This year at tax time, my husband and I had the following conversation after he wrote our ginormous check to the government.
Husband- “You will need to put half of your book advance in savings for your taxes for next year.”
Husband (calmly, sensing dangerous hysteria)- “Yes, half.”
Me- “Do they know this is the first real money I have made in eighteen years since I have been home raising the kids?”
Husband- “They don’t care. They just want the money.”
Me (whimpering)- “I feel violated.”
A recent Saturday Night Live skit declared that the only reason the government keeps the IRS around is to make the DMV look good.
Tax collectors have always had that effect on the populace. There is just something about working really hard for a buck and having it forcibly taken from you that stinks, but as the recent scandal involving our own IRS proves, humanity is driven to outright outrage when tax collectors are given to corruption.
The problem was epidemic in the first century. Most people who have spent a little bit of time in the Scriptures know that tax collectors were hated at the time of Christ. Jewish men were employed by the Roman government to collect taxes from their own people. The very act was considered antinationalistic but the system itself was also set up for corruption. The tax collectors were required to turn over a certain dollar figure to the government. In return, they were authorized to add to that amount for their own salary. Tax collectors were empowered for extortion.
The Talmud lists two types of tax collectors. The first, called a Gabbai, was a general tax collector. The other, a Mokhes, was a custom house official. Both of these were banned trades according to Rabbinical teaching, but the Mokhes was considered especially vile because his position held within it a far greater inherent opportunity for exploitation. There were a wide variety of taxes for a Mokhes to mine for revenue. There were possible taxes on revenues, pack animals, wheels, roads, pedestrians, ships, crossing rivers… The list is virtually inexhaustible.
But the hardship a Mokhes was capable of inflicting was not limited to the financial realm. He could stop a traveler and force him to unpack every bundle, open even the smallest scrap of parchment for inspection (no matter how private the correspondence).
A Mokhes was not just a tax collector. He was more than a traitor to his people. He was an oppressor.
It is interesting to note that Rabbinical teaching on repentance always involved restitution above and beyond the offense. There was not concept of simple forgiveness, or redeeming grace…until a Rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus came on the scene and redefined repentance. According to Jesus, redemption was not something man can reach through his own efforts. Instead, it is a simple willingness to be found.
A Mokhes named Matthew had a front row seat to this teaching from his custom booth in Capernaum. Day after day, he sat listening to Rabbi Jesus teach the crowds on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He witnessed Jesus’ power as he healed the sick, and freed the demon possessed. Bit by bit, Matthew came to believe in him but how could a Mokhes ever approach a Rabbi, even one so full of kindness and grace? The religious leaders of his day had taught him there was no way back from the pit into which he had fallen.
In The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Edersheim said that perhaps Matthew was one of many who “having first gone astray through ignorance, feel themselves ever farther repelled, or rather shut out, by the narrow, harsh uncharitableness of those whom they look upon as religious and pious.”
But Jesus saw into the Mokhes’ heart and found there not a hopeless sinner, but a disciple. He walked straight up to the custom’s booth, looked Matthew in the eye and said, “Follow me.” (Luke 5:27)
Matthew wasted no time in seizing his new beginning. Scripture tells us he left everything behind and walked straight into his new life.
I am so glad Jesus came to redefine repentance. I too have stared into the abyss of religion that was more about condemnation than grace. I honestly believe there is no greater despair than that which is found within its depths. I know there are many who have turned from the church for the same reason, who like Matthew and me have “gone astray through ignorance” only to find that the harsh pious made it almost impossible for them to find their way back home.
If I repeat only one message for the rest of my life, it will be this- “That is not Jesus. That is not what he is about. When you come to your senses after wandering away, you don’t have to work and fight your way back. No, lost and wandering child, turn and look! Jesus is right there. He loves you so much that he followed you when you strayed and he will walk you back home.”