Organists and Sinners

Then Levi gave a great banquet for him in his house; and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” – Luke 5:29-30 (NRSV)

I liked working with Pete, who played the organ at a church I served … except for a stretch when we were reading from the Gospel of Luke. I felt uncomfortable, because in the non-church part of his life, Pete was an agent with the Internal Revenue Service.

Yes, the organist was a tax collector.

Week after week, the Gospel put tax collectors in a list right next to “and sinners.” Their unpopularity was understandable, since the money Levi and others collected was paid to Rome; they profited from the oppression of their neighbors.

Jesus caught a lot of criticism from the religious leaders about the company he kept. The people who entertained Jesus probably heard about it from their neighbors, too. “Why are you hanging around with such disreputable people?”

When they pressed Jesus on his friendly relations with sinners, tax collectors included, he replied that he had come to reach out to sinners and bring them back into relationship with God.

The religious leaders ended up sounding pretty unkind, and a little too sure they were in the right. I wonder why I was so worried about the IRS agent on the organ bench, when the really negative characters in the Gospel had a job like mine?

Holy One, when you call us to your table, help us to see that we are all in need of your healing and forgiveness: tax collectors and pastors, organists and sinners. Amen.

Martha Spong About the Author
Martha Spong is a UCC pastor, a clergy coach, editor of The Words of Her Mouth: Psalms for the Struggle, and coauthor of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith).