Today we see a familiar image in the Gospel: the tax collector. I don't think many among us are really eager to pay taxes. We might find collecting taxes oppressive. Maybe we think our taxes go to the wrong things. But we have to go a little further with today’s Gospel. You have think about a mix from the government and organized crime. Imagine if the IRS not only collected taxes, but came to your house a beat you up. They would use every technique to get what they want: beat up, steal, make threats and so on. If you would say And you say, “But I already paid my taxes.” They tell you it doesn’t matter. They wanted the taxes and your going to pay it, if you like it or not.
If the IRS would go that far they would even be more disliked then they now already are. They would be seen as licensed crooks. They would be even more be hated and despised then they already are in the eyes of some people. They would be feared and be avoided. But this is very lose to the way tax gathering was done in the time of Christ. The Romans wanted their taxed when they wanted it. And I know that Governments can be bad and even corrupted. But the Romans where much more worse then that. At that time, there were two kinds of tax collectors, the Gabbai and the Mokhes. The Gabbai were general tax collectors. They collected property tax, income tax and the poll tax. They had a poll tax which everybody had to pay whether they worked or not. It was a tax just for being in the Roman empire. The ground tax consisted of one-tenth of all grain grown, and one-fifth of all oil and wine. You could pay this with the grain, oil and wine, or with money. Then there was the income tax, which was one percent. These taxes were set by official assessments, and so there was no much room for the Gabbai tax collectors to take more than what was due them.
The Mokhes, however, collected a duty on imports and exports. They would set up toll booths and could tax almost anybody for anything that moved along the road. It was worse if you had a cart. You had to pay extra for every wheel on the cart. And if the cart was being pulled by animals, that was extra also. The tax collector could tell tax whatever he wanted. And in all of this, there was little governmental control. Only the tax collectors and the government knew what the tax rate was, so the tax collectors could basically charge the people anything they wanted.And on top of this, there were two kinds of Mokhes – the Great Mokhes and the Little Mokhes. A Great Mokhes stayed behind the scenes and hired others – the Little Mokhes – to collect the taxes for him. Zaccheus, was probably a Great Mokhes because Luke 19:2 calls him a chief tax collector. And these Great Mokhes were hated by the Jewish people. But it was the Little Mokhes who were despised the most. They interacted with the people. He was the one people saw and interacted with people. He was the one who set up random toll booths on roads and and charged people anything he wanted. In any culture, such tax gatherers would be despised and hated. But they were hated and despised even more so in Israel. Why?
Because these tax gatherers were considered to be traitors. The Roman government always had a difficult time collecting taxes from the Jewish people, because many of the Jews had no qualms whatsoever about killing a Gentile who wanted to take their money to support the pagan Roman government. All of this brings us to our text today where we encounter a man named Levi. He was a Jewish man who collected taxes for the government using Mafia techniques. Not the kind of guy you want to have around. But Jesus is never held back by an image from someone. He always loves those that are outcast and looked down upon by society. Jesus is out in the town, and he sees a tax collector named Levi. This Levi is most often called Matthew in the Gospels. As Jesus is walking through town, he sees Levi sitting there, at his tax collecting booth, with his body guards on either side of him, and He said to him, “Follow Me.”
But as Levi sat there with his booth, he heard Jesus preach. Tax collectors were not allowed to come into the synagogue to hear the Word of God. Levi was able to hear truths from Jesus that he had never heard before. All his he had been told God would never forgive him. But Jesus taught the exact opposite. Levi kept showing up and it is very likely that Levi’s presence bothered Jesus at all. But it did bothered the crowds. They didn’t like tax collectors. Jesus did not want to ask Levi to stop coming. Instead he asked Levi to become one of his disciples! Wow! Gods ways are incomprehensible. There are people who think they have made too many mistakes to have Jesus notice them, or care about them. But Jesus doesn’t care that someone is a sinner. He just wants everyone to be close to him.
We need to associate with Jesus. And more important, let’s make sure that we associate with the people that Jesus would associate with. He loved to spend time with people that society and “religious” people rejected. Ask yourself, “Who is am I, or my Church rejecting and how can you show Christ’s love to them?” We also should not wait until people come to Church. We need to be a Church without walls and go to the people in need. That is what Jesus did. If we are Christ’s followers, we will do the same thing. Christ is teaching us how to be fishers of men. But in order to become fishers of men we have to follow him all the way. Let us pray that we become such tools in the hands of the Lord. Amen.
Today is all about choices. We are faced with all kinds of choices every day. Some are not that important but others are. Some of the choices we make affect the rest of our lives. These things can have a critical impact on the direction of our lives. A famous philosopher once said: "We are our choices." Today’s Old Testament reading is also all about choices in life. It is about the roads in life we take and the ones that God wants us to take. The people of Israel had just spent 40 years as nomads in the desert. An entire generation had passed away and now Moses is confronted with a new generation. They were preparing to enter the promised land of Canaan. They had left behind the slavery of Egypt and they were looking forward to a new land, that God had promised them. In their long journey in the wilderness, several important events had occurred. In the wilderness, they were reminded that they were God's covenant people, reminded that God had chosen them by His grace. At that time, the next major step in Israel’s faith journey was their entry into the promised land. The entire book of Deuteronomy is focused on this one special event.
