‘Let me tell you how it will be: it’s 1 for you, 19 for me.’ So sang the Beatles as the first lyrics on their iconic 1966 album ‘Revolver’. The opening song is ‘Taxman’ and is essentially a rant about the 95% top rate of income tax for high earners in the UK, which of course included all four of the Beatles, who by this time were multi-millionaires. Apart from being a great song and an interesting perspective on the current debates about taxation, it’s a salutary reminder that tax officials have never been very popular!
However, if we moan a bit about HMRC today, it’s nothing compared to the status of ‘taxmen’ in first- century Israel. This is because Israel was part of the Roman Empire and tax collectors were effectively Roman state officials; to a devout Jew, whose homeland is sacrosanct, the Romans are usurpers and anyone who works for them – especially ‘one of their own’ – is at best a collaborator and at worst a traitor.
This sense of national betrayal was augmented by the fact that many tax collectors took a cut for themselves, so they weren’t just traitors but corrupt and greedy ones at that. So it is, frankly, scandalous that Jesus goes up to a tax booth (v14) and invites the chap sitting there to follow him. In today’s terms, we would definitely be talking about ‘reputational risk’ and ‘bad optics’ for the Jesus movement!
But that’s the point: what this simple episode tells us is that Jesus’ kingdom is for everyone, and wide open to all who would be a part of it. When we talk about those on the outside, we don’t just mean those who are poor and exploited, but also those who are ostracised for other reasons. Jesus’ arms remain open for them, too.
And so, Levi – who becomes Matthew, one of the twelve apostles and the writer of the gospel – joins Jesus (v14), and, in overflowing gratitude at his welcome into the fold, invites Jesus to his house (Luke tells us that it was a ‘great banquet’). Not surprisingly, this party is attended by lots of other outsiders: not just his tax-collecting friends, but others who are also referred to by the religious elite rather dismissively as ‘sinners’ (v30). And Jesus is there: no doubt welcoming and blessing these ‘sinners’, too.
As Jesus replies to his baffled (or outraged?) questioners: it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick (v17). Levi knows his moral failings and gratefully receives a second chance and a new life. We, too, are given that same invitation by our loving Lord Jesus – who knows what we’re like but invites us anyway! May God grant us all grace to keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus – and to give heartfelt thanks that Jesus’ arms still extend in welcome to you, too.