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Worship Message - Conversations With Jesus #3

Conversations With Jesus - #3
Two Tax Collectors


A study of the ministry of Jesus makes it clear He had a lot of conversations with a lot of people. We are currently in a series of messages centered on some of those conversations. Conversations in which Jesus’ power, love, compassion, and dedication to His purpose are displayed.

There are two conversations for today. Conversations that interestingly were both with tax collectors. I’m not sure why my attention was drawn to these two conversations for this Sunday since it is not yet the middle of April, when our taxes are due to our Internal Revenue Service. But today’s conversations are between Jesus and two tax collectors.

The first one was between Jesus and a man named Matthew. It was actually a two-part conversation, the first part a very brief one with Matthew, the second a conversation related to what Matthew did after Jesus talked with him. A two-part conversation recorded in Matthew 9, beginning with verse 9.

To set the stage, Jesus had already called some of His disciples. They included Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Then, after spending quite a bit of time teaching on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Jesus, one day, came across Matthew as he, Matthew, was sitting in his tax office.

Matthew was sitting there because he was a tax collector. A collector of Roman taxes.

There is a lot of background information that is both interesting - at least to me - and important.

For instance, the Roman government wanted their taxes collected as efficiently and cheaply as possible. The plan devised for that was to auction off to certain people the right to collect taxes in certain areas.

Each man who bought that right was responsible to the Roman government for an agreed sum. Anything he could raise beyond that amount, he could keep.

That of course  led to abuses. People often did not know how much they owed, and they had no right of appeal against the collector. Many collectors engaged in extortion. Many charged much more than the Roman government required. By doing that, many - maybe most - collectors of Roman taxes were very rich.

And listen to the number of taxes at that time. Actually, the list does not seem much longer than what we have today, but listen.

There were three stated taxes. It was difficult for collectors to cheat on the stated taxes. They were pretty well known.

Set taxes included a ground tax of 10% of grain and 20% of fruit produced, the tax paid either in cash or by handing over that amount of the crop. There was an income tax of 1% of income. There was a poll tax. It was not a tax related to voting, as we think of such a tax today, but a tax on living. All males from 14 to 65 and all females from 12 to 65 were accessed a poll tax.

Those taxes were set, but there were many other taxes that were easier to misuse. A tax on imported and exported goods that ranged from 2.5% to 12.5%. A tax to use main roads or cross bridges or enter market places or go into some towns and harbors. A tax on pack animals. A tax on the wheels. A tax on axles of carts. A sales taxes. Extra taxes on some commodities.

There were a lot of Roman taxes to pay. That was a difficult situation for the Jewish people, who were even more upset because they were Roman taxes. The Jews did not want to be under the authority of Rome. They thought it unspiritual to help support any king but God. All that made people like Matthew hated.

And again, at least many collectors of Roman taxes cheated, getting rich at the expense of their fellow Jews. That increased the hatred.

So hated were tax collectors, they were put into the same category as murderers and robbers. So hated, they were barred from synagogues.

All that to point out how amazed we should be that the day reported in Matthew 9, Jesus, seeing Matthew in his tax office, knowing full well what Matthew did for a living, walked up to him and said, “Follow Me.”

As it has been with some of the other conversations we have considered in this series of messages, this conversation was very short. In fact, it appears it might have been one-sided. At least there is no record of Matthew saying anything.

But he did answer. He answered by immediately rising from where he was sitting and following Jesus.

In a recent message, when we talked about how the first four of Jesus’ disciples - Peter, Andrew, James, and John - responded when Jesus called them, the point was made that they immediately followed, leaving what they did for a living, which for them was fishing.

So, too, did Matthew leave what he did for a living. But think of this. Peter, Andrew, James, and John could have returned to their work of fishing if things with Jesus had not worked out. But not Matthew. He had bought his right to collect taxes. Once he stepped away from that job, someone else would buy that position right away. There is no way Matthew would ever get his job back.
    
And while the fishermen could probably be hired by other Jews for fishing, who would hire Matthew, who was hated, to do anything?

