The van was absolutely packed with people when the armed local police stopped us at a checkpoint. We were on the road between Fort Portal and Kampala, looking to turn off just a mile or two ahead to return to Busoro where we were based at New Life Presbyterian Church.
Guns and militia always make me a little nervous when I travel. But the stop felt routine enough, until a young woman in a pressed and clean military uniform came to the passenger window of the mutatu and began shouting instructions and questions in Lugandan to us. Immediately all the Ugandans started searching pockets and wallets, fishing through personal effects for papers.
“What does she want?” I kept my voice low as I asked my local friend, Pastor Francis.
Francis turned in his seat and said over his shoulder in a near whisper. “It is OK. She is a local official looking for proof of licenses and taxes.”
I relaxed at that point. Now everything seemed routine again. But soon my anxiety rose again as the Ugandans in the mutatu became more tense and obviously nervous. Our group had a lot of US college students in it, and I noticed their attention had moved on. It felt like they were missing something important, though.
Our hired mutatu driver for the week was a good fellow, but not a believer. When the woman and the soldiers asked him, he could produce all his required papers. But his “conductor,” a sixteen-year-old assistant to lug bags and collect payment, did not have his personal tax payment receipt up to date. He did have a tax certificate showing he had paid his local tax in Kampala, but the certificate had expired a few months back.
Our young conductor seemed confused about the dates on the form, but the woman with the uniform and soldiers didn’t waver. She was not impressed with his confusion. As she demanded his payment on the spot, some of our local friends in the mutatu began to protest. Voices were raised. And then soldiers began to move toward the van.
Something about the timing of the conductor boy’s tax payment seemed in doubt, so the boy protested with the woman and her armed guard. Francis immediately became concerned and began to ask questions of the officials, especially to the tax lady in charge. Though some were arguing, Francis remained calm as he spoke.
But even as he talked and questioned, the militiamen came to the van and took the young conductor out. Under their guard, with automatic weapons held at the ready, he was helped into the open back of a small Toyota pickup truck. With several soldiers accompanying him, the pickup was and driven away towards the local jail. Everyone in the mutatu became quiet for a beat or two, then the whispered questions from several voices began urgently.
“What are they doing?”
“Where is he going?”
“Will he be alright?”
“This is not right. This is not fair,” Francis quietly repeated mostly to himself as he slipped back into the Toyoto Hiace that was our mutatu.
“What? What’s happening? What’s not fair?” I asked so that the woman tax-collector couldn’t hear. It is always hard in emergencies like this to lead and yet be so far behind the curve, to not understand the language and to be unfamiliar with all the ins and outs of the culture. It is hard to separate what is just inconvenient from what is a real threat. I can easily misread what is happening in all sorts of ways. And the confusion inside me pushes me to want more information.
“She’s right,” Francis explained. “He is late paying his taxes. But here you always pay where you live. He does not live here. If she makes him pay here, then he will just have to pay again when he gets home. She knows he will have to pay twice if he pays her, but she wants him to pay anyway. She will keep the money. It’s how she makes her cut. It’s like a bribe he can’t pay. And if we don’t pay, then he’ll stay in jail.”
“How much are we talking about here, Francis? Can we just pay.”
“It’s about $45.00. But we need to wait. Don’t show money here; that will not help. They will want more. Just wait. We will meet him at the jail and get him released.”
And sure enough, Francis and Pastor Sam went to the jail and negotiated the conductor’s freedom. They were pretty vague about the taxes and it felt like they had probably had to make a small “gift” of goodwill to someone there to get the boy out.
Part of the conditions of his release required that he go immediately to Kampala to pay his taxes there or to work out some payment program. Francis and Sam saw him off on a bus, but the rest of the folks in the mutatu did not see him again. The experience was one of many we needed to process and think through carefully over some time as new-comers in a new place.
The story could have ended here, but even though the conductor was gone, the tax lady was still out and about. And, wouldn’t you know it, the next afternoon she showed up again in a different context.
Part of our work in Fort Portal, Uganda was to go from house to house inviting neighbors and the surrounding community to open air evening meetings at the site where a church building was being constructed for Pastor John. Of course as we invited people to the evangelistic meetings we also talked to them about their faith and about who Jesus was and what he had done for all who would believe.
And as Francis went through the neighborhood, guess whose home he came to: the Tax Lady’s! He told us later that when he came to her home, she was no longer in uniform. But she recognized him, and he recognized her. I would have given a fair amount to have seen the look on her face, but Francis was just the right gentle and winsome person to meet her that day. He said that he was able to talk with her about the teachings and the work of Jesus for her. He invited her to come to the meetings just down the road and to follow Christ.
Her response was a remarkably honest one. She said she would not come and that she could not become a Christian. “If I become a Christian,” she said, “then I would have to show mercy. In my job I can show no mercy as a tax collector. How would I live? I cannot become a Christian.”
Of course Francis explained and urged and invited as much as he could and still leave the door open for grace to come later. But she did not pray with him. And we did not see her at the meetings. When Francis and I spoke I told him that it was good to hear an honest answer from her rather than an empty promise or quick prayer. Perhaps the words of the gospel would be like a seed that would grow later and bear fruit. We prayed that her heart would be soft, good soil and that the birds, the rocks and the thorns would not keep the gospel from its powerful work (Luke 8).
That night in the public meetings, it was my time to speak. Of course I could not resist telling the simple story of how Jesus had called Levi from Luke 5. Levi, whose name spoke of a covenant heritage among a faithful priesthood.
You remember Levi. He had made a lot of money collaborating with the enemy oppressors of the Jews and was collecting taxes for the Roman invaders. You can imagine his only friends would have been among other rejects and merciless men like him. We can piece together that Levi was among those who saw Jesus ministering in Capernaum. And when Jesus called, it says that Levi “got up, left everything and followed him.
And so Levi was willing at a simple invitation from Jesus to stand up and leave his money though he was wealthy. He left his office, his position, his friends and his present life of comfort and safety to serve Jesus, the one who showed him such love and mercy.
He not only left his present life, but also the past life before that and the expected future ahead. He left the hope and expectations of the family who called him Levi. His name was changed to Matthew and God used him to write part of the gospel record.
Levi/Matthew tells his own story in Matthew 8. There he records how Jesus answered the religious experts who criticized Jesus for befriending Matthew and other men and women like him. Jesus called on those “righteous” pillars of his religious community to pursue a heart of mercy rather than being satisfied with only religious observances, even those observances like the sacrifices required by the law.
Levi received mercy from a heart of mercy. And Jesus still calls his people to mercy, not to only external religion. The woman had it right. And though I don’t know if she heard that night, the tax lady’s home was not too far away from where I spoke. And our loud speaker worked very well.
I hope that in her home she heard again about the mercy of Jesus for even a tax collector. He came for the sick rather than for those who think they are well enough. I hope she was touched to hear how he takes the sin of really desperate people on himself and offers new life and a new heart and a new identity. And I hope the message finds good soil in her heart.
And as she comes to mind I pray. I pray for her. I pray that she won’t be afraid of mercy, but that she will receive it and trust Jesus to help her each day. I pray for my faithful friend, Francis, and his family and church and the many orphans he raises. I pray for Pastor Sam and John who follow the same pattern. I pray for all the religious cultural Christians and Muslims and traditional animists in that town who hear their testimony. I pray they will see their need and come to Jesus.
I also pray for my own heart, that I will be willing again today to leave all and follow Jesus who shows me mercy, who gives me a new life, and who calls me to join him in showing his mercy to many, many others.