Tax Collector Summoned

SYNOPSIS - The theme of forgiveness links the call of a tax collector to the preceding story - His authority to discharge sins – Mark 2:13-17.

Taxes - Photo by Olga DeLawrence on Unsplash
The theme of forgiveness links this story to the preceding one when Jesus healed and discharged the sins of a paralytic while preaching in a synagogue at Capernaum. By doing so, he offended the religious authorities by proclaiming the sins of the paralytic forgiven apart from the Temple rituals. Next, he alienated them further by associating his ministry with “sinners,” specifically with some of the ritually impure outcasts of a properly religious society. - [Photo by Olga DeLawrence on Unsplash].

Jesus did not call scribes and priests to follow him, but instead, ordinary men. This company included fishermen and tax collectors. Observing him eating with the latter, his opponents insinuated that he was a notorious sinner.

Tax collectors or “publicans” were especially despised in first-century Jewish society. They handled a variety of currencies from pagan and Jewish sources and interacted with men from all walks of life in their daily business. Physical contact with pagan symbols and Gentiles meant that tax collectors were in a constant state of ritual impurity. Moreover, they were considered collaborators with the Roman authorities by many of their more patriotic countrymen.
  • (Mark 2:13-17) - “And he went forth again by the sea—and all the multitude was coming unto him, and he began teaching them. And passing by, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting over the tax-office—and saith unto him—Be following me! And arising, he followed him. And it cometh to pass that he is 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 unto his disciples—With the tax-collectors and sinners is he eating? And hearing it, Jesus saith unto them—No need have the strong of a physician, but they who are sick, I came not to call the righteous but sinners” – (The Emphasized Bible – Parallel passagesMatthew 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-32).
Most likely, ‘Levi’ is identical to the 'Matthew' named in Matthew 9:9. It was common for a Jewish man to have two or more names. 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 would bid on contracts with the Roman authorities to gather preset amounts of revenue. What they gathered over the contracted amount became the tax collector’s profit.

Observant Jews avoided this kind of employment – It required them to engage in transactions with Gentiles, and otherwise put their ritual purity at risk. The actions of Jesus were scandalous - He associated with politically objectionable and ceremonially unclean men. He compounded his offense by eating with these tax collectors and “sinners.”

Table-fellowship was of great importance to observant Jews and eating with less than observant men put a devout Jew’s ritual purity at special risk. “Sinners” might include immoral individuals, but more likely, as in this case, the term referred to individuals considered ritually impure, or at least less than scrupulously observant of the traditional dietary restrictions.

The sect of the Pharisees adhered strictly to the Mosaic Law – The Torah - And to a developing body of oral traditions that interpreted the specific regulations of the Law. The Pharisees were concerned especially with ritual purity, so much so they went beyond what the Law required.

The priests that officiated in the Temple lived under stricter purity requirements than the rest of Israel. The Pharisees were striving to implement the same level of ritual purity required of the priests in their daily lives.

The concluding statement of Jesus emphasizes that his mission is about redemption - He came to redeem that which was lost. The version in the gospel of Matthew adds these 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” - (Matthew 9:13).


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