All the disciples of Jesus took risks to answer His call to follow Him. For Matthew, that was dramatically true. In exchange, he gained the opportunity to follow and learn from the Savior and he gained an interesting spiritual adventure, but he gave up a good job and more than adequate income.

Jesus saw Matthew, a tax collector. Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow Me.” Matthew rose and followed. Right after that, he hosted a dinner. A dinner for his friends, described in verse 10 of Matthew 9, as tax collectors and sinners. In other words, other despised people. Many of them, according to verse 10. A dinner for people just like Matthew.
 
I wonder the purpose of the dinner. Maybe it was a time for Matthew to say goodbye to his fellow sinners, or maybe he wanted a comfortable opportunity to tell his friends about Jesus, trying to persuade them to follow Jesus.

Whatever the purpose, Matthew hosted a dinner for his friends. Also invited were Jesus and His disciples. They sat with Matthew, other tax collectors, and others who were sinners, sitting indicating Jesus’ willingness to associate with people considered unworthy by those who were religious.

Nearby, some Pharisees - one of the groups of religious leaders - looked upon the scene. Apparently Jesus’ disciples were near a door or a window or toward the outside parts of a courtyard because the Pharisees were able to talk to them. The Pharisees asked the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

That was a relevant question. Good, righteous Jews were not to have anything at all to do with those who sinned. They were not to travel with sinners or do business with them or give or receive anything from them or entertain them as guests or be guests of them. Yet Jesus was at that dinner.

“Why does your teacher eat with such horrible people?” The disciples were asked that question. However, Jesus heard it. Before His disciples could answer, He said to the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

What did Jesus mean? He meant that His purpose was to go wherever the need was the greatest. Since sinners were sinners, they were sick in a spiritual sense. Since sinners needed forgiveness and a new start to holy lives, it was to sinners Jesus intended to go.

And listen. Jesus was not saying He was not interested in those who were Pharisees. Nor was He saying the Pharisees were so good they had no need of Him.

He was, however, critical of them for being so self-satisfied they were convinced they did not need anyone’s help.

The Pharisees refused to acknowledge their sins, let alone repent of them. With that attitude, Jesus could not reach them to forgive them. But the tax collectors and sinners at the dinner apparently were very conscious of their sins. Because of that, they were desperately aware of their need for a Savior. It was them Jesus could reach, which is why He was at that dinner.
    
Jesus added, in His conclusion to this conversation, “For I came, not to call the righteous…” Again, He cared for and still does care for good people. Here He was again referring to those who consider themselves so good they think they are saved on their own. “I came, not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Those who know their sins, repent of their sins, are willing to be forgiven, and then receive strength from God to go from here and sin no more.

Matthew was a tax collector. When called by Jesus to follow Him, Matthew answered by immediately going with Jesus. What a wonderful opportunity Matthew had to be a disciple of Jesus.

In Luke 19:1-10, we learn of another tax collector who had a conversation with Jesus, this one destined, not to be a disciple, but a very devout layman.

That tax collector’s name was Zacchaeus, who was a resident of the city of Jericho. He met Jesus one day as Jesus was passing through Jericho.

Jericho was a very wealthy and important town at the time of Jesus. It commanded one of the main roads to Jerusalem. It was near a river that needed to be crossed to get to the east. It was in an area of a great palm forest and balsam groves that gave a wonderful aroma throughout the region. There were gardens of roses in the city that were famous . Dates grown in the area were carried by Romans in world-wide trade.

However, I learned something about Jericho. Something not nearly as positive.

I remember Jericho was the first city to be destroyed when the Old Testament people of God entered the Promised Land. That happened early in the Old Testament. But here is what I learned. Like some other things, I know I have read this before, but, in this case, until the study for this message, it did not sink in.

Here is what I learned. In Joshua 6:26, after Jericho was destroyed, Joshua, the leader of God’s people, said, “Cursed before the LORD be the man that rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho.” The curse was to include the loss of “the first born of any man who would lay a new foundation for the city.” The curse was to include the loss of “the youngest son of any man who set up gates for the city.”

