Tax Collector Summoned

When Jesus pronounced the paralytic’s sins “forgiven,” he offended the sensibilities of the scribes and Pharisees, the allies if not representatives of the Temple authorities in Jerusalem. Then he alienated them further by reaching out to “sinners” that were considered especially unclean by the more scrupulously religious men and leaders of Israel. The Nazarene summoned ordinary men to follow him, including fishermen and tax collectors. Observing him eating with the latter, his opponents insinuated he must be a notorious sinner.

Tax collectors were despised in first-century Jewish society. Their occupation required them to handle a variety of currencies from both pagan and Jewish sources, and they interacted with men from all walks of life.

Physical contact with pagan symbols and Gentiles meant that tax collectors were often in a state of ritual impurity. And many patriotic Jews considered them collaborators with the hated Roman overlords.

  • (Mark 2:13-17) - “And he went forth again by the sea, and all the multitude was coming to him, and he began teaching them. And passing by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting over the tax-office, and he says to him: Follow me! And arising, he followed him. And it came to pass that he was reclining in his house, and many tax-collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many, and they began following him. And the Scribes and Pharisees seeing that he was eating with the sinners and the tax-collectors began saying to his disciples: He is eating with the tax-collectors and sinners! And hearing it, Jesus said to them: No need have the strong of a physician, but they who are sick, I came not to call the righteous but sinners” – (Parallel passages: Matthew 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-32).

Most likely, this man called ‘Levi’ is identical to the 'Matthew' named in Matthew 9:9. It was common for a Jewish man to have two or more names. As a publican, he was in the service of Herod Antipas.

The Romans collected poll and land taxes directly. Taxes on transported goods were farmed out to local tax collectors who bid on contracts with the Roman authorities to gather preset amounts of tax revenues. Whatever sums they collected over the contracted amount became their profit.

Observant Jews avoided this kind of employment since it required them to engage in transactions with Gentiles, putting their ritual purity at risk. Here, the actions of Jesus were viewed as especially scandalous. He was associating with politically objectionable and ceremonially unclean men, and he compounded his offense by eating with tax collectors and “sinners.”

Table fellowship was of great importance to observant Jews, especially the Pharisees, and eating with less observant Jews put their own ritual purity at risk. The category of “sinners” might include immoral individuals, but in this case, the term includes individuals considered ritually impure regardless of any greater moral failures.

The sect of the Pharisees adhered strictly to the Mosaic Law and the developing body of oral traditions that interpreted the regulations of the Torah, the so-called “tradition of the elders.” Many of those traditions were concerned with matters of ritual purity (e.g., dietary restrictions, Sabbath regulations). So much so, that their traditions often went beyond what the Mosaic Law required.

The priests that officiated in the Temple lived under stricter purity requirements than the rest of Israel. The Pharisees desired to implement that same level of ritual purity in the daily lives of all Jews.

The concluding statement by Jesus emphasizes that his messianic mission was about redemption. He came to redeem that which was lost. The version found in the Gospel of Matthew adds the words - “Go and learn what this means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”


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