True godliness has a way of making self-righteousness expose itself. Time after time in the Gospels, we find the religious leaders at odds with Jesus for something: his miracles, his teaching, the disciples, Sabbath violations. He could do nothing right in their eyes when all he ever did was good. He was also in constant trouble for his associations.
In the Gospels, Jesus catches flak for keeping company with two people of the same trade: Levi and Zacchaeus, both tax collectors. The scriptures clearly express the disgust the public bore for tax collectors, but that contempt wasn’t without reason. Let me explain.
Who Were the Publicans?
Rome ruled Judea at this time. A system of tax farming had already been established by the Roman government more than 100 years earlier. This system was a method of reassigning the responsibility of collecting a tax. The censor, with various public agencies including some financial duties, and concurrently with his five-year term, leased out public revenue for a region into the hands of the highest bidding private citizens or groups (companies).
These persons (NT: chief tax collectors) would pay fixed rents into the treasury and receive the right to make a profit on the revenue for the five-year term. Then, they would hire others (NT: tax collectors) who would actually deal with the public and collect the revenue.
These publicans, a term used for all tax collectors and other roles they served, were held responsible for any losses. So abuse pervaded the profession, namely extortion, not only to ensure the full revenue, but also to allow the collectors to make the most money they could. Dishonesty was more than common; it was expected and generally true of publicans.
In Judea, tax collectors were Jews and viewed as working for Rome, extorting fellow Jews. The scorn was immense. They were degraded as the worst of sinners. They were ineligible to be judges and even witnesses. Their families were stigmatized by the profession so that it would be clear in a court of law that such persons were probably untruthful, also.
More than likely, people took up the publican profession with a view of getting wealthy because the law permitted their abuses by turning a blind eye. Publicans knew they wouldn’t be liked, and I imagine most were ambitious, aggressive, thick-skinned individuals. In the Gospels, Matthew is a tax collector in Capernaum and Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector in Jericho.
Jesus, Full of Grace and Truth
So “pretty shocking” is an understatement in expressing how people feel when Jesus dines with both Matthew and Zacchaeus. Mark describes Jesus as eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (2:15), and the Pharisees, the moral police who always seem to hang around Jesus, got fed up and pulled the disciples aside and asked why. Jesus spoke up: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 17).
Be very afraid when religion grants you “Me and Jesus” status and makes everyone else outsiders, even if they do bad things. The only way we can save sinners is by empathizing with them, which forces us to remember that once we didn’t have ourselves together either. Jesus found us somewhere in a dump, even the best of us. This means, we have something in common with the sinner, whether it is the same sin or simply our fallen condition. We fully understand what it’s like to be in sin and to struggle with it daily.
And what a personality Jesus was! He forced the religious to recognize their graceless, entitled, self-righteous ways and transformed those who had set religion aside to indulge their sin. Further, he wasn’t afraid to engage sinners. He went where they were, and this must have made a statement to them about his character. Sometimes we don’t approach people because we’ve scandalized them—we’ve turned them into their vice. When we do that, we shut the door of grace to them.
“She’s a prostitute.” “He’s gay.” “They sell drugs.” “She’s a gang leader.” These are “bad sins” and, in our eyes, they make these people unreachable. (Did you hear all those doors slamming?) But Paul says, “And such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11).
Let us never forget that just because people choose a wrong path, not only does it mean that grace remains available to them, it more importantly means that they’re not immune to being hurt by how people treat them. They’re still people; words and characterizations still cause pain. Christians, especially, run the risk of pushing these folk away from God forever if we don’t prove the great love awaiting them.
Jesus finds worth in Matthew; he calls this tax collector to preach his gospel. To Zacchaeus, whose wealth Luke candidly acknowledges, Jesus announces, “Salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
In Luke 18:10-14, Jesus tells the parable of—guess who?—the Pharisee and the tax collector, in the presence of the Pharisees. (Can it get any better!) It is riveting and emotional and a great final word on this discussion:
Two men went up to a temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.