By some cruel twist of fate, my family had to pay the IRS this year. It’s not yet been explained to me in a way I find satisfactory. Even so, it’s nice that the IRS isn’t an evil oligarchy running the show and illegally making money off the poor in order to oppress them further. From what I’ve read, that was the case in the Roman Empire a couple millennia ago. Tax collectors took not only the requisite income tax but also outrageously more in illegal funds to keep for themselves. Worse, they were abusing their own people: the brutal Romans hired them as Jews to steal from the Jews. The profession, of course, attracted the greediest, most dishonest thieves alive. They were so sinful that Jesus lumped them together with pagans (Matthew 18:17).
So it’s odd that in Luke 5:27, Jesus stops at one of these booths and asks the guy inside to be a disciple, in Jesus’s most intimate circle of friends. I think this would be kind of like Jesus stopping into a title loan shop and inviting the manager to become a disciple.
But not only did Jesus choose that kind of person, he also gave the invitation while the sinner was in the middle of sinning. Matthew’s at work, stealing from everyone, generally being abusive and awful, when Jesus says, “Wanna get away?”
Jesus saw this terrible man not as he was but as he would become. Jesus knew the strength and goodness seeded in Matthew’s heart. It caused Jesus to push past the sin in the guy’s story to get to the real man underneath.
And look what it does to Matthew: the immediately following verse tells us he threw a huge party at his house (Luke 5:29). He went from being swallowed up by greed, hatred, and abuse to utter generosity. He was willing to pay to feed everyone so they’d come over and meet Jesus too. That’s what Jesus can do: when he calls you away from your junk and starts whispering to you about who you really are, it changes you. Whatever ensnared you the most forcefully can be completely reversed. You simply can’t look at both options – the sinful you and the freed you – and want to stay where you are.
There is one thing that can keep people from Christ though, it seems. He says to the religious bigots, “I have come not to call those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent” (Luke 5:32). A person who “thinks he/she is righteous” is pride-full, and that’s what apparently keeps Jesus away. In order to receive the grace of the Messiah, you have to know you need it.
But why choose greed and pride over Jesus? He is kind, protective, loving, and holds all power. He has sustained me with joy in my very darkest moments. He has surrounded me with a community of people who, because they love him, hold me up and cherish me as he does. He has not stopped giving me the desires of my heart since I trusted my life to him. And even if none of those things were true, he is still all we need on this earth. He literally provides everything from food to healing to comfort. There is no one like my Jesus. And even though I started out as selfish and sinful as Matthew, Jesus is fulfilling his promise to accomplish inside of me all he promised to accomplish since the beginning (Psalm 138:8). Since it’s a promise made to everyone, that promise goes for you too.