Several times in our teachings lately, we have come across someone called a “tax collector.” For many of us, we immediately think of the IRS or are reminded that tax season is right around the corner. For this reason, we often stress in our teachings that “tax collectors” weren’t exactly winning the local “Citizen of the Year” award.
Tax collectors were fiercely hated, because they were living in style off the backs of their neighbors. Each tax collector would have a certain quota they were responsible to bring in, but nobody knew exactly what they owed. They had to rely on the word of the tax collectors. So many people were charged far above what they owed and the tax collectors lined their pockets with the rest.
However, the thing that drove tax collectors to the bottom of society wasn’t that they were robbing their own people. That might have been bearable enough. The real kicker was that they were actually robbing their own people in order to help the Romans. Without these local tax collectors, the Romans wouldn’t have been able to pay all the soldiers that were oppressing and abusing the people. The tax collectors, therefore, were more than local thieves. They were abuse-enablers. They were traitors.
Then along comes Jesus. People are calling him the Messiah–the one who will set everything straight. And if anybody needs an earful and to be set straight, it is the tax collectors. So when Jesus comes across Levi sitting in his tax collector’s booth, people are waiting for lightning to strike. If Jesus had been calling out the religious-hearted Pharisees, imagine what he’ll say to a tax collector! But the two simple words he says to Levi are shocking: “Follow me.” He doesn’t lash out at Levi with stinging condemnation; rather he extends Levi an invitation. He asks Levi to be with him. No questions asked. No money returned. No penance given.
This is astoundingly good news for us if we are Levi. God invites us into his presence straight out of our tax collector’s booth. But this is a different story when you have a Levi–a tax collector–in your life. Who has been hounding you for years? Who is an enabler of abuse and betrayal in your life? Who has been cheating you for years?
Our appreciation of God’s grace is truly tested not when we receive grace, but when the tax collectors in our life start to be absurdly blessed. How will you feel when God suddenly extends that person the startling grace of his presence? How will you feel when the Levi in your life has blessing after blessing heaped onto their lap? Not because they’ve asked you for forgiveness. Not because they’ve cleaned up their life. But they are called out of their tax collector’s booth and into following Jesus. How will you respond then?
It is good for us to be scandalized by God’s grace towards others, as it is also a scandalizing reminder of his grace towards us. We should sense how God’s unearned favor towards all of us is nearly unjust if it had not been for the cross. But because of Jesus’ death, God is now fair in not only forgiving the tax collectors in our lives, but in forgiving us as well.