Moses gave a last sermon to the people, which was his farewell speech. He told them:
Today, I’m giving you a choice – a choice between good and evil, between life and death, between blessing and cursing. God is my witness. I say to you: Choose life. Choose life. Love the Lord your God with heart and mind and soul and strength. Serve him. Obey him. Keep his laws. Be faithful to Him and it will go well for you in the promised land. Disobey Him and trouble will not be far away. Before they took possession of that new land – the land which God Himself had promised, the Lord renewed his covenant with them. And he used Moses to do it. God reminded the people of Israel about His deeds on their behalf.
So what’s at stake with the choices Moses talks about? The answer is simple. What's at stake? Everything. Moses didn’t want the people of Israel to turn back to Egypt – either in a literal sense or in a spiritual sense. Egypt represented captivity. Egypt represented bondage and slavery.
Moses didn’t want the people of Israel, when they moved into that new land, to become spiritual slaves just as they had been physical slaves in Egypt. Moses knew very well that, in that promised land, Israel would face many temptations. Many powerful forces would try to separate them from their Heavenly Father. And it is the same for us. We have a choice: slavery or freedom. The Gospel reading is about death and life. It should be understand both in a physical and spiritual way. It is also about choices. It starts with Jesus foretelling what is going to happen to him. Intense physical suffering, mental suffering through total rejection by the leaders of his own people, and a brutal execution. But all will lead to resurrection and a new life that can never be taken away. Jesus goes on to say that anyone who wants to be one of his followers must be prepared to walk the same path, carrying their cross after Jesus. Perhaps we should emphasize that we are to carry our cross which will be different from the cross of Jesus and from that of other people. And Luke adds that it is something we must be prepared to do every day.
Of course, it is a call which goes against many of our normal instincts. Renouncing self goes against our desire to advance ourselves in the eyes of others. Who does not want to preserve their life? Self-preservation is a deep instinct. But self-preservation is not the same as self-advancement. Jesus is saying that a life spent focused only on ourselves and our self-advancement is ultimately a recipe for self-destruction. We are bound to be disappointed. God offers life, abundant life, to a broken world. All of us have choices to make in life. May God help us to make the right choice over and over again in line what he wants. May we always “choose life” in and through Jesus Christ. And may we always be eager to share that life with the people around us. Amen.
The only way to live is, like Jesus, to offer our lives for the benefit of others in love, in caring, in solidarity, in compassion, in justice. This is the only way truly to find ourselves and to come out winners. What is the good of winning the whole world – becoming incredibly rich and famous – and to lose one’s integrity, one’s self-respect, one’s dignity as a person, one’s happiness?
Our world has many statues of people who gave their lives for others, for causes greater than themselves. And first among them is Jesus, dying in apparent failure on the cross. But we know that cross is a victorious symbol of the greatest love ever shown. We need to live like Jesus lived and take up our cross for the sake of others. Amen.
Today, as we start the season of Lent, we will be marked by ashes and told, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The time of Lent is season of reflection on our own experiences with dust and ashes. We can find new meaning in it again and again. Sometimes we get stuck in life, in our job, in our relationships with family or friends or in our spiritual life. We keep on digging in the dust. When have you found yourself stuck, digging and then find yourself in a big hole. When have we been consumed by anger, regret and grief? When have you desperately tried to fix a situation through your own effort? How many times were we the cause of division and grieve of others? All of that is a part of the dust. It bears no life in it.
Slowly, I began to realize that my frantic activity, desperation and frustration were getting me nowhere. At one point it will dawn on us that we need to increase our prayer life and seek union with God. We need to forgive and let go of all the anger and anxiety. When we pray intimately we are able to experience peace and tranquility. It is then that we realize that we should have get rid of the baggage way before. Sometimes when we are struggling in the dust, God gives us what we need right in that place. As we look back, we can see that God meets us where we are and changes right there. God in Jesus has entered into all the dust, the dirt, the struggle and sorrow of our lives and meets us there. Jesus meets us in the dust and reminds us who we are. He reminds us that we are but dust and that we are dependent on God. Without we are nothing.
If we trust in ourselves we are left to our own strength we will fail at one point. We will find ourselves stuck in sin and shame. All human efforts and activity will lead us deeper into the dust. We are dust…. But God makes beautiful things out of dust. Let’s not forget that he created us out of the dust. In the beginning, God formed us all from dust of the earth and breathed into us the breath of life. And God keeps on breathing his life in us. Each moment, life is given to us from a Divine origin, we don’t have to do anything for it. And at the final breath, God takes us up in his eternity. God makes beautiful things out of dust. He breathes his Holy Spirit in it and makes it to come alive. The word for spirit in Greek and Hebrew is the same as the word for breath. God’s spirit is as close as our breath. We have it available every moment of our life. We only have to accept that free gift from God.
We have the intention to refuse the breath of Gods spirit and instead breathing in toxic air full of anger, gossip, anxiety, despair, judgement, aggression, division, pride and shame. We get filled up with things that leave us depleted and makes us long for fresh air. No matter how toxic the air is that we breathe, God always seeks to cleanse us from all of that. He breathes into us the Holy Spirit, as an individual but also as a community. The Season of Lent allows us to intentionally seek that cleansing and renewal. We can do that through practices of confession (repentance), fasting, prayer and almsgiving. The Lenten practices are meant to step away from our self focused attitude and open us up for the life-giving Spirit of God. They’re intended to draw us more fully into God. We are called to loose the bonds of injustice and setting the oppressed free.
In Lent, God works on our renewal in the Spirit. We are set free from focusing on our self, so that we might serve others. In Lent, God works to make us who are just dust a blessing to the world. Remember that you are dust but also that God makes beautiful things out of dust. Let’s us pray that we make room for God in the Season of Lent so he can breathe in us his spirit so we will be a blessing to the world. Amen.