Over the last few weeks, various interpretations of a particular verse have been doing the rounds in Christian circles. I don’t want to go into why this is so, because it’s been talked about enough, but here are some thoughts on the verses themselves.
Towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel, just before the Easter narrative, there’s an extended section of teaching delivered by Jesus. The verses that have caused such debate are a part of this: Matthew 18:15-17:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the chuch, and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Straight forward enough, right? If you have a dispute with someone, give opportunities to fix it, but if that doesn’t work, escalate it until you finally have no choice but to cut that person loose. Seems pragmatic enough.
But this is Jesus we’re talking about, and so there’s a twist. The twist here is “tax collector”.
Tax collectors at the time weren’t popular – they were widely seen as corrupt, defrauding honest workers at a time when taxes were crippling enough as it was. The fact that tax collectors worked for the despised Roman empire that occupied Israel just made them collaborators and traitors. In the gospels, “tax collector” is often shorthand for, well, “scumbag”.
But here’s the thing. Jesus wasn’t just a teacher, he modelled right behaviour, walking the talk like no-one else. Reading something like “Treat them as you would a tax collector” should immediately make us look at how Jesus treated tax collectors.
There are two stories that immediately spring to mind here. One of them is the story of Levi in Mark 2:13-17. Levi is a tax collector, sitting in his office, minding his own business when, as part of his initial calling of disciples, Jesus goes up to him and says “Follow me.” Levi does so, inviting Jesus to dinner and inadvertantly sparking controversy as the religious authorities lash out – Why was Jesus dining with sinners and traitors? Here’s someone people are following as a great moral teacher and yet he’s immediately compromised, right?
Well, no. Because Levi becomes a follower of Jesus, leaving his past behind. Because Jesus has no intention of hanging around with some hypocritical holy huddle; he comes to bring grace and healing and restoration to those who desperately need it: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor,” he says, “It’s the sick.”
Levi is actually better known by another name: Matthew. As in one of the twelve apostles. As in the guy who traditionally wrote the passage about treating someone as a tax collector.
The other major story involving a tax collector is that of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. Although he’s best known for being short, Zacchaeus was actually public enemy number one – he was a chief tax collector, so not only did he rip people off, he employed other people to rip people off. And yet Jesus stops in the middle of a crowd, invites himself round to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner, after which the hated chief tax collector turns over a new leaf and pays back everything he stole. And again the religious authorities complained and again Jesus smacked them down: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Wait, that sounds familiar. Jesus told a parables along those lines – the lost sheep. Now, where can we find that story?
It’s in Matthew 18.
Immediately before the section on treating people like tax collectors.
And what’s this immediately after the section on treating people like tax collectors?
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?'”
In other words, how many chances do I give him before I get to cut him loose?
“Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'”
What we seem to be seeing is a constant reminder that, while people do terrible, unpleasant, upsetting things, and while those things have to be acknowledge and dealt with, Jesus doesn’t believe in cutting people loose. Yeah, he’ll confront them, challenge them and undermine the foundation upon which they’ve built their lives, but he’ll also pursue, heal, forgive and restore. In fact, that’s one of the gospel’s central messages – we all fall short of the glory, but God has a rescue plan in place. And let’s not kid ourselves, it’s his rescue plan – look who made the first move in the stories of Levi and Zacchaeus; it’s not them going grovelling to Jesus, it’s Jesus reaching out to them. And so they don’t get to remain as, well, jerks, but neither do they get abandoned.
Because that’s the gospel. God reaching out to man.
Even tax collectors.