According to that, Jericho was never to have been rebuilt. But it was. Hence the city being there in Jesus’ time. But how strange it is that Jesus would have entered that city. He knew its rebuilding had been forbidden. I imagine good Jews avoided the city. But Jesus was there the day recorded in Luke 19.

Do you suppose that was another example of Jesus having come to be with those with the greatest need? Those who were the sickest spiritually? Jesus passing through Jericho may have been an attempt to offer the people of that city grace.

As Jesus passed through Jericho, He met Zacchaeus, identified as a chief tax collector, meaning he was in charge of the tax office of the city. It might also mean he was the richest tax collector, having had more opportunities than others to cheat people. Because of the travel routes through the area and all the agriculture and commerce in the area, there were many taxes and therefore many opportunities to cheat.

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. He had reached the top of his profession, which means he was very rich. However, he was the most hated man in that district.

It seems the day of Jesus passing through his city, Zacchaeus might have been feeling guilty about his line of work. How he had conducted his business

And I wonder? Had Zacchaeus heard about the disciple named Matthew? How Matthew had been a tax collector? A hated man who had been called by Jesus to be a follower? A man who had been forgiven by Jesus? A man who had been given a chance to lead a righteous life?

That day, Zacchaeus heard Jesus was passing through Jericho. He at least wanted to see the one who had called Matthew to be a disciple. However, the crowd was very large that day. And it needs to be noted Zacchaeus was a wee, little man. And remember he was hated.

Somehow, Zacchaeus got caught in the large crowd. Those around him, noticing him, likely took advantage of the chance to mistreat him a bit - to nudge him, step on him, kick him, elbow him. There was no way Zacchaeus could identify his attackers.

At the least, those in the crowd around Zacchaeus made sure he was kept from doing what he wanted to do, that being to see Jesus.

It was a bad time for Zacchaeus. However, he was determined to see Jesus. With that determination, he worked his way out of the crowd. He got behind the crowd. He went to one of the trees farther along the road Jesus was on. A sycamore tree that had branches hanging over the road. Zacchaeus climbed that tree and got on one of the overhanging branches. It was there he waited as Jesus approached.

When Jesus arrived at that place, He looked up and began a conversation with Zacchaeus. He said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

Zacchaeus may have been surprised he was noticed. After all, the road was lined on each side with other people, all of them shouting to Jesus. How could Zacchaeus have expected to be noticed?

But wait. Had Jesus called him by name? Yes He had said, “Zacchaeus.” Wow How amazing that was since he and Jesus had never met.

And, Zacchaeus must have asked, “Did I hear an invitation? Did Jesus just invite me down from the tree? Did He just invite Himself over to my house?”

That is what Zacchaeus had heard. With haste, he did what he was invited to do. He climbed to the ground. He met Jesus. He then received Jesus at his house, doing so joyfully.

Once again there were complaints about what Jesus did. Remember He had been criticized for being at the dinner hosted by Matthew. Now He was criticized for being with Zacchaeus.

In fact, here the mood was uglier. Earlier the wording is that the Pharisees simply asked the question of why Jesus was with bad people. Here - verse 7 of Luke 19 - the word is “murmured,” which refers to quiet but threatening grumbling.

“He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner,” the people in the crowd said. No hope that maybe Jesus would be able to reform Zacchaeus and make him a better person. Just a quiet anger. Anger that might have included some jealousy that Zacchaeus and not them got some private time with Jesus.

Jesus and Zacchaeus no doubt had a lot to talk about during their time together. A lot of conversation not recorded in Luke 19. But we do know some of what Zacchaeus said toward the end of his time with Jesus.

Verse 8. Zacchaeus stood. That means what he was about to say was deliberate. He wanted to be seen. He wanted to be heard. Not to draw attention to himself, but to prove he was serious. Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

In their conversation, apparently Jesus had drawn Zacchaeus to repent of his sins. Apparently Jesus had forgiven Zacchaeus. Jesus may have instructed Zacchaeus to go and sin no more. What Zacchaeus said was his expression of proving he was serious about obeying. So serious he was willing to show by his actions he was a changed man.

