Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus and the Tax Collectors
February 25, 2020
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus and the Tax Collectors
There are several descriptions in the Gospels of Jesus’ interactions with Jewish tax collectors, considered to be some of the most despised amongst the people. All three of the Synoptic Gospels1 contain the story of Jesus eating with those who collected taxes.2 The focus in this case will be on the account in the Gospel of Mark, with some points brought in from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
The story begins this way:
He [Jesus] went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. As he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.3
(Note: Commentators generally consider Levi and Matthew to be the same person, who was called by both names, similar to how Peter is sometimes referred to as Simon.)
Levi was a tax collector, or more accurately a toll collector. There was a difference between taxes and tolls. Taxes were paid on income and property. People who collected such taxes in Israel were considered to be collaborators with the Romans, and the common people despised them. Levi most likely was a customs officer who sat at a toll station on the side of a heavily traveled trade road, such as the Via Maris, a trade route that went from Damascus to Caesarea through Capernaum. Toll collectors weren’t only at ports, but also at the boundaries of cities and tetrarchies, all of which charged customs fees, which raised the price of imported goods. The money collected usually went to the municipal treasury of the city. Jewish customs officers and tax collectors were condemned in Jewish writings and were generally despised by the average Jewish person, as they often overcharged people, adding an extra cost above the already exorbitant taxes. Scholars agree that the taxes at the time were costly and represented 30 to 40 percent of people’s income if they paid both taxes and tithes.
As he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.4
Apparently Levi decided to hold a feast to celebrate his call to discipleship. At normal meals, the Jewish people would sit to eat; however, on festive occasions or when special guests were in attendance, they would recline on pillows or rugs as they ate. At such banquets, those dining would eat lying on their side with a cushion under the arm, as they faced a table on which the food was placed. Levi was apparently well-off financially, as the feast was attended by quite a crowd, including numerous tax collectors and sinners, as well as Jesus and His disciples.
The scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”5
A scribe denotes an occupation rather than membership in a religious group, and the scribes mentioned here were associated with the Pharisees.6 The Pharisees considered themselves to be the “separated ones,” and they would never attend such a banquet because those attending it were ritually unclean tax collectors and sinners. From their point of view, to eat with such people would mean becoming defiled. We find this view expressed throughout the Gospels.
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”7
Jesus ate in the house of Zacchaeus, another tax collector, and when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”8
The Pharisees were not innocently seeking clarification or making a genuine inquiry as to why Jesus was eating with these people; this was an accusation in the form of a question. They considered this act scandalous. To eat with someone was understood as stating that those sitting at the table with you were friends and “brothers.”9 From their standpoint, what Jesus was doing was ritually defiling, because He disregarded the laws concerning table fellowship, which were important to the Pharisees. From Jesus’ point of view, His intentionally eating with toll collectors and sinners was a symbolic act which indicated that He was inviting them into the kingdom of God. Jesus’ actions influenced His disciples and the early church in their acceptance of those who were considered unclean or unacceptable—the poor, maimed, lame, blind, outcasts, toll collectors, gentiles, and so on.10
When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”11
Doctors clearly exist to help those who are sick, and the only way to help them is to associate with them. Jesus was making the point that His ministry was directed toward the lowly, the lost, those who were sinners, who were immoral. While physicians worked to heal those who were physically ill, Jesus’ focus was to bring healing to those who were spiritually ill by offering them forgiveness of their sins.
Jesus stated that He came to call the sinners to repentance, indicating that He had a divine commission, and that He came from the Father, a point made throughout the Gospels.
Whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.12
I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God … for I was sent for this purpose.13
I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.14
Jesus was sent to bring forgiveness of sin. Jesus gave His life on the cross for the tax collectors, and in fact all sinners. It was for this purpose that He came to earth.
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?15
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.16
In each of the Synoptic Gospels, the encounter with the scribes of the Pharisees is followed by another challenge regarding the difference between the actions of Jesus’ disciples and those of the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of the Pharisees.
