Mark: Death and Taxes!

Sermon by Derek Thomas on March 14, 2004

Mark 2:13-17

The Lord’s Day
March 14th, 2004

Mark 2:13-17
Death and Taxes!

Dr. Derek Thomas

Turn with me to the gospel of Mark and chapter two, and we
come this evening to verses 13 through 17. Mark 2, beginning at verse 13.
Let’s pray together.

Once again, O Lord, we ask for Your blessing. We need
the illumination that only the Holy Spirit can provide. Come and write this
word upon our hearts for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Hear the word of God:

“And He went out again by the
seashore; and all the people were coming to Him, and He was teaching them.
As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax
booth, and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And he got up and followed Him. 15And
it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax
collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were
many of them, and they were following Him. 16When the scribes of the
Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said
to His disciples, ‘Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and
sinners?’ 17And hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those
who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to
call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and
inerrant word.

Now, it’s that time of year again. April 15th,
32 days away, which reminds me to say to Rosemary–We haven’t filled in our tax
return yet (laughter). You know what they say, “There are only two certainties
in life: death and taxes.” And what we have here is the tale of the conversion
of a tax collector, a tax collector who becomes a disciple of Jesus–not just a
disciple, but one of the twelve apostles. Let’s come up close and watch and
listen to Jesus, the best evangelist there ever was, as He goes about calling
sinners into His kingdom. The setting is once again the northern shores of the
lake, the Sea of Galilee. Jesus seems to be heading towards the shore, probably
walking along a central highway leading from Syria in the north and eventually
it would run all the way down south and eventually into Egypt perhaps. A large
crowd has gathered and Jesus is teaching them. We noticed the last time we were
in Mark’s gospel how Jesus, you remember, restored the man who was paralyzed.
He was let down from the roof of the house in a stretcher of some kind, and some
began to question what Jesus did and what He said. The same will happen here.
It’ll happen in the next few stories.

I. For whom did Jesus come?

I want us to see, first of all, a question: For
whom did Jesus come? For whom did Jesus come? The answer is in verse 16;
actually it’s repeated several times in the story lest we miss the point. He
comes for tax gatherers and sinners.
Now sinners we can understand, but tax
gatherers–? We need to do some historical research here to help us get the

Think of something really
unpopular as a job, as a vocation: a debt collector, a highway patrol official,
the blue light brigade. We don’t seem to have them here in Jackson, but we
certainly had them in Belfast, the wheel clampers. Now that really does get
under your skin, when you come back to your car and there’s a clamp on your
wheel. Matthew is sitting…Levi, you understand, Matthew…he’s sitting in what’s
called a tax office, a tax collector’s booth. It’s probably along the side of
this highway, running from Syria in the north down to Egypt in the south. Not
dissimilar to the way truck drivers, for example, have to pull in, or at least
they used to, when they cross state lines. I think these days it’s all down by
electronic gizmos of some kind.

Tax collectors, you understand,
worked for the occupying government, Rome. This money would be collected; it
would be sent back to Rome to pay for their wars, the expansion of the Roman
Empire, to pay for expensive infrastructure. This man…he has a Jewish name,
Levi, but he’s regarded by the rest and certainly by the Jews as a
collaborator. He’s working for the enemy. He’s a thief. Giving taxes wasn’t
easy. I suppose it still isn’t. Most embezzled funds. Matthew was a traitor
in the eyes of the people. He was an extortioner. He was a robber, a thief, a
pariah, an outcast. In one of your candlelit suppers that you’d invite some of
your friends to, you wouldn’t invite Matthew. You wouldn’t invite this man. It
would destroy the atmosphere of any party to have Matthew the tax collector
there. He was a social outcast and he probably knew it. He was a publican
working for the Roman government, collecting taxes from Jews in order to give to
Rome. He sort of worked for the oppressor. You were a traitor first-class.
Not only that, but you bought the right to collect taxes. Collecting taxes in
the vast Roman Empire wasn’t easy, so you would buy, like a franchise, I
suppose, the right to collect taxes. The Roman government then would be
guaranteed at least some income from that and the tax collector could ask
whatever he wanted on top of that.

They hated tax collectors. The
Talmud says, “It is righteous to lie and deceive a tax collector.” Now that’s
not the Old Testament, you understand. That’s not the Bible. That’s the
Talmud, like an oral commentary, at least it was oral for a while and then it
was written down, but it was like a commentary on the Old Testament. And
according to this commentary, it was okay to tell lies to tax gatherers. That’s
not my position, you understand. No tax collector was ever permitted to give
evidence in a court of law. He couldn’t be trusted. He couldn’t be a judge.
He couldn’t testify in a court of law. He couldn’t enter a synagogue or a
temple of worship because they were cut off from the people. That’s why in Luke
18 the publican, tax collector, stands afar off beating upon his breast saying,
“Lord, be merciful to me.”

