Monday, April 16, 2012

How Did the Jews Treat the Tax Collector, and How Should Christians Treat Christians Who Refuse to Repent of Sin?

Though the matter of the principles established in Matthew 18:15-17 have been reviewed, nothing has been said about how a person should be treated on a practical level if they refuse to repent of sin, even after the matter has been taken before the local church for other members to plead with them. Some Christians believe that the passage should be interpreted to mean that the person should be marked and avoided in the same manner that a harmful and divisive person or false teacher should be treated. Some believe that the person should be treated no different than any other non-Christian, but that they should not go out of their way to spend any kind of meaningful social time with them. The interaction should not be one of hard-hearted disregard, but it should not be a comfortable association in the way that close friends behave with one another.

The matter of differing opinions warrants a review.

Who is the Publican?

The term referred to the Jews that the Romans insightfully enlisted to collect taxes from the Jewish citizens, collectors of the public venue. Rome was clever, because the arrangement worked very well for them, but not so well for the tax collector. The Jewish People considered these men to be traitors and apostates that sold out to Caesar, and they would also heap additional charges of their own on to the tax money that they collected from the people. They could do this with impunity, Rome didn't care, and the Jew had no recourse but to pay, or they would face punishment by the Roman soldiers for breaking the law. Subsequently, everyone hated the publican, and because what they did was seen as a crime that caused them to turn against Israel and her faith, they were not permitted to attend their local synagogues for worship. I found one source that notes that the publican was considered to be unclean, so the Jew wouldn't even take change from the publican if they didn't have the exact amount to pay. They would prefer to borrow from a friend, a not so advisable practice, than to accept the “tainted change.” Save for the Samaritans, there was no other group of people more hated by the Jews of Jesus' day than the the tax collector.

How Jesus Responded to the Publican

The Pharisee and the Publican
Jesus set a new and very scandalous standard for how a person should properly relate to the tax collector. It was seen as improper to have any dealings with the publican and the drunk, and while I'm on the subject, it was also scandalous to talk with a woman who was unclean or of ill repute. Jesus established that people should should love and compassion to all people, including the most hated in society. Most of what he did broke all of the social, societal and religious rules because he associated so closely with people who were unacceptable. The Pharisees really took issue with Jesus, because they saw his compassion for a disregard for the law and for holiness.
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.

Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The Pharisees grew very angry about many aspects of the way Jesus defied social and religious rules, and nearly all of the statements that He made about Himself made some kind of reference that he was Jehovah. In their efforts to criticize, they argued against the company that Jesus kept, just as Jesus kept repeating that He came to save those who were lost and were in need of care, not those who were full and content in their own power and effort. We see the same example in the way that Jesus treated Zaccheus.
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Should the Christian Respond to Brothers Who Fail to Repent?
What the Wise Guys Say

Noted below are quotes from a few different sources.

See the notes at Matthew 5:47 [noted below]. Publicans were people of abandoned character, and the Jews would have no contact with them. The meaning of this is, cease to have religious contact with him, or to acknowledge him as a Christian brother. It does not mean that we should cease to show kindness to him and aid him in affliction or trial, for that is required toward all people; but it means that we should disown him as a Christian brother, and treat him as we do other people not connected with the church. This should not be done until all these steps are taken. This is the only way of kindness. This is the only way to preserve peace and purity in the church.

Barnes on Matthew 5:47, NASB ("If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”)

And if you salute your brethren ... - The word "salute" here means to show the customary tokens of civility, or to treat with the common marks of friendship. The Saviour says that the worst men, the very publicans, would do this. Christians should do more; they should show that they have a different spirit; they should treat their "enemies" as well as wicked people do their "friends."

This should be done: Because it is "right;"
  1. it is the only really amiable spirit; and,
  2. We should show that religion is not selfish, and is superior to all other principles of action.

"A religious person indeed, that becomes a collector of taxes, they first said, is to be driven from the society; but they afterwards said, all the time that he is a tax gatherer, they drive him from the society; but when he goes out of his office, lo! he is as a religious person (z).''
But one that never was of a religious society, could not be driven out of it. And besides, this is given, not as a rule to the church, but as advice to the offended person, how to behave towards the offender: after he has come under the cognizance, reproof, and censure of the church, he is to look upon him as the Jews did one that disregarded both private reproof by a man's self, and that which was in the presence of one or two more, , "a worthless friend", or neighbour; as a Gentile, with whom the Jews had neither religious nor civil conversation; and a "publican", or as Munster's Hebrew Gospel reads it, "a notorious sinner", as a publican was accounted: hence such are often joined together, and with whom the Jews might not eat, nor keep any friendly and familiar acquaintance: and so such that have been privately admonished and publicly rebuked, without success, their company is to be shunned, and intimate friendship with them to be avoided.
(z) T. Hieros. Demai, fol. 23. 1.

Let him be to thee as an heathen man and a publican. Have no religious fellowship with him, more than you would have with a heathen, or a publican. The publicans were usually apostate Jews. The orthodox Jews had no social intercourse with heathens or publicans.

Should a Christian Share a Meal with Those Who have been Disfellowshiped?

