Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Christian Tax Collector? (Matthew 9:9)

Which Gospel writer was a tax collector? Matthew

The principal story for which Matthew is known is his call to discipleship (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:14-17; Luke 5:27-31). In fact, this is the only narrative which features Matthew in the entire Bible. The Synoptic gospels report that Matthew was called to be Jesus’ disciple while on the job, sitting at a tax collector’s booth near Capernaum (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:14-17; Luke 5:27-31). Matthew’s gospel is as detached as the other gospels when recounting the occasion.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. (Matthew 9:9 NASB)
Daniel J. Harrington (b. 1940) concludes, “We are probably to imagine the ‘tax office’ (telōnion) as a tollbooth at which fees were collected on goods (most likely fish) as they were transported out of the region of the Sea of Galilee (Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina), 126).”

While the gospel that bears his name refers to the tax collector as Matthew (Matthew 9:9), for unstated reasons he is called Levi in the parallel accounts (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). Though the name changes, all of the elements of the story remain intact. When called, the tax collector leaves his post to follow Jesus (Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27-28). (Hopefully it was near the end of his shift.) He then hosts a dinner party for his new found master (Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-31). The immediacy of Matthew’s response echoes Jesus’ previous call to the fisherman (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20).

Being a tax collector in the first century was inauspicious. When Matthew’s gospel lists the twelve disciples(Matthew 10:1-4), only Matthew’s vocation is mentioned (Matthew 10:3). He is described as a telones (Matthew 9:9, 10:3). This term is most commonly rendered “tax collector” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) but in deference to the publicum, the Latin state treasury, older translations use “publican” (ASV, KJV). The Message states simply that Matthew was a “tax man”.

There were two varieties of tax man in the first century. Robert Kysar (b. 1934) explains:

Tax collectors were businessmen who contracted to collect revenues in a prescribed area, which they leased. In turn they hired a group of individuals who exercised the actual collections. This distinction between the major figure and his arm of collectors is suggested in the Gospels by the two titles, “chief tax collector” (architelōnēs, Luke 19:2) and the simple “tax collector” (telōnēs, Matthew 10:3). The first designated enterprising persons of some wealth (if not moral integrity). The second was used of individuals, many of whom were poor and of low social rank. They may have been driven to this unseemly work by sheer desperation. Their dirty work brought them only contempt and social discrimination, but it made a living. (Kysar, Called to Care: Biblical Images for Social Ministry, 47)
Given both Matthew’s physical and vocational position, many deduce that he was a customs official employed by the tetrarch Herod Antipas in Capernaum to collect from the nearby major thoroughfare that connected Mesopotamia to Egypt.

Though the modern equivalent is far from popular, tax men in Matthew’s day were far more despised than modern IRS agents. In Israel they were ranked with the lowest of the low, grouped with prostitutes (Matthew 21:31, 32), Gentiles (Matthew 18:17) and most commonly sinners (Matthew 9:10, 11, 11:19; Mark 2:15, 16; Luke 5:30, 7:34, 15:1).

David L. Turner (b. 1949) explains:

Tax collectors would likely be unacceptable to the Pharisees not only because of their oft-deserved reputation for extortion (cf. Luke 3:12-13) but also because of their frequent association with Gentiles. The term “sinners” (Matthew 9:11, 13; 11:19, 26:45; cf. Mark 2:14-22; Luke 5:27-39) may designate those whose behavior was egregiously ungodly, but from the Pharisaic viewpoint, it would also include those who did not observe the traditional interpretations of the Hebrew Bible (Matthew 15:2) on such matters as ritual purity, food laws, and Sabbath observance. (Turner, Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) , 252)
Tax collectors were deemed reprobates because they were corrupt on multiple levels, viewed as both extortionists and traitors. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (b. 1946) describes:
It is difficult not to see the glint of ambition in Matthew’s eye as he counts the incoming money, which we are sure contains a good percentage of the unofficially extorted. Matthew’s social standing is hence, very low. Not only does the tax collector prefer worldly gain to spiritual gain; he also works for the pagan occupying power, Rome, and is thus despised both politically and religiously by right thinking Jews...Matthew the telônês (“tax collector”), then, enjoys no social, political, or religious status in his community. He is a shady character who lives at the fringes of Jewish society. To make money by collecting others’ money cannot, even in the best of cases, elicit any philosopher’s admiration: it would be difficult to find any creative or altruistic aspect in this endeavor. (Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: Volume 1, 421)
As such, tax collectors were often perceived as spiritually hopeless. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) writes:
Although later Jewish tradition remarks that it would be difficult for a publican to repent (because it would be hard to make restitution; see, e.g., t. B. Mes. 8:26), it allowed that God can forgive this sin like any other...and emphasized God’s love toward the repentant...Jewish tradition already warned not to reproach one who had turned from sin (Sirach 8:5). But Pharisees, like modern churchgoers, were presumably not always what their official ethics called them to be. In the total context of Matthew’s Gospel, the informed reader ultimately recognizes that the religious establishment themselves are “sinners” (Matthew 26:45; though the term could refer to Gentiles, its immediate contextual referent is probably the priestly aristocracy). (Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 297)
The assumption was that one could not be a good Jew and a tax collector. A more modern parallel is seen in the June 3, 1957 edition of Time Magazine. The publication featured a blurb about an encounter between Mickey Cohen (1914-1976) and Billy Graham (b. 1918) during Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles crusade. (Graham himself writes of the encounter in Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham, 151-52). At the time, Cohen, a notorious gangster, was far mor famous than the novice evangelist. Cohen was quoted as saying, “I am very high on the Christian way of life. Billy came up, and before we had food he said—What do you call it. that thing they say before food? Grace? Yeah, grace. Then we talked a lot about Christianity and stuff.” There is a myth that after Cohen was confronted about his unchanged lifestyle, the mobster purportedly replied,“Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?”

