IN THE TAX COLLECTOR’S HOUSE
Jesus: So, ain’t you comin’?
James: O’er my dead body, Jesus! Have you gone crazy? How can we ever eat with that bum?
James’ screaming resounded through the wharf of Capernaum where Jesus had come to talk to us about Matthew and to ask us if we wanted to go with him to his house. But we had hated the tax collector for so long that nobody wanted to go along.
Mila: You mean he’s comin’ over to eat here?
Matthew: Yes. He’s from Nazareth. I think he’s weird. I suspect something, but....
Mila: Don’t you think this guy’s dangerous, Matthew? Otherwise, why would he come to this house if....
Matthew: I told you he’s weird. Actually, he doesn’t look bad, but I guess he’s....
Mila: It’s been such a long time that no one from town has come to have lunch with us... except once, those Roman captains... I’m sick and tired of them!
Matthew: You can’t complain, Mila. My job comes from them.
Matthew’s wife was a poor woman. Her husband’s job, one of the most despised in our country, had alienated her from everyone in Capernaum. She shut herself up in their house and refused to go out. Whenever she went to the market, the other women would whisper at her back and make fun of her. She didn’t have any friends. Nor did she have children. She hardly needed to prepare anything for invited guests. That’s why, that evening, in spite of her husband’s suspicions, she was happy.
Neighbor: Hey, Salome... Salome!
Salome: What’s the matter, Anne?
Neighbor: Is it true what they said about that stranger living in your house?
Salome: Tell me what they said.
Neighbor: Mila, the wife of that brazen Matthew – may the fires of hell consume him – dropped by and told Noemi that the Nazarene was gonna have dinner in their house....
Salome: What? No kidding! That’s a big lie. Why would he do that?
Neighbor: You don’t believe it? Ask the people in the marketplace. Everyone’s talkin’ about it. I was told that Jesus was a decent guy.... Then, how come he’s gonna have dinner with a tax collector?
At dusk, when the first star appeared in the sky, Jesus headed for Matthew’s house. He was alone. The tax collector lived at the end of the fruit vendors’ village. There was no other house within seven meters. Nobody wanted to live near him. That was how much we hated the tax collectors in Israel.
Matthew: Come in, stranger. That one peeping out is my wife, Mila.
Jesus: Good evening, Mila...
Mila: Welcome to our house, sir... I mean... Well, my husband told me you’d be coming, so.... We also invited Captain Cornelius to join us... I hope you won’t mind... you know... he’s a friend...
Matthew: Hey, stop the small talk, woman! Why don’t you finish preparing the eggplant in the kitchen!
Mila: Okay, okay, I’m going....
Matthew: So, you’ve come alone, huh? Your friends didn’t wanna soil their sandals by setting foot in my house...
Jesus: Yeah, that’s true... they didn’t wanna come. I told them, but... but...
Matthew: That’s okay. Worse for them. The less mouths there are, the more food for us.... Come on in...
Meanwhile, we gathered in the house of old Zebedee. We were indignant. My mother, Salome, who was always in control, did not prepare soup for us that night....
Salome: Even the rabbi knows about it!... What shame! Everyone is talkin’ about us!... Wait till I get hold of you, Jesus....!
James: There was no way of keepin’ him from havin’ dinner with that swine.
Peter: I don’t quite get it.... What would Jesus want from that stinkin’ tax collector?
James: Rather, what would he want from Jesus? There’s something fishy here.
Salome: That’s right. Something stinks here like rotten cheese.
James: Ain’t we gonna do nothin’? Shall we just sit around and do nothing...?
Peter: Why don’t we just go there and tell him the truth when he leaves? He’s gotta have this clear in his head.... What do you think, huh? Shall we go near Matthew’s place?
Matthew: So, the woman is telling this guy: “Yes, I wanna take you!” Ha, ha, ha... What do you think, huh? Ha, ha, ha...
Mila: For heaven’s sake, Matthew, will you stop those silly stories....
Matthew: Oh, come on, serve Jesus more meat, and more eggplant too. Look, his plate is empty.... You came here to stuff yourself well, do you understand? No one starves in my house!
Jesus: Well, okay, but that’ll be the last. I’m full. You cook very well, Mam Mila....
Matthew: Yes, sir, she’s a great cook. That’s what Cornelius always tells her, but she never believes it. Of course, for one who is used to being spat at in the street, how can she believe she could do anything good?... This wife of mine hides herself in a shell. She fears people. I tell her to ignore them and not mind what they say, is that right, my friend?!... Every one for himself... But she is a very stubborn woman, you know... ha, ha, ha.
Mila : That isn’t the point, Matthew. It’s just that.....
Matthew: Shut up! Look Jesus, in my kind of job, when an account I’m working on gets smudged with ink, nothing can remove the stain and it remains there. The same thing happens to us tax collectors. The moment you get into this job, then you’re stained forever. But one must get accustomed to it so as not to suffer, like this woman...! There is never a day that passes without her shedding tears. She’s a cry baby, you know!... But this ain’t no time for weeping. Attend to Jesus, woman. Lemme tell you one more joke. There was a very tall woman who fell in love with a dwarf...
Andrew, Peter, James and I went near Matthew’s house. We were seated on the street, and from there, could hear the laughter of the tax collector, the lights inside the house. We couldn’t imagine Jesus behind those walls having dinner with one of Herod’s bootlickers... After a while, Eliab, the rabbi passed by and saw us...
Rabbi: Well, look who’s here....
Rabbi: So, this good friend of yours is now in the company of the tax collector.... How come? This morning he was seen drinking with this fellow in the tavern and now, he has joined him for dinner at his house.... Now, what do you say to this. Or, are you also expecting to be invited inside?
