hung out with that it was alright to remain in their dysfunction. That is no solution to the pain and shame that sin produces in the heart. What is needed is restoration to living life as God designed us to live and gaining self-control to live a life in peace and joy. Sin erodes our ability to even do what is right no matter how much we may long to do so, which is where the friendship of Jesus with sinners becomes most effective. In being willing to identify Himself with the worst of the worst and inspiring them with an awareness that He believed in them and had great things in mind for them brought new hope and faith where before was only despair and enslavement to addictions.
Of course the status of tax collectors is much more controversial to discuss than the more obvious sin of prostitution. (Today nearly every sinful lifestyle is being reframed and redefined to make them appear as acceptable to God. But that is another topic.) Today some would insist that to collect taxes for the government is not dishonorable like it was in Jesus' day. They would point out that the kind of activity engaged in by tax collectors back then was more corrupt, where a collector would typically overcharge people relying on the protection and intimidation of the Roman soldiers protecting him and then pocket the overcharges. While that may well be true, I don't personally believe it is safe to assume that there is no similar corruption in the tax collection activities of our day. I have learned enough over the years to be suspicious at best of the entire system of what I believe has become outright extortion relying on a system of fear and deception similar to what took place back then. But that is not the main point here.
I am not suggesting that governments have no right to collect taxes in order to support the activities of a legitimate government. What has been clear throughout history however is that anywhere there is coerced collection of money there will soon be people involved who will bring in corruption to exploit and coerce people for selfish advantage. And no matter where you are related to your opinion of the legitimacy of taxes as you view them, evil and exploitation will usually not be far away and will often be more pervasive than what is projected on the surface.
So instead of trying to excuse, deny or insist that tax collection today is above board and free of all corruption, for the sake of making a point let me just start with an assumption that it is in fact corrupt, that IRS agents are not as noble or free of selfish exploitation as some would choose to imagine. Let's just assume for the sake of learning something important here, that maybe people who harass and intimidate and ruin the lives of others with no concern for their freedom, happiness or rights really do exist and work for this agency. I think it would be safe to say that such people should be called evil.
Now, beginning with that controversial presumption, what should a person who honestly and sincerely wants to follow the teachings of Jesus in their life do when confronted by such power?
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 5:39-41)
Well, that is certainly one option to consider. And some years ago I came to realize that Jesus was speaking here of an underlying principle, not just a specific instruction for a certain situation. The principle is that resistance itself can be far more deadly for the heart than any evil one might experience from others. But does this mean that we simply become doormats letting anyone do anything they feel like doing to us? No, I don't think Jesus had that in mind when He said these words.
Here is another passage about resistance that is helpful to include.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)
Tax-collectors themselves are never the enemy; they are only victims of lies and abuse that God longs to win back to unselfish living. Jesus befriended tax collectors of His day for this very reason.
So what can we learn from the way Jesus related to tax collectors? Maybe our own hearts need to be transformed to share in the same kind of compassion and yearning to attract the tax collectors of today in ways similar to what Jesus did, not reacting to them with resentment or self-defense but seeking to reveal to them a radically new picture of God. This does not mean we should ignore their dark schemes or redefine what is healthy or moral. Jesus did not condone their corruption but did not condemn them outright either. What He did do was see them as potential friends rather than enemies and seek to do whatever possible to win their trust and confidence. His own purity in contrast to the character of any sinner had the potential to produce guilt and condemnation. But what is most important is to realize that the condemnation they felt never came from Jesus, it was simply a reaction of their own heart as it awakened through exposure to the beauty, compassion and goodness seen clearly in Jesus that could not help but to expose their own depravity by contrast.
When Jesus did win over a tax collector using friendship and respect, they would repent and choose to seek restitution on their own because their heart was being overwhelmed by the love and joy of seeing the real truth about God in Jesus. That is the method God wants us to take, not by treating others who are being used by the enemy as if they were the devil himself, but rather leading them to see that their true identity does not come from their occupation. What they need most is hope and objectivity to discover their true identity in Christ just as much as we need to know it ourselves. God uses people who are being healed to reach out to others by reflecting their own true identity that is found solely in Christ in order to attract perceived enemies who believe their identity is bound up with their evil jobs or addictions or lifestyle.
Jesus never approved of the methods or abuses involved in tax collecting. Yet He targeted the hearts of those trapped in that vocation to offer them an option they had never known before, by treating them as equal with everyone else and then introducing to them a new way of seeing life.
The methods of Jesus always work better. And while those with vested interest in religion and tradition resisted Him the most, it was the tax collectors, prostitutes and open sinners who responded most readily to the call of Jesus to embrace His kind of kingdom.
Just one more related thought here. If heaven's reward system is actually based on natural law rather than earned compensation for good deeds, then Jesus just might be offering to teach us how to deep sea fish in order to gain much larger rewards than what we are used to thinking about. Big fish fight much harder and can be very dangerous; they can even hurt you seriously if you don't learn how to handle them properly. But catching really big fish can also bring far greater satisfaction, so we should not shrink back from allowing God to mentor us to follow the example of Jesus in going after the biggest fish. It is our spirit that is most important for winning souls, not outward appearances. It is in the spirit where the real battles take place, not just words or strategy or temporary skirmishes.
Father, make me more like Jesus in relation and attitude towards tax collectors, sinners and even hypocrites.