We often do not realize what a scandal it was to see Jesus dining with tax collectors. Sure, even today, people don’t like being taxed, but the tax collectors that are mentioned in the Gospels are far more than just people who collect taxes for an imperial administration. The imperial authorities “contracted out” taxation to locals who competed for the right to tax their neighbors by outbidding each other, and then pocketed the difference between what they were able to raise in taxes from their community and what they turned in to the authorities. Often, these tax collectors took advantage of those who had no one to defend their rights—such as widows—by extorting even higher taxes from them. It is easy to see why tax collectors were so hated in their communities: most tax collectors were hardly victims of circumstance, but individuals who eagerly sought the right to enrich themselves as traitors to their own people, supported by an imperial mandate. These are the sorts of people who, even today (though no longer as tax collectors, but in other “professions”) enrich themselves, seemingly without scruple, by impoverishing the widows and the orphans of our day, including the elderly whose savings are robbed and who die uncared for and destitute. One might well suggest that a special circle of hell should be reserved for such people, and it may well be so. But, curiously, if Jesus has a preferential option for the poor in the Gospels, it is also true that he has a preferential option for their slime-ball oppressors: the tax-collectors. Why?
This is not a question that we can easily answer. If anything, it may be useful for us to sit perplexed by this in prayer before the Lord, and ask him for the grace to begin to love as he loves, even in this crazy and seemingly unjust way (by human reckoning). And then, if we begin to be open to the crazy love that Jesus has for these very oppressors, we can be struck by the amazing lack of moralism on Jesus’ part. Jesus does not shun these people, reprehensible though they are… and they remain reprehensible to us today, even if Jesus’ affinity for the company of prostitutes no longer shocks us as it may have people in other eras. Are we open to loving these people as Jesus does? To love them as Jesus does is not to condone the sinful actions of these people, but, curiously, it is also not to disassociate oneself from those actions either. Jesus does not avoid them as one who is “holier than thou.” He allows himself to be associated with them, and even to eat at their well-furnished tables, full of choice foods that were, in some sense, robbed from the tables of the poor who stand hungry outside the door. But, Jesus does not dine with them in order for them to remain as they are. These sinners know themselves to be such, something which the more “righteous” Pharisees who work for justice may not realize about themselves (cf. Lk 18:9-14). In the face of criticism, Jesus responds, “those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mt 9:12-13). This can be a hard word for those still shocked by the injustice of it all. But when we recognize our own injustice, we can become more grateful for the mercy that Jesus offers us. And the mercy that Jesus offers Matthew in this Gospel should give us hope: not only does Jesus forgive him and help him to lead a new life, but this same tax collector will not be remembered for the evil he did as a tax collector, but for the great good that he accomplished as a disciple and evangelist, through whose Gospel we receive the very word of God.