That was just what we were waiting for. Peter stood up suddenly and grabbed some stones in the street, and started to hurl them at the windows of Matthew’s house....
Peter: Damn this tax collector, as well as you, Jesus, and everyone else!
Mila: Oh my God! What’s that noise?
Mila: Matthew, run!
Matthew: What’s happening here? Dammit!
Jesus: Wait here, Matthew, don’t leave. Let’s go, Cornelius.
Jesus went to the door. Behind him was the Roman captain. At that moment, a stone zoomed between the two...
Jesus: What’re you all doin’ here?!
Peter: You, what are you doin’ here? dining with that traitor, that leech?
The rabbi, Eliab, wrapped in his black cloak, defiantly approached Jesus....
Rabbi: How dare you break bread with sinners? Everyone in Capernaum is talking about you, stranger.
Jesus: Oh, yeah? Let them, if they want.
Rabbi: You can’t sit at a table with an unclean man.
Jesus: And who’s forbidding me to?
Rabbi: The Holy Law of Moses, and our sacred customs. Are you not aware that he who sits with an unclean man becomes unclean too?
Jesus: Hey, Rabbi, are you clean?
Jesus: I’m askin’ if you’re clean. You’ve lifted a finger against Matthew. Take care that God won’t lift His finger against you.
Rabbi: Watch your words, you lousy man! You call me a sinner, when I’m a teacher of the Law!
Jesus: No, you were the first to call Matthew a sinner and all of us here seated at his table. So, Matthew’s a sinner. Fine. Well people don’t need a doctor. Sick people do. Matthew is sick and he knows it. We need to heal him.
Rabbi: What nonsense are you talkin’ about, you stupid peasant! So you are the doctor, aren’t you? And you’ve come to cure this poor fellow, Matthew...! You are as sick as he is. You listen to me.... He who gets into a pigsty becomes like a pig. Now you’re as dirty as that filthy tax collector. Aren’t you aware of what the Scripture says about that? Don’t enter the synagogue without first offering a sacrifice for the forgiveness of your sins.
Jesus: And aren’t you aware of what the Scripture says somewhere: “What I want is love and not sacrifice?” The Lord prefers love over penance.
Rabbi: How insolent! Damn you! Someday you’re gonna eat your words!
The rabbi spat on Jesus’ face. He was so red with rage, the veins in his neck were about to burst. Furiously, he shook his sandals before him and left....
Peter: You’ve betrayed us, Jesus. We never thought you could do this to us.
James: Once and for all, tell us: On whose side are you?
Peter: This is all talk: “Things are going to change, things are going to change.” And here you are, dining with a traitor and a Roman soldier. Then what?
Jesus: This is what we’ve been saying all along. So that things will change, people must change. Matthew is the most detested man in Capernaum. But we can be of help to him.
James: You can go to hell, Jesus! Alright, do whatever pleases you, but beware of that man. He can throw us all in jail.
Peter: Let’s get outta here. Continue your dinner... and may you all choke, damn it!
Jesus and Captain Cornelius went inside Matthew’s house again, and continued dining with him. We returned to the village without saying a word. As far as I can remember, that was the first serious fight we had with Jesus. We could not comprehend why he had done that, for then, we did not understand that in the Kingdom of God there was place for a man as despicable as Matthew, the tax collector.
The tax collector, aside from being hated by the people, was an outcast. His testimony did not have any juridical value; and in a sense he was like a slave, as he found himself inferior before his countrymen. As a “sinner” he was morally rejected, to the point that the money coming from the tax collectors’ coffers could not be accepted as alms for the poor for it was dirty money. Such contempt of the people likewise extended to their families. That Jesus not only befriended one of these men, but also dined with him was a grave scandal for the residents of Capernaum. Jesus’ friends combined this moral scandal with something political, since Matthew was a collaborator of the Romans.
In order to understand what Jesus did exactly when he dined with Matthew, one must be aware of the fact that among Orientals, to entertain a person and eat with him at the same table is a sign of respect, peace, trust, fraternity and forgiveness. Sharing food at a table is a sign of sharing one’s life. That Jesus dined with Matthew – as he did with other Publicans and sinners – was not only a social happening where he manifested his extraordinary humanity or sympathy for despised people. Such a gesture carried with it a profound theological meaning, as it gave the most meaningful expression of God’s love for lost souls. It is a gesture in anticipation of the final banquet in history where God will seat at the principal places of his table those whom “decent people” rejected as the last.
The rabbi, the city’s guardian of morality, is one of those most seriously scandalized by Jesus’ conduct. This is not surprising. A prophet who spoke of God the way Jesus did and also contradicted religious laws at the same time was intolerable. To avoid “sinners” was the greatest obligation of the pious who wanted to please God. This is because the Rabbi thought the same God rejected the sinner and would only take him if he repented and mended his ways. Then and only then, would he become the object of God’s love: when he reformed himself. Jesus revolutionizes this false religious idea. For God, it is not only the moral aspect that counts. It is more than that; the process is reversed and it is God who approaches the immoral by showing a person special love of preference. That was then – as it is even today – a scandal, the disintegration of what is “moral.” Up to the end of his life, Jesus would be accused of immoral conduct by decent persons, because he drank and ate with the “Publicans and sinners.”
The message of the gospel is always an announcement of change. It requires a readjustment in relationships among people leading to genuine equality. Likewise, it requires each and everyone to reform attitudes, and a thorough change in sense of values, options, etc.
There should not be any opposition between structural and personal conversion, favoring one person over another. Both aspects of this change-conversion complement each other and are necessarily mutual. The ideal the gospel speaks of is a new man and woman, in a new society.
(Mt 9:10-13; Mk 2:15-17; Lk 5:28-32)