FROM TAX MAN TO SAINT – Part 1

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. [Matthew 9:9 (NLT)]

St. MatthewAlthough Mark and Luke call him Levi, there is no doubt that Levi and Matthew are the same man. He may have had two names, as did John Mark or was known by two different names as were Peter (Simon), Thomas (Didymus), Jude (Thaddeus), and Nathanael (Bartholomew). It simply may be that, like the Apostle Paul (Saul), he was known both by his Greek name of Matthew as well as his Hebrew one of Levi.

When considering how Jesus can change a life, I think of Matthew as the poster boy for rebirth and change! It’s in Capernaum that we first meet the man who would become the writer of the gospel bearing his name. Sitting in his tax booth, he is known as Levi the tax collector. In 1st century Judah, tax collectors (called publicans) were the lowest of the low and fiercely hated by their countrymen. Acting as revenue agents for Rome, Jewish tax collectors were considered collaborators. Since they could demand more than what was required, they also were thought of as thieves! Some even accepted bribes from rich businessmen to overtax their competitors and drive them out of business. Their decisions were backed up by Roman soldiers and the people were at their mercy.

Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BC-50 AD) vividly described why Jews hated their countrymen who became publicans. Philo explained that the Romans “deliberately choose as tax collectors men who are absolutely ruthless and savage, and give them the means of satisfying their greed. These people…leave undone no cruelty of any kind and recognize no equity or gentleness…as they collect the taxes they spread confusion and chaos everywhere. They exact money not only from people’s property but also from their bodies by means of personal injuries, assault and completely unheard of forms of torture.”

Even though the Torah prohibited borrowing, lending, or being a party to a transaction that involved charging another Jew interest, a favorite device of the tax-collectors was to advance money to people unable to pay their tax and charge exorbitant interest. The publican became a loan shark and the tax became a private debt to him, which may explain Philo’s mention of the injuries they inflicted.

While none of us like the internal revenue, put in the context of 1st century Judah, we can understand why publicans were despised in Jesus’ day. The Babylonian Talmud ranked them alongside “murderers and robbers.” Tax collectors weren’t allowed to exchange their money at the Temple treasury and were excommunicated from the synagogues. The rabbis taught that tax collectors were disqualified witnesses in court, society outcasts, and disgraces to their own family. They even considered it lawful for a Jew to lie in almost any conceivable way to avoid paying the tax collector! It’s no wonder that the religious leaders were outraged by Jesus’ association with publicans.

Nevertheless, in spite of (or because of) Matthew’s unsavory reputation and unpopularity, Jesus called the publican to follow Him and that’s exactly what the tax man did! This was such a scandal that the 2nd-century anti-Christian philosopher Celsus actually used the fact that Jesus had “scum” like Matthew among his disciples as evidence against His divinity.

We don’t know if Matthew was as evil as some tax collectors; at the same time, we can’t reconcile his choice of career with being upstanding and righteous before meeting Jesus! While we’d love to know why he so readily deserted his tax booth, we don’t. We do know that by abandoning his business to follow Jesus, Matthew gave up wealth, job security, and his few friends and co-workers. The disciples who’d been fishermen could always return to fishing if following Jesus didn’t work out for them but Matthew had no Plan B. If he returned to Capernaum, he would be jobless and penniless. Already a pariah in the community, the publican couldn’t expect a warm welcome home from the people he once exploited! When Matthew recorded Jesus’ words about releasing our grasp on earthly things, losing our old lives, and picking up the cross, he knew exactly what our Lord meant by those words.

Jesus says, “Follow me!” to everyone. Are we as willing as Matthew to do just that?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” [Matthew 16:24-25 (NLT)]

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GIVING WHAT IS DUE – TAX DAY

“This is how a king will reign over you,” Samuel said.… “He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest and distribute it among his officers and attendants. He will take your male and female slaves and demand the finest of your cattle and donkeys for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you will be his slaves. When that day comes, you will beg for relief from this king you are demanding, but then the Lord will not help you.” [1 Samuel 8: 11,14-18 (NLT)]

cardinalWhen the people of Israel demanded a king, Samuel cautioned them about the price they would pay. In spite of his warnings, they wanted a king and got the taxation that came with the government they wanted. Even without a king, government continues to reach its hand into our pockets and today is the deadline for filing our 2021 income taxes! We actually got three extra days this year because Emancipation Day, a public holiday in the District of Columbia, fell on the 15th. Security, protection, administration, infrastructure, and a legal system all come at a cost and taxes are the price we pay for the government we have chosen.

