What’s with tax collectors? (Matthew 9:9-12)

Why did the poor old tax collectors get such a bad rap in the New Testament?

Open Matthew 9:9-12.

Remember when you faced that tax bill? How did you feel? It wasn’t like, “Wonderful. Now I can contribute to educating children, providing health services, enabling law enforcement, building roads and infrastructure and a bunch of other things to help our community.” Not likely.

Now imagine taxes are being levied by an occupying force. Your taxes are paying the army that killed some of your family and is crushing your people. How would the Dutch have felt under Nazi occupation during World War II? How do Iraqis feel under American occupation today? How would Jewish people have felt under Roman occupation in Jesus’ time?

And the worst traitors are those from among your own people who collect money for the enemy. They’re scum. You can’t trust them. The enemy doesn’t care if they overcharge, as long as they raise their quotas. They’re parasites, sucking the life-blood out of the nation to feed the oppressors.

If you’re a first century Jew, your nation is called to be God’s people, so these leeches are enemies of God and his purposes. As you’ve been oppressed by empire after empire, you’ve gradually come to understand that your enemy isn’t just Rome, or the Seleucids, or the Ptolemies. It’s the dark spiritual power that drives the oppressors — ha satan in Hebrew. These tax collectors who empower the oppression are serving that dark power. They’re servants of the satan.

Put yourself in the crowd following Jesus along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is announcing good news of the restoration of God’s kingdom, so you’re expecting him to solve Israel’s problems, to get rid of the Satan-servants and sinners. Look, there’s one right here — that twisted wretch at his toll booth. Perhaps Jesus will overturn his tables and drive him out of the region.

But what Jesus does is unthinkable. He doesn’t treat the tax collector as a scumbag. Jesus treats him as a person — a human being with a name:

9 Moving on from there, Jesus saw a person named Matthew seated in the toll collection booth, and said to him, “Follow me.” He stood up and followed him.

You’re not sure what’s going on. Is Jesus confused? Is he mad? Is he giving up his mission and joining our enemies instead? You gaze around suspiciously, and your worst fears are realized. There’s a heap of these scumbags among Jesus’ recruits:

10 When Jesus went home to eat, there were many tax collectors and sinners who came to share the meal with Jesus and his students.

How shameful! This is downright dangerous for someone who has the influence Jesus does. What kind of example is he setting? We all know that God’s blessing comes to the person who does NOT walk with the wicked, or stand with sinners, or sit with those whose lifestyle mocks Israel’s God and his laws (Psalm 1:1).

You’re not the only one who’s noticed. Israel’s moral police are here to apply some peer pressure to Jesus’ followers and shame them into compliance:

11 The Pharisees noticed and queried his students, “What’s this? Your teacher entertains tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus steps in to defend his students:

12 Overhearing what they said, Jesus said, “It isn’t those who are strong who need a healer; it’s the ones who aren’t doing well.”

There’s the core difference between Jesus and his contemporaries. The Pharisees want to cure Israel’s woes by cutting out the cancer that’s sucking the life-blood out of the nation. The Satan-serving tax collectors and the Law-breaking sinners are the reason why the kingdom of God has not been restored. Get rid of them so that Israel’s God does not have to look on their offences, and Israel will be restored as his people again. That’s their belief.

Jesus, on the other hand, wants to cure the cancer, to restore these distorted outgrowths of evil as true human beings again, to restore all God’s people as his kingdom. That’s why he’s spending his life with those who are the worst, the people everyone else regards as beyond help.

King Jesus’ mission is to rescue his people. All of them. Even the tax collectors serving the enemy, and the scumbags dragging the nation down.

Can Jesus do that?

Matthew thinks he can. The writer just introduced himself to us by name for the first time. This is his story.


What others are saying

Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: B & H, 1992), 157:

Jesus’ fraternizing with disreputable people remains a scandal in the predominantly middle class, suburban, Western church. Many of us, like the Pharisees, at best ignore the outcasts of our society and at worst continue to discriminate against them. We do well to consider substantially increasing our spiritual, evangelistic, and social outreach to minorities, the homeless, prostitutes, addicts and pushers, gays and lesbians, AIDS victims, and the like, as well as to the more hidden outcasts such as divorcees, single parents, the elderly, white-collar alcoholics, and so on. We must get to know them as intimately as Jesus did—only close and trusted friends shared table fellowship over meals. We dare not join with sinners in their sinning, but we may well have to go places with them and encounter the world’s wickedness in ways that the contemporary Pharisees in our churches will decry.

David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 254:

Jesus’s social interaction with notorious sinners scandalized the Pharisees of his own day, and it likewise tends to embarrass those in our day whose views about separation from worldliness stress externals rather than personal integrity. Association with unbelievers must be handled with wisdom so that ethical compromise is avoided, but fear of such compromise cannot become an excuse for isolation from those who most need the message of the kingdom (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9–10).

[previous: Jesus’ authority on earth]

[next: When did Jesus label people “sinners”?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

2 thoughts on “What’s with tax collectors? (Matthew 9:9-12)”

  1. Interesting, confronting and right on the money. If we asked today’s “church” congregations to share a meal with any of the outcasts you have mentioned, not only would most of them refuse to do it, they would think you were insane for suggesting it. Sad but true that we have become “hearer’s of the word NOT doer’s of the word”.

    Another great post Allen

    Liked by 1 person

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