Defund the Police?
As numerous voices began calling for the defunding of police across our nation, I was reminded of a time when soldiers came to John the Baptist (in the light of his preaching of repentance) and asked what they should do. Interestingly, John did not tell them that they belonged to a corrupt profession and that they should all resign. Here is the context of that communication along with John’s instructions to tax collectors.
Luke 3:12-14 (NLT)
Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?”
He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.”
“What should we do?” asked some soldiers.
John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay.”
Note that John did not call for the abolition of collecting taxes or of the military. Rather, he called for integrity and ethical conduct among those in such positions. Let’s look at both the “corrupt tax collectors” and the soldiers, because there is a connection.
Israel was under Roman occupation in the first century, and tax collectors were notoriously corrupt. At the higher levels, tax collectors “bought” their positions by monies paid into the public treasury (hence, they were sometimes called publicans). Tax collectors were known for charging higher taxes to individuals than what the Roman government required and padding their own pockets.
As a result, these tax collectors were despised by the people. Jews like Matthew and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) were considered traitors to their own people—they had sold out to the hated occupiers, the Romans—and were enriching themselves in the process. For a Jewish family, to have a tax collector in the family was a disgrace, and according to some accounts, their testimonies would not be accepted in a court of law and their offerings would not be received in the synagogue.
The soldiers who came to John the Baptist asking, “What should we do?” were most likely not Roman soldiers. They were probably Jews who worked under King Herod and assisted the tax collectors to ensure that maximum taxes were received. No doubt they would have received kickbacks from excessive taxes that were taken from the people.
Other translations of John’s admonition to the soldiers shed helpful insight:
(NKJV) “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
(ESV) “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
(KJV) “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.”
(MSG) “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”
This word that John uses literally means, “to shake violently.” The word is related to the Greek word for “earthquake.” In other words, John did not want these soldiers to use threats, intimidation, or violence in their dealings with the people to extort money from the people.
Let me repeat, even though there was pervasive corruption associated with these professions in the first century, John did not denounce these occupations in their entirety, nor did he call for their dissolution. He did command repentance and righteousness. He wanted to see the hearts of men changed so that the people would be treated fairly and equitably.
When Jesus selected his disciples, a couple of amazing things happened that are often overlooked. First, Jesus called one of these despised tax collectors to be among the twelve.
Matthew 9:9-13 (NLT)
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.”
When Matthew invited others to join the dinner with Jesus, he invited “many other tax collectors and other disreputable sinners.” Why? Because those are the only people who would have associated with Matthew. The Pharisees called all of these people “scum.” Notice that instead of putting anyone down, Jesus simply states that sick people need a doctor and that he had come to call those “who know they are sinners.”
But this is just where it begins to be interesting. In Luke 6, the names of the twelve apostles are listed. Verse fifteen provides four of the names, and that grouping begins with Matthew and ends with an individual named “Simon the Zealot.”
The Zealots were a fierce, nationalistic group of Jews who absolutely despised the Roman occupation of their land. Some of them would have gladly killed a Roman without a second thought, and the only people they hated more than the Romans were their fellow-Jews who cooperated with the Romans.
To place Matthew (a tax collector who worked for the Romans) and Simon the Zealot on the same apostolic team would have seemed like complete insanity! These two men would typically never be in the same room together, much less work collaboratively on a team that required love and unity. It would only be through divine regeneration and transformation that two individuals from such divergent political and philosophical backgrounds would be able to embrace a cause greater than either of them had ever known.
While no management consultant would have ever encouraged Jesus to select such incompatible people to be his team, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Jesus had come to break down all barriers and give people new hearts. It is only through the new birth and the renewing of the mind that the most bitter of enemies can become the dearest of brothers.
Jesus had said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Matthew 9:12). We will never understand what is going on in our society today until we recognize that sin permeates the history of humanity. All elements of society are tainted by sin. However, some sins are more egregious (at least in the eyes of society) than others.
Lust, greed, envy, gossip, pride, and many other sins are rarely acknowledged, and while others are shocking and scandalous. There are bad people who do bad things in every profession. It makes news:
- When a preacher commits adultery
- When a teacher molests a child
- When a law enforcement officer crosses a line and brutalizes an innocent (or guilty) individual
- When a doctor or dentist exploits a patient
- When a financial advisor bilks an elderly investor out of their savings
- When a politician or CEO embezzles funds
Yet we know things like this happen, and it is grievous when it does. Let me repeat: Sin permeates the history of humanity. All elements of society are tainted by sin. In the meantime, we should thank God and pray for every good preacher, every good teacher, every good law enforcement officer, etc. We need men and women of virtue in every sphere of life and society.
As a minister of the gospel, I believe our nation needs revival, but we also must have a revival in our individual lives. We are at a crossroads, and multitudes of people need to choose which direction they are going to go.
Two thousand years ago, a similar choice was presented. Jesus or Barabbas?
There is an imperative lesson here because Barabbas was likely a Zealot, of the same party as Simon. Simon may not have embraced violence as Barabbas did, but this story is fascinating.
Mark 15:7 (MSG)
There was one prisoner called Barabbas, locked up with the insurrectionists who had committed murder during the uprising against Rome.
The crowd had to make a choice between two men: the one who sought to solve things by violence or the one who sought to heal people through love. Confronted with Jesus and Barabbas, the mob regrettably chose Barabbas.
People can easily miss a fascinating point pertaining to the name of this other individual. In some translations (based on a variant Greek text), you will see him called Jesus Barabbas. Translated, Barabbas means Son of the Father. So, as Pilate stood before the angry mob, he offered them “Jesus of Nazareth,” or a person with a similar name, “Jesus Son of the Father.” Despite the similarity of their names, the two men could not have been more different.
- Barabbas stood for complete lawlessness.
- Jesus came to fulfill the old law and to introduce a new law. The new law would create “one new man” from backgrounds as diverse as Jew and Gentile, Tax Collector and Zealot.
- Barabbas represented violence and destruction.
- Jesus represented a new day of truly bringing people together and changing their hearts… people as radically different as Matthew (the tax collector) and Simon (the Zealot).
In the course of their lives, many people are going to have to decide which Jesus they are going to follow—the One who is truly the Son of the Father and the Prince of Peace, or the one who in essence is a counterfeit, offering a “solution” that only ends in death and destruction.
As I look at the word of God, I see it condemning the abuse of power. That is why John the Baptist gave those directives to the tax collectors and the soldiers. The vulnerable are not to be exploited and abused by those in power.
I also see the Bible condemning the use of violence to achieve one’s ends. That is why when Peter acted like a Zealot, took out a sword, and assaulted the High Priest’s servant, Jesus told him to put away his sword. Further, Jesus said, “Those who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, NLT).
I recognize that those who do not recognize the Bible’s authority will not likely embrace biblical principles, but believers must be wise and recognize what we are called to do in this hour. Society will not change unless hearts are changed, and hearts will not change until the Lordship of Jesus Christ is honored and the Holy Spirit is allowed to have his way in our lives.
As we labor, love, preach, and pray, may the influence of the gospel and the love of God move us powerfully in the direction foreseen in days of old:
Habakkuk 2:14 (NKJV)
For the earth will be filled
With the knowledge of the glory of the LORD,
As the waters cover the sea.