Although Ben Franklin said that nothing is certain except for death and taxes, some people actually do a pretty good job of dodging taxes. There is a fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion and, as Christians, we must be careful not to cross it. Legally minimizing our taxes by taking all allowed deductions is fine. Hiding income, embellishing deductions, or outright deceit are not. We are called to be ethical and honest and that means no “creative accounting”! People who’d never pinch sneakers from Walmart, embezzle from their employer, or stick-up a 7-Eleven, often think nothing of stealing from the government (and their fellow citizens). Not paying our taxes is no less wrong than shop lifting, misappropriating funds, or armed robbery! A white lie is still a lie, petty theft is still theft and, no matter what we call it, a sin is still a sin.

We may not like the government or agree with the way they spend our money; nevertheless, because we are citizens of this nation, we’re obliged to pay for the services and benefits we receive. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, He responded that we must give to the government that which belongs to it. While rendering unto Washington, let’s not forget that there was more to Jesus’ answer. We may be citizens of this nation but we also are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. As citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are to give to God that which belongs to Him—our lives, allegiance, and obedience.

Like the IRS, the rabbis of old established an elaborate system of tithing. The Levites received the first tithe—a tenth of all agricultural products (with each crop counted separately). In turn, the Levites gave a tenth of what they received to the priests. Rather than tithing goods, people could tithe with a product’s cash equivalent plus a 20% penalty. This, however, was not allowed with livestock which were counted singly with every tenth one becoming part of the tithe. The second tithe, taken from what remained after the first one, was to be taken to Jerusalem to be consumed there during festivals. The third tithe, taken after the first two, was to be given to the poor. While no tithes were taken in the seventh year, the first two tithes were taken in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years and the first and third tithes were taken in the third and sixth years. Depending on the year, the total tithe ran anywhere from 19 to 27%!

We don’t have an elaborate tithing requirement in the Christian church but that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to render unto God His share. What we render unto God, however, isn’t a matter determined by the calculator; it’s a matter determined by our hearts. Moreover, it’s not just our material things that should be given to the Lord. Even if we’re penniless, we still have our time, talents, love, thanks, praise, worship, and testimony. If we wonder what or how much to give, all we have to do is ask Him. Whatever He lays on our hearts is what it should be—nothing more and nothing less. But, since we are to render unto God that which is His, let us remember that it all belongs to Him!

“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” [Matthew 22:21 (NLT)]

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TAKING INVENTORY

Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. [Philippians 4:11-13 (MSG)]

plumariaBefore going grocery shopping, smart shoppers take an inventory of their cupboards to see what is missing. That’s fine when going to market, but it’s not a wise policy when we assess our lives. It’s far too easy to spend time thinking about what we don’t have instead of being thankful for what we actually do possess.

When a friend took me on a tour of her magnificent new home, she kept mentioning the furniture she’d ordered months ago that hadn’t arrived, the incomplete landscaping, the bare walls waiting for pictures, and other finishing touches that still needed to be done. I sympathize since there’s an empty corner in our den waiting for the chair we ordered a year ago and the landscaper still has not laid the promised mulch. Nevertheless, I was struck by how little she was enjoying what, for most of us, would be our dream home. Where was the enthusiasm, joy, and appreciation one would expect her to have? She seemed oblivious to the fantastic view, fine craftsmanship, and all of the beautiful new things that already surrounded her. In the midst of a home worthy of a spread in House Beautiful, she only saw what was lacking.

But then, are any of us that much different? It is incredibly easy to focus on what is missing – be it money, phone calls from the kids, granite countertops, compliments from the spouse, the latest iPhone or Apple watch, premium channels on TV, a grandchild, or one of those Instant Pots does just about everything but wash the dishes! It seems we always want something more, new, different, bigger, or better. Beware, hiding behind that spirit of discontent lurks Satan. Instead of focusing on God’s provision with appreciative hearts, the enemy wants us to focus on our deficiencies.

Satan started that ploy with Eve and continues with it today. She and Adam lived in a perfect world where they could enjoy everything but the fruit of one tree. Did Satan have her look at all she had? No! He had her look at the one thing she didn’t possess so that, rather than appreciation and thanksgiving, her heart was filled with discontent. We continue down the slippery slope of discontent whenever we focus on what we don’t have instead of seeing what we do. Today, instead of an inventory of what we’re missing, how about taking an inventory of our many blessings? Thanksgiving shouldn’t be limited to one day in November; it should be every day!

Thank you, God, for your abundant provision in our lives. Open our eyes to see your blessings and give us grateful hearts for them. Whether we live in abundance or need, may we always remember that you alone are the true source of joy and contentment in our lives.

