It’s easy to overlook verses in the Bible because these verses can be understated. One particular passage is this way—Luke 2:13-17. I know that I have read this like: Jesus asked Levi (Matthew), a tax collector, to follow him. Levi then invited Jesus and His crew over for dinner with his friends, who are described by Luke as sinners. In my American mind, it’s not a big deal because I know people who collect taxes who don’t seem bad and I’ve always heard the word ‘sinner.’ It doesn’t sound scandalous to me.
But this scene recorded by Luke was very scandalous.
It’s been taught to me (and maybe you) that tax collectors were thieves. If they were to collect $20, they would collect $35. But tax collectors went far beyond thievery.
During this time, Rome occupied Europe and parts of Asia. The Roman Empire went from England to India. It was a massive landmass that Rome ruled ruthlessly. Roman soldiers would go into towns and practically crucify families (men, women, and children) if they didn’t bow to Caesar. So in order to rule this kind of landmass, soldiers had to be placed in strategic areas to rule the people. Having a massive army to rule this massive landmass costs money. In order to get money to fund this massive army, taxes were imposed on the citizens of Rome. Tax collectors were Jews who bought their right from Rome to gather taxes at a profit. Since they had to cover any shortfalls themselves, they were not inclined to have mercy on the people. But because the people were oppressed so heavily they did not make much of a living, so being taxed was like living only on 20% of one’s income.
This is why tax collectors were beyond thieves. They collected taxes from their own people, which funded the murder of their very own people. Tax collectors were sellouts to their own people. They would pay their oppressors to keep ruthlessly oppressing their people. Tax collectors were seen as unforgivable to many Jews.
The next group drawing near to hear Jesus was the sinners. Now this was not a sinner like we think of today, where we all are sinners. Sinners were a class of people. There is a big disconnect with this biblical culture because as Americans we are not familiar with a caste system. India has a caste system that is very similar to this class system. If you’re born a beggar, you never be anything other than a beggar. So when this parable is taking place, the sinners that were coming to hear Jesus speak were those who had an immoral job, like a prostitute or slave trader, or those who had physical disabilities, like those with palsy or diseases. A Jewish belief was that sinners (or their parents) did something wrong so God punished them with a disease.
Both of these groups of people were excluded from the religious community (i.e.: the Jewish temple, religious instruction). To now read that tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus is amazing. These people were thirsty and hungry for hope. This is a very raw scene that Luke records.
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