If we have left our life of sin to follow Christ, we are free from our past, never to be defined or constrained by it again. But we never completely leave it behind, because God says something uniquely stunning about himself through our past — our tax collecting, our fits of anger, our quiet jealousy and envy, our drunken self-pity, our sexual immorality, our self-righteous morality (or whatever you were freed from).
When was the last time you told someone about the worst parts of your past — the deepest, darkest sins you’re most ashamed of?
Why don’t we tell that part of our story more often than we do? If we reallybelieve what we say we believe about the gospel, our past does not define or condemn us anymore. Jesus was pierced in our place for our past (Isaiah 53:5). God has forgiven all of our iniquities (Psalm 103:3). There is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1).
When we have experienced the forgiveness and freedom we find in the gospel, we have the natural impulse to want to put the past behind us. We are newcreatures. “The old has passed away” (2 Corinthians 5:17). But with the natural impulse to forget comes a second, seemingly incompatible impulse to divulge — to publish our past. It’s a supernatural impulse to go and tell.
After rescuing a man from wicked, violent, and destructive demonic oppression, Jesus says, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).
Go and tell everyone who you were and what you did, and then tell them who I am and what I have done for you. Can anyone really see the power of God in our lives without letting his light shine on our past?
Tax Collectors and Sinners
Matthew walked away from a wicked past, but he did not leave his past behind entirely. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell one short story about Jesus mingling with tax collectors, but only one of them had himself extorted money from God’s people for his own personal finances.
“As Jesus reclined at table in the house,” Matthew writes, “behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matthew 9:10–11).
Tax collectors and sinners. Matthew felt those four words more than Mark did — at the same time probably feeling deeper contrition for his own sin and greater compassion for sinners like him. When he wrote about the scandal of Jesus sitting down with these men, he was writing about the scandal of Jesus eating with him.
Foremost of Sinners
Now, when we hear “tax collector” today, we may think IRS, one of the most widely feared and despised agencies in America. But like it or not, the IRS enforces a justly instituted set of rules. Tax collectors in Matthew’s day, though, were often outlaws — men who manipulated the law to extort money from people, even the poor. Zacchaeus, for instance, admits to that kind of evil (Luke 19:8).