All our discontents about what we want appear to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have. [Daniel Defoe]

Satan wants us to constantly focus on everything that is wrong with us and look at how far we still have to go. But God desires for us to rejoice in how far we have already come. [Joyce Meyer]

You can be sure that God will take care of everything you need, his generosity exceeding even yours in the glory that pours from Jesus. Our God and Father abounds in glory that just pours out into eternity. Yes. [Philippians 4:19 (MSG)]

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SEEK YE FIRST

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs. But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval.” [John 6:26-27 (NLT)]

blue jay

It’s been said that whenever Alfred Hitchcock was asked by an actor about his character’s motivation, the famed film director’s answer was, “Your salary!” While that probably was the actor’s motivation for being in the film, what he wanted to know was the character’s motivation for his behavior. There is a reason behind all of our actions, both on and off the stage. As Christians, what’s our motivation for seeking the Kingdom of God? Is it a payoff like an actor’s salary or is it something else?

As evident from yesterday’s devotion, I’m not a proponent of prosperity theology; the Holy Spirit does not exist for our benefit and use. God’s goal is our salvation not our material wealth, physical health, or even our happiness. We can believe in Jesus, receive the Holy Spirit and faithfully act on God’s promises and still be poor as church mice or as rich as David Green of Hobby Lobby fame. Most of us, however, fall somewhere in between those extremes (and probably closer to the church mouse than the billionaire). Our wealth (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with the size of our faith in God, the amount of our tithe, or the number of good works we do. After all, if wealth was God’s plan for us, Jesus would have been a rich man. Possessions and comfort, however, meant nothing to him. It’s wise to remember that the only disciple who seemed to care about money was Judas. God is not a heavenly vending machine where we drop in a prayer, financial offering, or an act of service and out comes a blessing.

If amassing blessings and getting something from God is our motivation for seeking Him, many of us will be sorely disappointed. If the size of our faith determines the size of our investment portfolio or 401(k), one look around tells me that God needs a new accountant. A great many devout and generous believers I know have skimpy bank balances and an abundance of trials while a great many sinners seem to be enjoying wealth and a trouble-free existence. As for health—the Apostle Paul certainly wasn’t short on faith or obedience and yet the “thorn” in His flesh was not removed. Today, we can look to someone like Christian author and evangelist Joni Eareckson Tada and see that her decades of deep faith, evangelism, and service have not been rewarded with a healed body. Not everyone in Judah received miraculous healing from the Lord and we have no reason to believe that those who were healed were any more righteous or deserving than those who weren’t.

Ours is a God of grace, not of works, and thinking of our faith, prayers, service, and tithes as something that earns us a reward on this side of the grass turns our relationship into a business transaction which brings me back to my initial question. What is our motivation for seeking the Kingdom of God? Is it that we love God or love the reward we hope to get? Do we want to honor and glorify God or be honored and blessed by Him? Are we seeking some sort of salary or recompense for faith and works from a God who will serve us or are we seeking His Kingdom because we want to serve Him? God sees into our hearts—He knows our motivation for all that we do.

In God’s Kingdom, the devout may not get everything they want but they will get everything they need. And what is it that we all need most? A relationship with God! Seeking God’s Kingdom also means that salvation, forgiveness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will be ours! That’s motivation enough for me! We seek the Kingdom of God to know Him, to love Him and to have a relationship with Him—anything else is merely frosting on the cake.

So don’t worry about these things, saying, “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:31-33 (NLT)]

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IS THE LORD MY BANKER?

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” The Pharisees, who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him. [Luke 16:13-14 (NLT)]

The Lord is my banker; my credit is good.
He maketh me to lie down in the consciousness of omnipresent abundance;
He giveth me the key to His strongbox.
He restoreth my faith in His riches;
He guideth me in the paths of prosperity for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk in the very shadow of debt,
I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me;
Thy silver and Thy gold, they secure me.
Thou preparest a way for me in the presence of the collector;
Thou fillest my wallet with plenty; my measure runneth over.
Surely goodness and plenty will follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall do business in the name of the Lord forever.
[Charles Fillmore]

plumariaWhen I came across this revised version of the 23rd Psalm, I was sure it was written by a cynic as a way of mocking God, Christianity, and many of today’s popular evangelists. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it was written in all seriousness by Charles Fillmore, the founder of Unity, a church within the New Thought movement. The “revised” psalm was published in Fillmore’s book Prosperity in 1938. Although we may associate the beginnings of prosperity or “health and wealth” theology with televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Bakker in the 1970s, the movement began in the late 19th century. Sadly, in one form or another, it still is preached today.