There were two kinds of tax
collectors. The first was called the Gabbai. They were general tax
collectors. They collected property tax, income tax, poll tax–whatever. There
wasn’t much craft involved in collecting those taxes. Then there were the
Mokhes. They collected duties, duties on everything: little duties on where
roads would cross, import taxes, export taxes, items bought, items sold. They
set tolls on roads. They would count the number of legs your donkey had
(laughter). They’d ask how many packages you were carrying, how many letters
you were transporting. You name it; they would tax it. That was Matthew. He
was a Mokhes–taxed everything. Then there were two kinds of Mokhes. There was
what was called a Great Mokhe. He was the man who hired some hireling to do the
tax gathering. He wouldn’t do it himself. He wouldn’t get involved in it. He
would just hire someone to do it. And then there was what was called the Little
Mokhes, the small Mokhes. He was too cheap to hire anybody. He would do the
work himself. That was Matthew. That was Levi, the son of Alphaeus. He was a
man like that.

He’s in the employment of King
Herod Antipas, the brother of Archelaus and Philip. Each of them, the three
brothers, had a third of the kingdom of their late father, Herod the Great. And
Antipas, Herod Antipas, got Galilee, where Jesus is. The border between the
territory of Galilee and his brother Philip was the River Jordan. In other
words, to get the point, the last town that you would pass through going
northwards through Galilee and then into the territory of Philip was Capernaum,
where Jesus is, where Levi is. And he’s collecting taxes, taxes on letters and
packages and the legs of your donkey; and no matter what it is, he was
collecting taxes. And he was despised. He was a pariah. He was an outcast.
He was hated. I suppose Levi was used to people cursing him. I don’t know how
polite you are to people who try to sell you things on the phone. It’s very,
very hard to be polite to those people. In Jewish society of the day, you
couldn’t get lower than Levi’s job. He was the debt collector. He was the man
who calls on the phone and abuses you for not having paid your bills. And Jesus
calls this man, this man, into His band of disciples and apostles. Isn’t
it extraordinary? It’s beautiful. You know, you’d think that Jesus would call
someone mightier than this. And Jesus goes to the lowest social stratum and He
says, ‘I want you. I want you.’ Because it’s not the righteous that He’s come
to call, but sinners and tax gatherers.

II. For what did Jesus come?

For what did Jesus come? He came for sinners,
sinners like you and me, sinners who have nothing to plead, sinners who have
nothing to bring before God and claim as righteous. He comes for those who have
nothing, for those who have just empty hands like Matthew, Levi. But for what
did he come? “Follow Me!” He says to Levi. “‘Follow Me!’ And he arose and
followed Him.”

He came to call
disciples into fellowship with Him
. The choice was entirely that of
Jesus–do you note that? The command was Jesus’. The whole initiative was that
of Jesus. It wasn’t that Jesus began to appeal to this great crowd to get up
and come to the front, and begin to emotionally and psychologically pressure
them, telling them that a decision would follow that was entirely theirs, it was
in their hands, and then at that time Levi made a decision to follow Christ.
No, it wasn’t like that at all. Jesus spoke a word of command: “Follow Me!” He
said. “And Levi rose and followed Him.” You see, Levi wasn’t at the meeting;
Levi was collecting taxes. He was still in his tax collector’s office, booth.
He was making money. He missed the preaching…but Jesus didn’t miss him. Jesus
saw him and went for him and called him. He’s the Good Shepherd. That’s what
He does. He left the flock probably beside the lake, and He came searching for
a lost sheep by the name of Levi in the town of Capernaum. And He found him and
He approached him. And He spoke to him and He said, “Follow Me!” The saving of
Levi was Christ’s from beginning to end.

You know absolute choice is
God’s alone. We don’t have absolute choice. We may want many things, but a
desire is not its own justification. Not everything you desire is worthy of
fulfillment. Life is not some existential supermarket–you can pick up designer
babies and long life and money and happiness as a right. If your wishes are not
being met tonight, you may rage against the world. And if you do, my friend,
you face an appalling future, a very sad future. You are a creature with the
limitations of a creature, and there are inevitable limitations on what anyone
can choose in this life. Absolute choice is God’s alone. Do you know what Paul
says, my friend? Romans 9:21, “Does not the potter have the right to make out
of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common
use?” In the mystery of God’s providence and selection, this is Jesus’ choice
here. This is the Savior’s choice. This is the Good Shepherd seeking those for
whom He had come.

