Thursday, April 15, 2010

Inside the Mind of a Tax Man

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those
who did not seek me. Isaiah 65:1

Jesus saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and he said to him,
“Follow me.” Mark 2:14

Somebody at the headquarters for the Moravian Daily Texts must have a sense of humor. To include a verse about a tax collector on April 15th? I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.

In light of it being Tax Day in the United States, in light of the fact that a lot of people are grumpy because they stayed up late last night filling out absurd piles of forms or because they have to write and mail a big ol’ check to the United States Treasury, maybe today is the perfect day to consider Jesus’ interaction with Levi.

You surely understand that Levi was not a popular guy.

If you think that the way we go about collecting and using taxes in our land is in any way inequitable, imagine this. The tax dollars confiscated from the residents of Judea did not go to fund public schools or immunization programs or fire departments or national parks or Social Security or any myriad of services that bring obvious benefits to citizens. No, their tax dollars were used for the privilege of being occupied by a foreign army carrying out the will of a foreign emperor. (To be fair, the Romans were good at building roads and aqueducts, and, of course, there’s the Pax Romana to be considered—but that “peace” was achieved through the perpetuation of violence and fear. So there’s that.)

The method employed by the Roman Empire to rake in those tax dollars was to hire entrepreneurial gangsters who worked strictly on the basis of commission. The emperor could set the tax level at any percentage he felt like, and the tax collectors could add as many “fees” as they wanted to on top of what had to be handed over to Caesar. A man who earned a living by collecting taxes had to have been a thug. A greedy, no good, self-serving bully.

Or maybe just someone desperate to make a living in a tough economic climate.

Did Levi like his line of work? Was he content to shake down his neighbors and pocket a profit, or did he have qualms about it? Did he live the high life, or did he have trouble sleeping at night? Was he proud of his own industriousness, or was he ashamed? Was he looking for a way out? Did he conscientiously even realize he might be looking for a way out?

Did Jesus rescue Levi when he said, “Follow me?” Did Jesus change Levi because Levi was ripe to be changed? Did Jesus select Levi to be a follower to prove to the watching world that if Levi could become a new person, anyone who chose to follow Christ could do the same?

Ah, Tax Day. Who knew there could be so many questions beyond what’s on Form 1040?


  1. I thought the same thing when I saw it was a verse about tax collectors. I guess we can be thankful they didn't do a Jesus resurection from the tomb on Groundhog Day.

  2. Even though Easter moves all over the calendar, it always falls AFTER Groundhog Day. The two occasions will never overlap. Good thing, huh?

  3. Good questions about Levi. I never really thought about that. Jesus sure did pick unlikely people to follow him, and I'm sure He did it for a reason.