Fillmore promised that, “The spiritual substance from which comes all visible wealth is never depleted. It is right with you all the time and responds to your faith in it and your demands on it.” Seeing God as the ticket to perfect heath and financial wealth, rather than focusing on eternity, this version of the gospel reduces it to a way people can experience the “best” things of life today. With the belief God blesses his followers with material wealth and health, people’s faith is measured by the thickness of their wallets and the fitness of their bodies.

Like many of today’s “name it and claim it” preachers, Fillmore taught that, “It is necessary to give freely if we are to receive freely. The law of receiving includes giving. The knowledge that substance is omnipresent and that people cannot, therefore, impoverish themselves by giving (but rather will increase their supply) will enable us to give freely and cheerfully.” A promise that God will reward hefty tithing with financial blessings turns Him into a sort of heavenly slot machine promising a huge payout if we just keep putting in money! Sadly, Satan seems to have an endless supply of charismatic leaders who continue to sugar-coat the gospel, whose eloquent sermons make false promises, and whose extravagant life-styles undermine the gospel.

Let us not forget that Jesus was born poor. His parents couldn’t even afford the requisite sheep at Mary’s purification so they offered a bird in its place. Joseph was a carpenter by trade and Nazareth was an obscure little town that didn’t even merit mention in the Hebrew Scriptures. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He rode on a borrowed donkey and, when He was buried, it was in another man’s tomb! When Jesus spoke of monetary wealth, it was usually in a cautionary tale. He didn’t tolerate the money changers of His day turning the Temple into a marketplace in the 1st century and I don’t think He’s any happier about it now!

In the Temple area he saw merchants selling cattle, sheep, and doves for sacrifices; he also saw dealers at tables exchanging foreign money. Jesus made a whip from some ropes and chased them all out of the Temple. He drove out the sheep and cattle, scattered the money changers’ coins over the floor, and turned over their tables. Then, going over to the people who sold doves, he told them, “Get these things out of here. Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!” [John 2:14-16 (NLT)]

He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!” [Mark 21:13 (NLT)]

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ANSWERED PRAYERS

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. [1 John 5:14-15 (NLT)]

May he grant your heart’s desires and make all your plans succeed. [Psalm 20:4 (NLT)]

santaWhat do you hope to find tucked into your Christmas stocking or deposited under the tree Christmas morning? From the above words, it’s easy to think God is promising something like Christmas morning every day. Although He promises to hear and answer our prayers, let’s remember that He’s not so specific as to how He’ll answer them.

Remember the story of King Midas? As a reward for the King’s kindness, Dionysus offered Midas anything he wanted. Coveting wealth, Midas wanted everything he touched to be changed into gold. Although he was warned to think seriously about such a wish, the king insisted. How thrilled he was when the twigs and stones he handled became precious metal. Midas’ joy at his gift began to fade, however, when he discovered that gold roses have no aroma and food became metal before it could be eaten. After a simple touch turned his daughter into a golden statue, the king detested the gift he’d so desired. Taking pity on him, Dionysus told the king to wash in the river Pactolus to lose his golden touch and make things right again.

While the Midas story has pagan beginnings, there is much a Christian can learn from this ancient myth, the first of which is not to love material possessions. When we pray, we shouldn’t act like children looking through Amazon’s “Ready, Set, Play” holiday toy catalog or grown-ups browsing through the Neiman Marcus 200-page Christmas Book and marking the pages with our holiday fantasies. Prayer is not like writing a wish list to Santa for all the gifts we desire and God’s promises are never an excuse for greed or selfishness.

Unlike a mythical Greek deity, God will not give us anything that could harm us. While we’re not likely to ask for a snake or scorpion, we have been known to ask for other things that could bring us harm—the extra money, new job, sexy guy at work, vacation in Vegas, or that big house with an even bigger mortgage. Just like King Midas, our limited (and selfish) perspective cannot possibly see all of the ramifications of our prayer requests. We ask for things without understanding how they may affect our life or the lives of others. We may know what we want but God, in his infinite wisdom, knows what will happen if we get it. If God had given me everything for which I prayed, it would have taken way more than a bath in the river Pactolus to clean up the resulting mess and set things right again. It’s been said that God’s answers are far wiser than our prayers and, indeed, they are. With love and wisdom, in His own time and way, God will always answer our prayers. Let’s give thanks that “Yes” is not always His answer to our requests.

The devil doesn’t come in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for. [Anonymous]

You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. [Luke 11:11-13 (NLT)]

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