Friday, January 13, 2017

SINNERS AND TAX COLLECTORS


Homily for January 14th, 2017: Mark 2:13-17.

          “As [Jesus] passed by, he saw Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at the customs post. Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed Jesus.” There is no Levi in the gospel lists of Jesus’ apostles. Scholars assume, therefore, that this Levi was identical with Matthew, whose call is described in the ninth chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

There, and here as well, he is identified as a tax collector. He was not the kind of tax collector we know today, a civil servant. In the Palestine of Jesus’ day the Roman government of occupation entrusted the collection of taxes to tax farmers, as they are sometimes called, who bid for the right to collect taxes. In doing so, they enriched themselves by extorting more than was required. They were hated, therefore, for two reasons: for preying on people financially; and for serving the despised Roman rulers of the land. 

          Jesus speaks just two words to Levi: “Follow me.” Without hesitation, Levi gets up and follows Jesus. Other disciples of Jesus have already done the same, when, at Jesus’ command, they abandoned the tools of their trade as fishermen, their boats and nets, to follow Jesus. What motivated this immediate obedience? I think that if we could have questioned any of them, Levi or Matthew included, they would have replied: “There was something about this man, Jesus, which made it impossible to say no.” 

          As a parting gesture Levi invites his friends to dinner at his house, with Jesus as the honored guest. As we would expect, many of those friends were Levi’s fellow tax collectors. Others were simply “sinners,” as the gospel reading calls them: Jews, like Levi, who did not keep God’s law.

Observing these disreputable guests, the Pharisees, proud of their exact observance of God’s law, ask Jesus’ other disciples how their Master can associate with such social outcasts. Jesus overhears the question and answers himself: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous [by which Jesus means ‘people like you Pharisees’]. ‘I came to call sinners.’

What is the message for us? If we want Jesus’ loving care, we need first to recognize and confess our need. And the first thing every one of us needs from Jesus is forgiveness.