From the shadows they came. From the dark and dangerous haunts of the city. From the hidden nooks and crannies where they lingered on the fringes of society. These were the undesirables, the basest and most shunned in the community…..going about their business with downcast eyes and furtive footsteps, quickly disappearing back into the city’s shadows lest they be subjected to an open display of the contempt in which they were held.
Among them were thieves, insurgents, prostitutes, fugitives, racketeers, outlaws, adulterers, murderers and habitual law-breakers of every persuasion. Outcasts all of them.
And of course the most despised of all, the tax collectors.
These were they who had betrayed their nation’s rich heritage by collaboration with the Gentile enemy. Jews employed by the Roman authorities, they were deployed at the gates of every city and at designated posts along the highways to collect the taxes Rome demanded for keeping law and order, building roads and other benefits bestowed by the empire. Bitterly hated by the majority of Israel’s citizens, the tax collectors made a living by adding their own fees to the empire’s taxes and keeping the surplus as income for themselves and their families.
To many Jews of Jesus’ time, paying taxes to their Gentile overlords was considered a sinful act. Those who collected and lived off these taxes were regarded as traitors and extortioners, to be condemned and scornfully rejected as the very worst of sinners. So despised were the tax collectors they were forbidden even to be called as witnesses in the legal system.
‘Follow me!’ Jesus commanded Matthew the tax collector, aka as Levi (Matthew 9:9). And, against all human reason, Matthew immediately left his post and followed. And he stayed to become one of Jesus’ inner circle. Along with Simon the Zealot, another surprising choice – the zealots were known for their extreme attitude problems towards Rome, often displayed violently – Matthew was a fully-fledged member of Israel’s marginalized.
No, Jesus didn’t just choose fishermen to establish His church. A hated outcast and an activist rebel with links to a violent organisation were among His closest friends (Matt. 10:2-4). Church history remembers Matthew, the tax collector, as the probable writer of the first gospel and missionary to Persia and Ethiopia, where legend says he was martyred. And Simon the Zealot? It is rumoured he too was martyred, either in Syria or Britain.
They came, the tax collectors and the sinners, to sit at table with the teacher. To see for themselves if it was true what their ears had heard. To ask simple questions about God that would be ridiculed by the religious leaders should they even deem to listen. They came to see what He was about, this Jesus of Nazareth. And what they saw they not only liked, they embraced. And Jesus embraced them back. He never gave license to their sin, but nor did He write them off because of it, as the religious authorities and their society had done.
What compelled them to come, these hardened fringe dwellers and social outcasts? More importantly what made them comfortable in His presence? For we are told again and again that’s where they sought to be….with Him (Luke 15:1, Mark 2:15, Matt. 11:19). He was the Son of God, the personification of righteousness, yet His holiness did not alienate them. Convict, certainly, but alienate? No.
It was the grace emanating from the person of Christ that drew them to His side. It was grace that kept them there. It was His grace that convicted them of sin and His grace that gave them hope they could live differently (Mark 2:15). Grace drew, grace convicted and grace enabled new Life and new lifestyle. It was by His Presence, the Christ who is grace and truth, callous hearts were penetrated, shame was lifted and faith was born.
‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ was a genuine question put by the offended religious leaders. In Jewish culture the sharing of a meal was akin to intimate fellowship. The moral standards of those you ate with were quite literally an indication of your own morality. But Jesus had no inclination to justify His choices. Those He fellowshipped with were aware of their sin-sickness and their need for mercy, while those who thought they were healthy were not (Matt. 9:10-12).
Echoing words of their prophet Hosea, Jesus states ‘Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy and not sacrifice’. The passage He was quoting would have been familiar to them:
O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you? For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of My mouth; and your judgments are like light that goes forth. For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:4-6)
When God says, through Hosea, that He desires mercy He is using the Hebrew word ‘chesed’, an ancient concept first mentioned in Genesis 19:19. Chesed is usually translated into English as ‘lovingkindness’, ‘kindness’, ‘goodness’, ‘compassion’ or ‘mercy’, but though chesed encompasses all of these it is greater than any single one of them. In Hebrew chesed is intrinsically tied to covenant, and emphasises the unfailing, enduring faithfulness of God to keep His covenants.
