In the ancient Mediterranean world, shepherds were social outcasts. Much like the cowboys and vaqueros (Spanish for ‘cowboys’ and source of the English word ‘buckaroo’) of the Americas, they were considered dirty, rootless, and unfit for polite company. And it was to shepherds that the angels first announced the birth of Jesus, sending them to the stable to do him honor.
While passing through Samaria on their way to Judah from Galilee, Jesus’ disciples found him speaking with a Samaritan woman at a village well ‘and were surprised to find him talking with a woman’ (John 4:27, NIV). As a woman, she was considered beneath male notice, and as a hated Samaritan, she was an apostate and a blasphemer. And she was the first person to whom Jesus revealed his divine identity.
Jesus seems to have gone out of his way to shock people by the company he kept.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick’ (Matthew 9:9-12).
Tax collectors were especially hated, because they collected taxes from their fellow Jews on behalf of the occupying Romans. The job carried no salary, and tax collectors were expected to make a living by gouging their neighbors. Many Jews considered it unlawful to pay taxes to the Romans at all, and considered tax collectors to be not only breaking the law, but forcing their fellow Judeans to break it also. And Jesus not only called Matthew to be a disciple, but received many of his friends and associates with kindness and acceptance.
Given that Jesus had at least one Zealot—virulently, and often violently anti-Roman Jewish nationalists whose motto was ‘No king but Messiah, no tax but the Temple, no friend but the Zealot’—among his disciples, he clearly expected his Make Israel Great Again followers to get along with his Globalist Collaborators followers
To my mind, this is one of the most important aspects for Americans today of Jesus’ call to Matthew the tax collector. We find ourselves, as a people, so poisoned by partisan hatred that we no longer listen to each other, no longer make any attempt to understand what drives those who think differently from ourselves.
A single loaded word in anything we say can prompt total strangers to pigeonhole us, putting words into our mouths that we never said, and beliefs into our heads that we never held—all of which are ‘obvious’ to them because ‘no one who says [A] could possibly not be [B], [C], and [D].’ Having been called a Communist and a tool of the patriarchy on the same day by different groups, I have no doubt whatever that Jesus was very deliberate in calling elites and deplorables, women and men, Jews and Gentiles, into the Reign of God. Look for the outcasts, the undesirables, those unfit for polite company, and you will find them eating and drinking at Jesus’ table in his Kingdom (Luke 22:30).