And think how significant the changes were and were going to be.
 
Right away - right then - he gave half his wealth to the poor. I don’t think that was required. I think a tithe - 10% of his wealth - would have been sufficient. But Zacchaeus chose to go beyond that. Right then he gave half his wealth away.    
    
For the future, he was going to go through his records and find anyone and everyone he had cheated. He was going to repay those people four times what he had stolen, which was also well beyond what was required.

According to the law, if there was a robbery that was deliberate and violent, a fourfold restitution was required. A non-violent robbery called for double restitution. But what Zacchaeus had done was not robbery.
    
Plus, if a crime was confessed voluntarily, which was the case with Zacchaeus, only the original value of what was stolen plus 20% was required.

Zacchaeus was not required to make such a high restitution, and he did not need to give half his wealth away. But he was determined to do much more than the law required. He was determined to show by his deeds that he was a changed man. That he was no longer going to lay up treasures to himself, but toward God.

That is what Zacchaeus said. Jesus closed the conversation with two comments.

First He said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
 
Remember, salvation is an individual thing. Zacchaeus’ family did not automatically become saved just because Zacchaeus was. I think what Jesus meant was that Zacchaeus was such a changed man, the rest of the family would also be drawn to Jesus.

Jesus then concluded the conversation with these words, which are similar to what He said at the dinner hosted by Matthew. He said, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Remember that some of the conversations we are considering in this series of messages display Jesus’ devotion to His purpose. When Jesus said He had come to seek and to save the lost, that was an announcement of His purpose. The purpose of finding people who are lost - lost because they have wandered away from God. The purpose of finding people and changing them and putting them where they belong, which is being obedient children in the household and the family of God.

*       *       *       *       *

Two tax collectors - Matthew and Zacchaeus. Jesus had conversations with each of them. What can we learn from those conversations? I have two things to suggest.

First, we, like Matthew who gave up a lucrative job and like Zacchaeus who gave up a bunch of wealth, might have to give up something to follow Jesus. Maybe not a job or wealth. Maybe something else. I will let you think about what it might be for you. Something that is important to you. We might have to give up something to follow Jesus.

But think what we will gain. For Matthew, it was the opportunity to follow his Savior. For Zacchaeus, I wonder if people treated him better. At least he was right with God. For us, we will gain peace and joy spiritually, which is certainly not a promise that everything will always go well for us, but rather a promise of the Lord’s presence, which will allow peace and joy to continue.

Second, notice the wide variety of people Jesus talked to. Fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who were kind of middle class people. Rich men like Matthew and Zacchaeus. There were others of even more variety, the point being that Jesus is for everyone.

And yes, some were called to be disciples. Others, like Zacchaeus, were called to be followers of Jesus in other ways.

Jesus is for everyone. That includes you, and I am speaking especially to anyone who has not yet accepted Jesus as the Savior He is. Accept Him, maybe even right now. Then allow Him to affect how you live. Allow Him to make you righteous. To act righteously in whatever ways and roles He determines to be right for you.

*       *       *       *       *

Today’s closing song is just the chorus of a well-known hymn. It is the chorus to It Is No Secret. As we sing, let’s think of what Jesus did for Matthew and for Zacchaeus, who are some of the others referred to in the song. What Jesus is still willing to do for sinners today.

For those of us who have repented and been forgiven and been saved and are at least on the road to living better, let’s rejoice over the Lord’s pardoning of us.
    
If  you  have  not  yet  done  those  things,  may you feel God’s wide open arms as He is ready to do for you what He has done for others, including Matthew and Zacchaeus.

It is no secret what God can do.
What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you.
With arms wide open, He’ll pardon you.
It is no secret what God can do.
    
Lord, thank You for Your saving power. Thank You that we know of that power as we read about Matthew and Zacchaeus and as we know people today who have been saved. Help us to rejoice if we are among those who are saved. Help those who are not saved to be drawn to You to the point that they will repent and accept Your forgiveness. Thank You that You want to save everyone, no matter who we are. Thank You that You use Your saved people in ways You know are best. Thank You. Amen.

 

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