Tax time

Good morning, Friends! Thanks again for coming here this morning. We’ve been talking all month about how different people met Jesus.

For the most part, people didn’t meet Jesus in church. In fact, they met Jesus almost everywhere else.

Jesus was not popular with church leaders. He said things that were too far outside of conventional wisdom and easy preaching.

It’s easy for us to forget that Jesus wasn’t welcome in a lot of places. As time went on, Jesus found church doors being slammed in his face.

This month, we’ve looked at some of the different ways that people met Jesus. One person was paralyzed. He couldn’t even get to see Jesus, till his friends carried him to Jesus’ house and broke through the roof.

Saul, who we read about back in January, was the very last person on earth who ever expected to meet Jesus. Saul hated Jesus, and thought that all Christians should be locked up in jail. When Saul met Jesus on the road, he was temporarily blinded by the light.

A couple of weeks ago, we read the story of how Jesus met a leper, man disfigured by a horrible disease, a person who everyone considered untouchable.

Jesus called penniless fishermen to be his friends. He called Judas Iscariot, whose name literally means “the dagger”. Judas may have been a member of a secret terror group.

Jesus welcomed people with mental illness, who everybody else said were possessed by demons. He welcomed a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. Jesus welcomed so many more. And he welcomed the person in today’s story.

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 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.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.

When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Mark 2:13-17

Almost nobody likes a tax collector. Even in our day, nobody likes to deal with the IRS. I know, we elect the representatives who pass the tax laws.

Most of the money that’s collected goes to things we want – education, health care, public safety, care for the elderly, highways, protection of our air and water. There may be things we don’t like, but we do have a choice in the people who make the decisions.

Back then, in Jesus’ time, not so much. Tax collection was a kind of extortion. The Romans estimated how much money could be squeezed out of a district. Then they farmed out the job of collecting it to local contractors, because the Romans didn’t speak the language of the countries they occupied.

The tax collectors took in whatever they could grab, paid the Romans, and pocketed the rest themselves. They had Roman soldiers standing right there to settle any arguments. Appealing your tax bill got you a jab with a spear or sword.

Like I said, nobody back then liked tax collectors. Everybody saw them as traitors to their own people. They were thrown out of the synagogue. People crossed the street so as not to greet them. They were rich, but they were hated and despised.

Jesus came walking down the beach that day. A big crowd was following him. They came up to the tax booth – probably collecting customs duties for goods coming in to the province.

It says that Jesus saw Levi there. And that word “saw” is important. Over and over again, Jesus saw people. He noticed them. He stopped whatever he was doing or whatever he was saying, and looked at them.

Jesus saw rich people. Poor people. People who were sick and hurt and miserable. Jesus saw people who were hungry, and he saw people who were carrying heavy burdens. Over and over in the Bible, it says that Jesus saw people, and he stopped, and spoke to them. He didn’t just see the outside of people. It says he saw their hearts.

Jesus looks beyond the face we show to the rest of the world. Jesus sees the inside, the real person, the person who’s hurt or hiding or afraid or ashamed.

Jesus saw Levi, and Jesus knew what Levi did for a living. He also saw something else. He saw how hated Levi and people like him were. He saw they were cast out from God’s people.

Jesus also knew, from Levi’s name, that Levi was a descendant of the tribe of Levi. Back in the time of Moses, the Levites were the ones who were ultra-loyal to God. They were the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant.

When the land of Israel was divided up, the Levites didn’t receive any land. Instead, God said their family would be priests forever, a special holy group which was set aside inside the holy people of Israel.

So, Jesus looked at Levi and he must have thought, “How far has this man fallen! He was born to be one of God’s special leaders. And now he’s a hated tax collector!”

If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll see so many of these stories, where Jesus meets people who everyone else has turned their backs on. People with seizures. People who hear voices. People who work in dirty, filthy jobs who can never be clean. Slaves. Roman soldiers. The list goes on and on.

The people Jesus met and called, were not like Mary Poppins — “practically perfect in every way.” Far from it!

One of the things that Jesus did, over and over, was to call people from the life they’d been living, and call them to something deeper.

He told Peter, “You’re a fisherman – follow me, and I will make you a fisher of men and women.”

Jesus called people to a deeper life. One time Jesus said, “You’ve heard the old saying, ‘You shall not kill.’ But I tell you, if you get enraged against a brother or sister, you’ll be liable to judgment. If you insult a brother or a sister, you’ll be called before the council. If you write off a brother or sister as a worthless fool, you’re in danger of Hell yourself.”(Matthew 5:21-22)

Jesus said, “You’ve heard the old saying, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t hit back at anyone who hurts you. If they hit you on the right cheek, turn your left cheek to them. If they take you to court and take your jacket away, give them your overcoat as well. If a solder forces you to carry his pack for a mile, carry it for two miles instead.”