Whether or not the story is true, it conveys truth. Christian gangster is perceived as an oxymoron just as Jewish tax collector was 2000 years ago. Michael J. Wilkins (b. 1949) speculates:

For Matthew, discipleship has an immediate cost, for collecting taxes not only filled the coffers of the governor but also meant a lucrative income for the tax collector (cf. Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10). A fisherman could always go back to fishing, but it is less likely that a tax collector could return to the booth. But our author doesn’t expand on what the sacrifice entails, perhaps a subtle indication of the identity of the humble Matthew as the author of this first Gospel. (Wilkins, Matthew (The NIV Application Commentary), 365)
Could Matthew have returned to tax collecting and still professed his Christianity? What modern jobs are incompatible with Christianity? Do you reflect your religious beliefs at your job? Do you live in such a way that an outsider might not think a Christian gangster to be an oxymoron?

After Matthew accepts his calling, Jesus dines with the former tax collector and his equally reviled friends which Jesus’ opponents naturally found disgraceful (Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-31). Douglas R.A. Hare (b. 1929) explains, “To good religious people it was scandalous that Jesus kept such bad company. His enemies ridiculed him as ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matthew 11:19) (Hare, Matthew (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching) 101).”

For Jesus, there was a bigger issue than his public image. David E. Garland (b. 1947) writes:

Jesus embodies God’s mercy and purpose to take away the diseases, infirmities, and sins of all the people; and the meal was a concrete expression of the acceptance of sinners. The Pharisees would have had no objection to sinners repenting. What would have been reprehensible to them was the tacit approval and forgiveness of a coven of sinners who had done nothing that would pass for traditional repentance (confession and restitution) except to follow Jesus (Matthew 9:9). (Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary & Theological Commentary on the First Gospel, 103)
John Nolland (b. 1947) explains Jesus’ rationale:
As far as the Matthean Jesus is concerned, for these people the decisive turning point has already occurred. They do not remain guilty until they prove themselves; rather, those who will come are welcomed. No ‘threshold score’ is required for entry. (Nolland, The Gospel Of Matthew: A Commentary On The Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 386)
The call of Matthew speaks to inclusiveness as a fearless Jesus eats freely with those on the margins of society. In 1573 , Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) produced a famous oil on canvas which he later titled Christ in the House of Levi. Today the painting hangs in room 10 of The Galleria dell' Accademia (Venice Academy) in Italy. The interesting aspect of this likeness is that Veronese did not set out to depict this scene.

Art historians H.W. Janson (1913-1982) and Anthony F. Janson (b. 1943) chronicle:

He gave the painting its present title only after he had been summoned by the religious tribunal of the Inquisition on the charge of fillings his picture with “buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs, and similar vulgarities” unsuited to its sacred character. The account of this trial shows that the tribunal thought the painting represented the Last Supper, but Veronese’s testimony never made clear whether it was the Last Supper or the Supper in the House of Simon. To him the distinction made little difference. In the end, he settled on a convenient third title, Christ in the House of Levi which permitted him to leave the offending incidents in place. (Janson, and Janson, History of Art: The Western Tradition (6th Edition), 381)
For Veronese, it would seem there was little distinction between the meal at the tax collector’s house comprised of known sinners and the Last Supper whose guest list was filled with Jesus’ closest disciples. The title was the only real difference.

Why does Jesus dine with outcasts? Do you associate with those on the fringes of society? How can Christians be more inclusive, especially to those who come from different socio-economic backgrounds?

“God creates out of nothing. Wonderful you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.” - Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, July 7, 1838


  1. Interesting indeed. Has anyone been able to work out Matthew's salary as a tax collector back then, but described in modern terms?