Genesis 12:1-9, Psalm 33 #5, Matthew 9:9-13

June 9, 1996, by Tad Mitsui

Matthew was a tax collector, and knew that nobody liked him. Not only people hated tax collectors, which we still do today, they also excluded them from community religious observances, because they were seen as an unclean class. But Jesus not only became Matthew”s friend for a dinner, but also made him a disciple. No wonder the righteous people were scandalized.

In many ways, I do understand why tax collectors had such a bad reputation. Palestine was under the Roman occupation at the time. The last Jewish rebellion against Roman Empire was brutally crushed in the first century B.C. To add insult to injury, the administration of tax revenue was given to some selected Jewish persons on a commission basis. In other words, tax collection was privatized. The more money tax collectors collected, the richer they got. The Romans adopted an universal dictum of any conqueror; "Divide and rule." And they were very successful. People hated tax collectors more than the Roman soldiers.

The tax collectors invented many methods to impose taxes. They were a enterprising lot. Many of them made fortunes but became corrupt, took bribes, pounced on the vulnerable people who were often poor and weak. They became not only morally corrupt, but also because of their moral bankruptcy, were branded as religiously unclean. Priests and Pharisees refused to let them participate in community religious events. As a class, they were not only traitors working for the enemy but also became excommunicated, so-to-speak. They became rich but had no friends.

I could understand why the category of tax collectors was synonymous with the one for sinners. But when a whole class of people becomes an unacceptable category, the exceptions to the rule can be victims. What happened to tax collectors who were not necessarily bad people, but who were simply doing an unpleasant job to earn a living? There is some evidence in the Bible to indicate that there were some less corrupt ones who would have loved to redeem themselves and to be accepted by society. Matthew was one of those people. This is why Matthew had no hesitation to follow Jesus, leaving his job and money behind when he was invited to do so. He must have been troubled by what he had to do in his job. Even though Matthew could have been less corrupt than many of his colleagues, it would be impossible to totally exonerate him as an innocent party. Tax collectors as a group were a corrupt class, and Matthew was one of them. He must have had problems of conscience about his job, but did not have courage to quit. We can sympathize with him. It is not easy to quit a job that pays well for any reason. But the encounter with Jesus gave him impetus to get out of a profitable but questionable occupation.

From time to time, we run into a situation where we find ourselves in a bad company but do not have courage to get out. It is a big problem for many of us. But as soon as we acknowledge that we share collective guilt, we are on the way to redemption. Jesus understood the pang of conscience of some tax collectors like Matthew. And when you can feel the pain, Jesus, like a doctor, can help you. But if you don”t feel it, no one can help you. This is why it is so important to admit that there is a problem and to recognize that you are in need of help.

Here was the problem of the righteous people like Pharisees. They did not acknowledge that there was any problem in their lives. They either denied it or did not see it. They were determined to be God fearing and righteous people. In order to achieve their goals, they made for themselves a set of rules and followed them faithfully. Unfortunately, however, in the process of becoming righteous people they forgot to be good people. They forgot to be loving and kind. While they were on the way to be righteous, they became judgmental and lost the core of being Godly, which is being merciful. They became law-abiding but lost their heart. They forgot that laws were instruments of justice and love. Laws that do not achieve justice are empty shells and burden to society. The worst problem, however, for the Pharisees was the fact that many of them did not see any problem in obeying laws faithfully without being compassionate.

Paul described this state of empty piety in his letter to Corinthians, "If I have all knowledge of God”s words, ability to preach wonderful sermons, faith to move mountains, charity to give everything including life itself, but if I don”t have love, I am nothing." What is most important is what is inside of ourselves. If we do not have kindness and mercy in our hearts, any visible signs of righteousness can be an empty shell and even inhuman. We can easily be hypocrites. The tragedy of the righteous Pharisees was that in their eagerness to be acceptable to God, they became legalistic, heartless and judgmental people. Their worst problem, however, was that they did not think there was anything wrong with them. They thought that they were perfectly acceptable to God because they knew that they obeyed the laws to the last iota.

Their ignorance of how they were wanting was the worst illness, worse than that of sins acknowledged and regretted. People who know the pain of guilt have a much better chance of being made whole. If you do not admit that you have a problem, no one can help you. Socrates in the ancient Greece said that the best knowledge was the knowledge of oneself. "Know thyself." , he said. However, he said that the most valuable knowledge is the knowledge of one”s ignorance. When you know that you do not know, you have a whole unknown world open before your eyes. If you think that you know everything you need to know, the world is closed. And you slam the door shut yourself. No one can help you.

This is why Jesus thought that the sinners, who knew that there was something wrong with them, had far better chance of being saved than the righteous people who believed that they needed no help or no lesson to learn. He said, "A healthy person does not need a doctor." The irony of the context was a sick person who did not believe that they were ill had absolutely no chance of getting to the doctor, because they closed the door by themselves. Thank God for occasional pain. Pain itself is not a good thing. Don”t look for it. But it is a signal. Through pain, God tells you that you need to seek help, to change and to grow.



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