Moses spoke of God’s chesed in covenant terms:
Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness (chesed) to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments. (Deut. 7:9)
So did Daniel:
I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed and said ‘Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness (chesed) for those who love Him and keep His commandments’. (Daniel 9:4)
Being ‘abundant in chesed’ is one of the foundational characteristics of His nature that God declared to Moses when He passed before him on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 34:6-7). Chesed is all about God and His character, and is completely unrelated to the worthiness or otherwise of the one on whom it is being bestowed. Chesed conveys the mysterious aspect of God’s character we call ‘grace’.
Jesus could not have answered His questioners more plainly. Despite all their outward ritual and sacrifices, in their hearts Israel’s religious leaders were not honouring their unique covenant relationship with God. They had missed the boat on understanding the nature of their God, Who fervently seeks out a people with whom He can fellowship through covenant, and towards whom He can freely demonstrate His mysterious, abundant chesed.
They are still among us, the sinners and tax collectors. They have not disappeared with the passage of time. Only their faces and labels have changed. The labels our modern day sinners and tax collectors wear are many and various: drug dealer, gang member, whore, pervert, criminal, weirdo, thug, mentally ill, tramp,….. there’s obviously many more but you get the picture. Behold the sinners and tax collectors of the 21st century.
And if we’re honest with ourselves and God every one of us has at some time quietly thought: ‘I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not as bad as that one’ in relation to one of these ‘sinners and tax collectors’. Every.One.Of.Us. Are we brave enough to recognise the echoes of ‘I thank you that I am not like other men…’ lurking in our own souls? (Luke 18:11-14)
The church, above all, is called to be a community of grace. Grace cannot be present, unless Christ Himself is present. It is the Presence of Christ that the human soul, whether sinner, tax collector, or disciple, craves. And it’s directly from His Presence, either in an individual or in the corporate church, that grace, the chesed of God, freely flows. If Christ’s Presence is not present in an assembly or individual, neither is grace. Good, sacrificial, charitable works may be abundant, but God’s chesed is not.
Wherever the people of God are controlled, influenced and manipulated by the flesh nature of men or women, wherever the Holy Spirit has been relegated to the sidelines, or even out of the building, wherever the centrality of Christ is not preached, lived and shared, Christ’s Presence is not in the midst. Yet we proudly still call such gatherings ‘the church’.
Jesus founded a community of grace and radically populated it with anyone who recognised their need for that grace, from legalists who visited Him secretly at night, to awkward fishermen, to the outcasts and dregs of worldly society. Today, rather than a vibrant, living community of grace the organised church too often looks and acts like those who never needed the physician. The good works may be many but they cannot take place of authentic chesed. Where there is sacrifice but no true hunger and thirst for Christ’s Presence, He moves on seeking those who know He’s got what they need.
There is only one thing that stands between me and the sinner or tax collector I rub shoulders with in the market place – the grace of Christ. Apart from the grace of Christ, there is nothing I can ever achieve, learn, or undertake, no family or church history, works of charity or moral living, that will make me different or less needy on any level to the ‘sinners and tax collectors’. Nothing whatsoever.
We need the Presence of Christ in our midst more than we need anything else but we have filled our lack of it with programs, good works, conferences, committees, mission drives and building projects ad infinitum. The institution called ‘church’ is trying to cover her nakedness – a nakedness that comes from the absence of Christ’s manifest Presence in her midst. But the only one she’s fooling is herself.
God, give us the manifest Presence of Jesus, convict us of our need for Your chesed, make us once again a community of grace, or we will surely, surely perish.
I gratefully acknowledge reference to the following resources in preparing this article:
“Twelve Words Jesus Knew” by Irene Lipson
© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2017. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included. To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.