There was one occasion, you
remember, in the Upper Room, and Jesus spoke to His disciples about the
sovereignty of that choice and He spoke almost in monosyllables. “You did not
choose Me, but I chose you,” Jesus said, “and appointed you to bear fruit.”
“You didn’t choose Me; I chose you.” Do you know that hymn? “I sought the Lord
and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me. It was not I
that found O Savior true–no! I was found of Thee.”

Are you conscious of that
tonight, my friend? That Jesus has found you, found you where you are in the
depths of your sin and need and misery and called you to Himself, into
fellowship with Himself, into communion with Himself; called you into a
relationship where your sins are forgiven, where you are justified by faith
alone in Jesus Christ alone? “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus
says. It all looks as if this took place very suddenly, but in all likelihood
Levi had heard of Jesus and perhaps had heard Him preach on another occasion.

III. What did it mean for Levi?
What did it mean for
Levi? Several things…He admits that he’s a sinner. That’s the first
thing. He admits that he’s a sinner. You know, in his gospel, Matthew’s
gospel…this is the same man, Levi. In his gospel, the only reference to Matthew
is in the list of the disciples. And he’s given a nickname, Matthew the tax
. No one else is given a nickname like that according to the job
that he did, unless you think of Judas who betrayed Jesus, if you think that was
his job. But really Matthew is the only disciple who’s given a nickname that
identifies his job. Why is that? Matthew is saying when he writes his gospel,
‘I’m just a sinner. That’s all I am. I was an outcast. I was a pariah. I was
one that my fellow Jews despised. And God called me, and Jesus called me into
union and fellowship and communion with Him.’

Levi came to Jesus as a
sinner with all the weight of the law bearing down upon him. He came to Jesus
just as he was, without one plea but that Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior
and friend. Where are you tonight, my friend, on this Spring Break weekend?
There are only two certain things in this life: taxes, April 15, unless Jesus
comes again before April 15, and death–yes, death, a certainty for every one of
us here. The day has been written in the books of God, our death-day, the day
we die. It’s known to God. The day we escape from this mortal coil. The day
that we’re called into the presence of God to give an account of ourselves. And
what will you say? And what will you plead? No lawyer will defend you then, my
friend. And unless you are believing and trusting in Jesus and Jesus only,
then, my friend, that day will be the worst day of your entire life and
existence. Levi knew himself to be a sinner, and even though his name was to be
changed to Matthew forever afterwards, he would remember the pit from whence he
was drawn. He admits that he’s a sinner. He admits that he’s someone in need.

Secondly, he opened his house to Jesus. There is something like,
well, a conversion party. I’ve never been to a conversion party in my life, but
that’s what it looks like. Not just Levi but there are other tax collectors,
all the pariahs in northern Galilee have come and they’re all following Jesus!
There’s a revival here. There’s an extraordinary work of the outpouring of the
Spirit here, and they’re gathering in Matthew’s house, in Levi’s house. It’s
the coming together of tax gatherers and sinners…and Jesus is there. And Jesus
is there in this man’s house. He’s not ashamed to bring Jesus into his home.

My friends, perhaps there’s a word
of application there: That one of the marks of following Jesus, and one of the
marks of discipleship is that you bring Jesus into your home. And maybe you use
your home as a vehicle and a means for propagating the gospel and inviting other
sinners that they may hear of Jesus. You know that’s an idea that you can do.
Some of you have wonderful homes–God has been so good to you–and you can use
those homes. Invite Ligon and do what’s happening here. Ask him to speak to
about Jesus. In fact, you speak about Jesus. And invite some of your
unconverted friends along, people you work with, people you rub shoulders with,
and do what’s happening here. Levi brings Jesus into his home.

IV. What kind of people does God use?
And then, thirdly and
finally, usefulness. What kind of people does God use? Oh, the scribes
and the Pharisees couldn’t begin to understand. They were offended that Jesus
would be present among sinners and tax gatherers. If you have any understanding
of the gospel at all, you understand why Jesus comes amongst tax gatherers and
sinners. And praise God that He does. What kind of people does God use?
Stained-glass saints? No, my friends, vile and wretched and rotten sinners
He uses
. He uses people like Matthew, Matthew who for the rest of his life
could only regard himself as Matthew the tax collector. That’s all he
was. He was one of the Twelve Apostles, and he calls himself, “Matthew the tax

But, you say, Jesus can’t use them
for much. How about writing one of the gospels of the New Testament? How about
that? How about writing 28 chapters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
that beautiful, beautiful gospel of Matthew? God, you see, is in the
restoration business. He restores the fallen and the disenfranchised and the
despised and the social pariahs…and He uses them. He uses them for His glory.
He uses them to write the New Testament, to write the Bible. Isn’t that an
extraordinary thing and a beautiful thing at the same time?