QUEST. I. How far are the church to treat excommunicated persons as they would those who never have been of the visible church? I answer, they are to treat them as heathens, excepting in these two things, in which there is a difference to be observed.
  1. The very reason of the thing shows the same. For this very ordinance of excommunication is used for this end, that we may thereby obtain the good of the person excommunicated. And surely we should be more concerned for the good of those who have been our brethren, and who are now under the operation of means used by us for their good, than for those with whom we never had any special connection. Thus, there should be more of the love of benevolence exercised towards persons excommunicated, than towards those who never were members of the church. — But then,
  2. On the other hand, as to what relates to the love of complacence, they ought to be treated with greater displacency and disrespect than the heathen. This is plain by the text and context. For the apostle plainly doth not require of us to avoid the company of the heathen, or the fornicators of the world, but expressly requires us to avoid the company of any brother who shall be guilty of any of the vices pointed out in the text, or any other like them. — This is also plain by the reason of the thing. For those who have once been visible Christians and have apostatized and cast off that visibility, deserve to be treated with more abhorrence than those who have never made any pretensions to Christianity. The sin of such, in apostatizing from their profession, is more aggravated, than the sin of those who never made any profession. They far more dishonor religion, and are much more abhorred of God. Therefore when Christ says, Mat. 18:17. “Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican,” it is not meant that we should treat an excommunicated brother as Christians ought to treat heathens and publicans; for they might eat with them, as Christ himself did; and the apostle gives leave to eat with such, 1 Cor. 10:27, and in the context gives leave to keep company with such; yet forbids to eat with an excommunicated person. — Christ’s meaning must be, that we should treat an excommunicated person as the Jews were wont to treat the heathens and publicans; and as the disciples had been always taught among the Jews, and brought up, and used to treat them. They would by no means eat with publicans and sinners. They would not eat with the Gentiles, or with the Samaritans. Therefore Peter [dare] not eat with the Gentiles when the Jews were present; Gal. 2:12.

I might certainly be wrong, but in my own reading of this passage and the entire chapter, I can't say that I agree with Edwards, brilliant man that he was. I can't find anywhere that Paul spells out a special directive here that forbids a Christian from dining with a person who has been excommunicated unless it gives the appearance of condoning their sin.  (Read more HERE.)  This may also be a specific reference to taking communion with them, or enjoying close fellowship. It's also important to note that Edwards notes that these are excommunicated brothers he's addressing, and that may or may not be what Jesus was talking about in that verse. How does he support that Jesus meant something different from exactly what was recorded here by Matthew. (It's such an interesting twist knowing that Matthew was a publican by trade, yet he was an Apostle.) Take note of what Edwards claims as a support for his belief about whether one should dine with an unbeliever:
If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?

Where in this passage (or in the entire chapter or contiguous passages) does Paul indicate that one should not dine with those who have been excommunicated from fellowship of the church? I don't really see it there anywhere. This also rests on the burden that Matthew 18 was actually teaching church leaders how to go about declaring that individuals were no longer a part of the local assembly, or perhaps not really Christians. It may also depend on whether you understand that a “backslidden” Christian and an apostate are the same thing and whether there is hope for an apostate. What if Mathew 18 just concerned a simple matter between two individuals, and it wasn't a matter for the whole church, something discussed in a previous post.

Apart from encouraging a person to be knowledgeable about what the Bible has to say about these matters while they follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and their own informed conscience, I don't think that there's any indication of Edwards' own conviction noted clearly in Scripture. That may be his conviction, but that may not be mine. And part of this very likely rests on the circumstances of an individual situation as opposed to representing an immutable rule. It's not that plain and clear in Scripture.

Edwards also offers Galatians 2:12 as evidence that Jews didn't consider eating with a publican to be proper behavior, based on how Peter responded. But is Peter really a paragon of proper behavior in this part of Scripture?
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas [Peter] in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

In the context of that passage and in the light of all that Jesus taught about how we should treat the publican, can a person really argue that dining with a believer who is actively choosing to sin is not permitted? You don't want to spend all of your time with them, but you should not treat them as unclean. Edwards leans a bit to the “unclean side of things” for me personally, and I believe that a person could make an equally convincing case if not a greater one that the passage actually condemns the practice. Again, it doesn't speak directly to a Christian who continues in sin. Sharing or preparing a meal with anyone, particularly when they are in need, can be a very powerful way of showing kindness to them. If Jesus set a standard of dining with the publicans and the alcoholics, then what does that say of Edwards' rule? (Peter ate with Matthew the publican himself, didn't he?) I guess it depends on how Puritanical your lifestyle tends to be. How far you take the matter likely depends on how the Holy Spirit leans on you personally at the time.

Addendum 17Apr12:  Are you socializing with the person, or are you reaching out to them again to beckon them to repent?  What about what Edwards didn't say and didn't reference?  Read more HERE.

Avoiding a Religious Attitude

Along with all kinds of additional information about the publican from a host of excellent sources with quotes, links, and the list of Scriptures that mention the publican that are well worth further reading, this Bible History site offered some additional food for further thought. I very much like this example and would like to close with it.

From the Heart Message section (emphasis mine):
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:10-14

We all have a tale to tell. We all have good within us made in the image of God. We all have evil from our own choices mixed with the wickedness of those who have wounded us and the workmanship of Satan. If you cannot see this about yourself, then you must kneel next to the Pharisee in Jesus' story. None of us will be able to stand before a perfect and holy God in our own righteousness. His glory, power and presence will bring us all to our knees. Sometimes, the tax collector type can see this before the goodish religious person. May we all choose humility and accept the righteousness He provided in the sacrifice of His Son. Such a glorious unspeakable gift!

More posts forthcoming about
forgiveness, reconciliation, and Peacemaker Ministries