Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Taxes, Choices, and Jesus


Today there is much fuss about taxes. I pay my taxes, but I’m no tax expert nor am I an economist with an opinion on what tax structure is best for people and the economy. One thing I do know is that I would rather be paying taxes today than in Jesus’ day.
In Jesus’ day there was much fuss about taxes also, but He did not get involved in the debate. One thing He did was go out of His way to befriend the tax collectors even though the taxes they imposed were both oppressive and unjust.

In the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus continues to show His followers that ministry goes beyond the walls of a religious institution and the confines of a service. Jesus goes from preaching the Word, forgiving sins, and bringing health to a paralytic in a home (Mark 2:1-12) to teaching beside the sea and going to befriend a tax collector.
"He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And 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" (Mark 2:13-14).
There are big debates today and much contention over taxes. There are those who favor cutting taxes for the wealthy so that money can trickle down. There are those who favor cutting taxes for the poor and middle class while raising taxes for the wealthy. There are those who favor a flat tax. There are those for big government and more taxes. There are those for small government and fewer taxes. Whatever your opinion may be on the current tax situation, please know that we are far better off than the tax-payers in Jesus’ day.
In Jesus’ day, Palestine under Roman oppression had a tax system which was unjust, very corrupt, and taking advantage of the poor so the wealthy empire of Rome, including its powerful war machine, could operate and its rulers live a very luxurious lifestyle. Now some would say that it is the same in our day, but stay with me for a minute. In Jesus’ day, the emperor of Rome would decide how much it would cost to not only run the government along with its conquering and occupying armies, but he would also calculate how much he and his family would need to live very luxuriously and far above everyone else in the empire. He would charge the Roman governors of the provinces, under Roman occupation and oppression, to collect a tax that would support what was needed for Rome and his own selfish desires. The governors of the provinces would take the tax mandated from Rome, adding to it the amounts they desired in order to live a luxurious life, and they would increase the percentage of taxes to be collected to satisfy their overly generous portion before passing to Rome the amount Rome required. The governors hired tax collectors who were referred to as publicans because they were selected from among the people who were oppressed. These publicans were allowed to raise the tax percentage collected however much they wanted and take their cut of the enormous and oppressive tax pie. Needless to say, these publicans were very wealthy and very much hated.
Levi was a tax collector who, like the others, had heard about Jesus and the Kingdom that Jesus was revealing through His words and actions. Levi didn’t go to the synagogue and hear Jesus there on the Sabbath, nor did Levi attend the meeting in the home that Jesus had just left. Levi would have not been welcomed by the people in the synagogue nor the home because of his occupation as a tax collector. He was welcomed by Jesus though, so Jesus went to where Levi worked. That's right—Jesus went to Levi’s place of unjust business practices, but He did not go there to condemn Levi, debate with him, or ridicule him. Instead, Jesus went there to befriend Levi the tax collector, the one who the religionists of Jesus’ day considered worse than a sinner. Jesus went to befriend Levi, the publican, the Jew who collected unjust taxes for the Roman authorities. Jesus went to Levi to offer Him the grace of the Kingdom.
The Jewish people classified tax collectors with murderers and robbers. Jesus wanted to befriend this man that was wealthy, but despised by all but those in the same profession; He went beyond the walls of a religious institution and the confines of a service to go to the tax booth. Along the way He taught the crowds who followed Him more about His Kingdom, which was already established in Him.
Notice what Jesus does not do when He arrives at the tax booth: He does not tell Levi that He needs to be “saved." He does not invite Levi to a service, program, or event at the synagogue or at a home where Levi would not be welcomed. He does not have Levi repeat the "sinner's prayer" or any prayer after Him. When Jesus arrives at Levi’s workplace, all that He says is “follow me.”
Now let’s inspect this a little bit further, so that we get a full meaning of what is happening and what Jesus is doing. Levi’s tax booth is located at the Sea of Galilee so that taxes could be imposed on all of the fish that the fishermen were catching for their livelihood (a large tax on small businesses). Jesus, just days earlier, had called four fishermen at the same location to follow Him, and He would make them become “fishers of men” (Mark 1:16-20). Now Jesus takes these four fishermen—Simon, Andrew, James and John—back to the same booth where they paid exorbitant taxes throughout their careers, and He shows them that He not only came to befriend the fishermen, but He also came to befriend the tax collector. What a display of the grace of the Kingdom! Jesus was teaching these new followers, along with current-day followers, about His Kingdom. It was a lesson revealing the grace of the Kingdom.
For these first followers to answer the call of Jesus and follow Him, it would mean leaving their professions and livelihoods. It was a tough decision to make on very little information. They did not have the information we have today concerning Jesus that is documented in the gospels and anointed by the Holy Spirit. The fishermen Jesus had called earlier had an easier decision than Levi had to make that day. If things did not work out with Jesus, the fishermen could always go back to fishing—not so with Levi. If Levi left his very lucrative government profession, he could never go back and be rehired.
Levi counted the cost that day and he made the right choice. Levi, like the fishermen earlier, decided to give up everything to follow Jesus. For Levi, there would be no turning back. Levi, also named Matthew, would later write the Gospel of Matthew as another Holy Spirit-inspired writing of the life and teachings of Jesus that reveals to us His Kingdom.
Beloved, today, as in Jesus’ day, He is still calling people to follow Him, but we must choose to follow. God will never make the choice for us. He loves us so much that He desires to spend eternity with us, but He will not choose if we follow Jesus or not. If He did, He would override our human will and in doing so, would not be a just God. Because God is just, He calls us and allows us to choose if we will follow Jesus, making Him our Lord and our Savior.
Follow Jesus today and receive His grace. He will take you on a wonderful journey from earth to glory and many people will be touched along the way as you reveal His kingdom to them through your words and actions. You will befriend people along the way that you never imagined as you see them through the eyes of Jesus instead of through the eyes of society. Many will sense His grace through you and desire to be a citizen of the Kingdom. That is how His Kingdom grows. We are given opportunity to not only participate in His Kingdom now, but also to help it grow. What a wonderful opportunity, and it's all by grace. Do not pass it up.

Know that you are loved,
gaj

Excerpted from the book, The Kingdom According to Jesus by Gregory A. Johnson. Copyright © 2012 by Gregory A. Johnson. All rights reserved.

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