Do you see the point? Jesus took traditional teaching, and took it to another level.

Jesus said, “You heard in the old days people said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, and pray for people who make life impossible for you. That way, you will be children of your Father in heaven! He makes the sun rise on evil and good people alike, and sends rain for bad people and good people. If you only love people who love you, what good is that? Even tax collectors do that! Even pagans do that! ” (Matthew 5:38-47)

I wonder if Levi had heard Jesus say things like this. Or maybe Levi just heard rumors of what Jesus said and did, and thought maybe it applied to him.

When Jesus said, “Follow me,” maybe Levi didn’t know where Jesus was going yet. But he knew he had to do something.

Most people, after they met Jesus and heard him speak, were able to go home that day, and tell their family and neighbors and friends what they learned that day. They went back to their everyday lives, and hopefully they took Jesus’ words to heart, and tried to live at a different level.

When Levi met Jesus and heard Jesus say, “Follow me,” Levi knew that his whole life had to change. He had to give up his job – and he knew that he could never come back and be a tax collector again. It wasn’t a decision that made him rich. In all likelihood, Levi was probably a lot poorer because he followed Jesus. On the other hand, he became so much richer – more than he ever expected.

This story is really compressed, but if we think about it, of all the many followers of Jesus, Levi changed the most.

His whole life had been about money. That’s why he took such a hateful job. Every day, he had his hand out for whatever he could grab, whatever he could extort from his fellow countrymen.

Now, instead of grabbing, he had to learn about giving.

Jesus had a lot to say about giving. The gospel isn’t silent about the change Jesus calls us to make.

He said we have to give up counting the cost. When we follow Jesus, that’s a big decision.

Jesus didn’t give only to people who were worthy or to people who deserved help because they’d been good. Jesus gave to all kinds of people, deserving or not.

Jesus said that if we give to the poor, we’ll have riches in heaven. The early Christians were some of the most generous people who have ever lived.

Jesus said that whatever we give, in his name, will be given back to us, many times over. A lot of us here today can testify to that.

Jesus said that whoever has been given much, of them much will be expected. That’s a saying that my father lived, and passed down to his sons. If you’ve been given a lot, God expects more from you.

Jesus said that we’re all given talents, not to hoard and hide, but to use. Don’t hide your light. Don’t bury your talent. Don’t be silent when you can speak. It’s given to you to use. Use it!

And Jesus said that God has all the gifts we can ever need. “Seek and you shall find; knock, and the door will open; ask and it shall be given. . .”

I don’t know how much of this Levi knew about, on the day Jesus called him. But I think he probably learned a lot more, as he walked with Jesus, every day. That’s the thing – we may not get it all at once. We decide to follow Jesus. We walk with him. And we learn more.

There’s another part of this story, which I don’t want us to forget about.

Jesus didn’t just call Levi. Jesus went home with Levi, to Levi’s house. This wasn’t like being converted in church, where you go home, and do whatever you want.

Jesus went to Levi’s house, and they celebrated what happened that day. Levi had given up his old way of life! He’d cut the cord for good! He turned his life around, and now he was going to hit the road with Jesus.

So, they went to Levi’s house, and had a party. And because nobody else would come to his house, because Levi had no friends, and nobody at church would have anything to do with him, who did he invite?

He invited a bunch of his fellow tax collectors. People who no one in town would even talk to. And he invited a bunch of sinners – people who had never darkened the door of a church, who never got invited to the BBQ or to family gatherings.

Maybe, somewhere, there’s a Church of the Black Sheep. Maybe Levi started that congregation in his home that day. Maybe the Church of the Black Sheep is still going on somewhere. I hope so!

Whatever, they threw a party that night. The music got so loud that the neighbors talked about it. The neighbors all said, “Who is this Jesus? He’s eating with tax collectors and sinners!”

When Jesus heard this, he left the party, and listened to them complain. Then he said, “People who are well have no need of a doctor. I came for people who are sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I’d like to think that there’s room in the church of Christ for both – for the lost sheep, and for the ones who never went astray.

I’d like to think that we could include people who’ve been here all their lives, but also for people who have never been to church, never known about Jesus, maybe made a lot of mistakes, but are finding their way home again.

I do know that the only people Jesus ever got mad at, were the people who hardened their hearts, who closed the doors, who judged other people and decided on their own that God doesn’t care for them.

Levi was locked out of church. But Jesus called him, and came to Levi’s home. And they walked together, from that day on.

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