God may call you, sinner, to be a
missionary. He may call you to join our dear friend from Uganda. He may call
you to be a career missionary. He may call you to be a preacher of the gospel.
He may simply call you to be a Christian in your vocation. I was speaking to a
student the other day…I won’t name him. He was telling me what he was going to
do. And as he was pontificating about what he was going to do, he said, “You
know, God needs me in such and such a place.” I couldn’t help it. It rose up
within me like a fire. I said to him, “God doesn’t need you anywhere, but you
need Him. Wherever it is that you’re going, you need Him.” I think Matthew
always remembered that. That’s why he called himself “Matthew the tax
gatherer.” Because every day of his life…even though he would write one of the
gospels of the New Testament, he never forgot that every day of his life he
would live by the grace of God and the forgiveness of Jesus and the
strengthening of the Spirit. May God bless His word to us for His name’s sake.

Let’s pray
together. Our Father in heaven, we thank You now for Your word. We thank
You for this wonderful gospel of Mark, this portrait of Levi, Matthew, for the
sovereignty of the work of Jesus. We thank You tonight for those of us who can
say, ‘Yes, Lord, You’ve done a work like that in our hearts.’ Now bless us as
we bring this Lord’s Day to a close, and help us to praise You and worship You.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

stand and receive the Lord’s benediction. Grace, mercy, and peace from God our
Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

Guide to the Evening Service

Thoughts on Worship

“Worship . . . is not
part of the Christian life; it is the Christian life.” (Gerald Vann) “Our whole
life . . . should be so angled towards God that whatever strikes upon us,
whether sorrow or joy, should be deflected upwards at once into his presence.”
(Alec Motyer)

The Themes of the

Taxes! Well, not quite! But the call of Levi to be a disciple is our theme and
the hymns focus on Jesus Christ and what it means to be His disciple.

The Call to Worship
Biblical worship is always a response to God’s gracious revelation of
Himself to His people. He takes the initiative to come to us in grace and seek
us out, before we ever respond to Him. Hence, all our worship services begin
with a scriptural “call to worship” (that is, the content of the “call” comes
from God’s own word quoted and pronounced by the minister). In this “call” we
are reminded that God always takes the initiative. He always comes toward His
people first, in grace. Our worship is a reflexive response to His gracious

The Hymns and
Spiritual Songs

How Great Thou Art
This gospel song, made famous in the various Billy Graham Crusades, is a
favorite of many in our congregation. We sing it tonight as the opening
expression of praise. In its first two stanzas it contemplates the greatness of
God as displayed in His creation. The third stanza movingly mulls the
implications of the cross as a motivation to declaring the greatness of God. The
final stanza anticipates once again singing the greatness of God in the wake of
the second coming and general resurrection of the dead.

Sun of My Soul, Thou
Savior Dear
One of the most beautiful hymns depicting a believer’s love for Jesus Christ.

I Hear Thy Welcome Voice
The words and music of this beautiful hymn were first published in a
monthly, entitled, Guide to Holiness, a copy of which was sent to me in
England. It has remained a favorite hymn ever since, speaking as it does of the
voice of the Savior heard in the call of gospel. It is a reassurance that they
who come by faith to Christ will not be cast away.

The Sermon
Levi was a very unpopular man! Why? Think of April 15 and you’ll immediately
get the point! Taxes! Levi worked for the government and was generally thought
to be robber of well-earned private money. He was an employee of the Roman
occupying force and of King Herod Antipas, the brother of Archelaus and Philip,
in particular. They each had a third of the kingdom of their late father, Herod
the Great, and Herod Antipas was the son who got Galilee. The border between his
territory and his brother Philip’s was the river Jordan. In other words, the
last town you’d go through as you went from Herod Antipas’ kingdom into Philip’s
was Capernaum. You would have to pay a toll for the privilege of crossing the
border from one part of the old kingdom into another. It wasn’t like that in
Herod the Great’s time. You could make the journey free. Now you had to pay; and
the man picking up the payment was Levi, Alphaeus’ son.

Then one day the
Lord Jesus came along to the tax booth. His treatment of Levi was different! He
didn’t throw His money at Him making Levi get down on his hands and knees and
pick it up off the floor. He didn’t shout or swear or grumble. What He did that
day changed Levi, Alphaeus’, son’s life for ever. Jesus said, “Follow me.” He
was choosing this man, a hated man, possibly a man who cheated and lied, to
become His disciple. We can understand fishermen becoming disciples. There seems
to be a kind of link between a life of patiently hunting for fish, and hunting
for men. But Levi, a kind of quisling, working for the occupying power, the Lord
choosing him to become His disciple – surely a mistake has been made.

the Saviour this evening as you see him depicted here in Mark’s Gospel and
marvel! Watch him as he draws a sinner to himself and brings him into the
innermost circle of his companions and friends.

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