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”17
Fasting was quite common in Israel at that time. There are two major fasts in Judaism—the Day of Atonement (known as Yom Kippur) and a national fast for previous calamities. However, personal fasting was also done for various other reasons throughout the Old Testament. It was often associated with the death of a loved one,18 illness,19 bad times,20 repentance,21 and mourning.22 It was most often used as a sign of repentance and contrition for sin, as well as an outward sign of self-denial and self-humiliation, to show oneself as being submissive to God’s will. The Pharisees fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, from dawn until sundown. Fasting was considered an act of great piety. The question regarding why Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast most likely referred to personal fasting, as they probably did fast during the two major fast days along with the rest of the country, but not twice a week as the Pharisees did.
Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”23
The “wedding guests” referred to here are men who attend to the bridegroom at a wedding. In other Bible translations, they are referred to as “the children of the bridechamber" (KJV), “the guests of the bridegroom” (NIV), or “the friends of the bridegroom” (NKJV). Jesus was asking whether the groomsmen, the groom’s male friends, would fast when their friend who was just married was still there with them at the wedding party. The answer is obvious—no, they could not. If their newly married friend was present with them during his wedding party, then it would be right for them to continue to rejoice and be merry with him. Jesus, the Son of God, was present with them, and it was not the time for fasting.
In the case of John the Baptist, his disciples reflected his ascetic lifestyle, which included fasting. It was appropriate for them to fast, as they were looking forward to the coming of the Promised One, and for them, the bridegroom had not yet arrived. But for Jesus’ disciples, the bridegroom had arrived; He was present, and they were to delight in His presence. It was appropriate to rejoice and give thanks.
The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.24
While the wedding wasn’t the appropriate time for fasting, there would come a time when it would be proper to do so. The bridegroom being taken away alludes to Jesus’ crucifixion. Some New Testament scholars interpret this verse to mean that during the few days between Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples were to fast, but it was only necessary during that period. Other scholars feel that it is proper (though not commanded) for one to fast even now, as creation is not yet fully restored, and Jesus has not yet returned to fully restore it. In the book of Acts, we read that the time of restoring is yet to come:
He [Jesus] must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.25
Therefore these scholars believe fasting is something that Christians should do.
We presently live in the time when the bridegroom has been “taken away from them.” Of course, while He is physically away from us, He is spiritually with us every second of every day. In the New Testament there is no command for Christians to fast. The absence of a command doesn’t mean that Christians don’t fast, however, and there are New Testament scriptures which speak of believers fasting.
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.26
When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.27
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.28
When they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.29
Jesus didn’t give a command for believers to fast, nor say that those who fasted were stronger spiritually. However, within the New Testament there are examples of believers fasting.30 Fasting is a matter of personal choice. Often Christians fast in order to express repentance for serious sin or when seeking the Lord for a desperate need, such as healing or protection. Sometimes they fast to express mourning, grieving, or lamenting; while other times individuals fast as they seek the Lord’s guidance.
As Christians, we are called upon to glorify God whether we eat or drink, or whether we fast or feast. In all times, we are called to rejoice at the gift of a Savior who reached down to what were considered the lowest sinners of His day with the offer of becoming eternal children of God.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
2 Matthew 9:9–13, Mark 2:13–17, Luke 5:27–39.
3 Mark 2:13–14.
4 Mark 2:15.
5 Mark 2:16.
6 For more information regarding the Pharisees, see https://directors.tfionline.com/post/jesushis-life-and-message-rulers-and-religion/.
7 Luke 15:1–2.
8 Luke 19:7.
9 Stein, Mark, 130.
10 Stein, Mark, 130.
11 Mark 2:17.
12 Mark 9:37.
13 Luke 4:43.
14 John 8:42.
15 John 11:25–26.
16 Romans 10:9–10.
17 Mark 2:18.
18 1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12.
19 2 Samuel 12:16, 21–23.
20 Ezra 8:23.
21 Leviticus 16; 1 Kings 21:27; Isaiah 58:3–6; Joel 2:12–13.
22 Esther 4:3, Matthew 6:16.
23 Mark 2:19.
24 Mark 2:20.
25 Acts 3:21 NIV.
26 Matthew 6:16.
27 Matthew 6:17–18.
28 Acts 13:2–3.
29 Acts 14:23.
30 For more about fasting, see: https://directors.tfionline.com/post/spiritual-disciplines-fasting/.