Publican

 

“I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Matthew 5:32

… Now, a great many say, “I am too great a sinner to be saved.” That is like a hungry man saying he is too hungry to eat, or a sick man saying he is too sick to send for a doctor, or a beggar saying, ” I am too poor to beg ; I’ll wait till I get some money first.” If a man is hungry and perishing you must relieve him.

Now there is not a sinner in Chicago but has his representative in the Bible. Take, for instance, the publicans. You know the Jews thought this class about the lowest in the world. They put them lower than any other kind of sinner. They placed them along with the sinners — “publicans and sinners.” The publicans were the tax collectors, and they defrauded the people at every turn. For instance, a man in South Chicago will pay over, perhaps, a hundred thousand dollars for the privilege of just collecting the taxes, and then he goes to work and screws the people out of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. He don’t care a straw for justice or appearances. He comes into the cottage of the widow and taxes half she has. At every house the tax collector puts the blocks to his victims, and famine often comes in when he goes out. The people detest him; they hate him with a perfect hatred. They always find him a drag on them, and feel he hasn’t a bit of sympathy for them. Their money, they find, is taken without warrant; their homes are broken up, and trouble and starvation come on them. And so the publican was hated wherever he turned. He was the agent of the Roman tyrant, and the people were brought up to shun him. He deserved it all, and even more, by his heartless exactions ; and yet Christ forgave even him. And just so rum-sellers can be saved. And another class that Christ had mercy on was the thieves. When on the cross he saved a thief. There may be some thief here to-night. I tell you, my friend, you may be saved if you only will. There may be some one here who is persecuting a good wife, and making her home a perfect hell on earth. But you, too, may be saved, There may be some here persecuting the Church, but there’s salvation for you. When Saul was persecuting the Christians from city to city, he was stopped short by the voice of God ; he was converted. And those high-headed Pharisees, so well versed in the law of Moses, even they were converted. Joseph of Arimathea was a Pharisee, and so was Nicodemus.

Dwight Moody, “Sinners Called to Repentance”, Moody’s great sermons; twenty-four discourses, 1899

When I would teach the parable of the Pharisee and the publican to Sunday School students, I compare publicans to Jabba the Hutt, or say they were something like Darth Vader’s accountant. They were the people working behind the scenes to propagate an evil system for motivations of personal profit. It’s fascinating that Moody says there’s modern representatives (in Chicago!) of every type of sinner in the bible. He mentions rum-sellers, which is probably a fair critique of the effects of alcohol on poor communities. What would a publican look like today? Are there those who leave behind “famine” in the wake of their lawful pursuits?

But before we get out too many stones, we have to remember that Moody’s focus here is not in the vileness of the sinner but the love of Christ.  There isn’t anyone too vile to be forgiven and loved and accepted by Jesus.  Again, Moody doesn’t flinch at making a social commentary and state that there are those not only profiting from but creating suffering. His focus, however, isn’t on some regulation, but on a call to repentance and an invitation to meet Jesus. Do we actually have anyone doing that today? Too often it seems Christianity has fallen into two ditches: secularists calling for regulation and social Darwinists arguing that any social critique is actually part of our cross to bear. Let us rediscover this part of the old time religion.

PRAYER: Dear Lord, give us eyes to see the suffering around us. Let us not flinch in naming the individual sinful actors, whether it be publicans or the equivalents of rum-sellers, that directly lead to harm.  Give us also the love that you have for all fallen people. Let us not hate or detest or shun anyone. As we witness, let us not portray a faith where only those who’ve made themselves good can get in. Let us be witnesses to a loving, forgiving Jesus.  AMEN.

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