Levi and Zacchaeus were two tax collectors that took advantage of their positional authority to reign in wealth at the expense of the taxpayer. Paid by the Roman government, they were to collect money to finance the occupying army of the Roman Empire. Outside of the Romans themselves, they were the most despised group in Israel. Caught up in greed, they would manipulate the taxes so that they got their “fair” share, while ensuring that the Roman’s coffers stayed full. It was these two individuals that Jesus sought out to change their lives forever.
Levi (Matthew) was sitting in his tax office (booth) gathering the bounty, when Jesus changed his life with two little words: “Follow me.” Those words are still offered today. Jesus is not concerned with someone’s history of what he has done or is doing. He offers a life of forgiveness and purpose. Levi immediately responded to Jesus’ invitation and exchanged his love of money for his love of others. We do not know the immediate chain of events, but it seems Levi accompanied Jesus for a number of days before he held a dinner party for those tax collectors that had previously worked with him. Jesus was the main speaker and Levi was the illustration of a changed life. I can hear Levi standing up and saying, “What He has done for me, He can do for you!” We need that kind of witnessing today. A changed life should be contagious by the offering of our testimony. Also at the dinner were Scribes and Pharisees. They sat in back of the room and challenged Jesus’ disciples as to why Jesus would be eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus overheard their judging and simply responded by telling them that when someone is sick they need a physician. What followed was a “homework” assignment that, sadly, the Pharisees would fail to complete. He told them to “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9: 9-13) Jesus wanted to see them exhibit mercy instead of meaningless rituals. Today, Jesus would like to see mercy and compassion instead of religious exercises.
Zacchaeus was a district manager (chief) of the Roman tax bureau in the Jericho area. He had made himself very rich by “cooking the books.” One day, Jesus was traveling through Jericho and saw Zacchaeus up in a tree. He had climbed up there to get a better look at Jesus, since he was short, and the crowd was so big he could not get a good visual of Jesus. Jesus simply told him to get down because He was going to stay at his house. Zacchaeus’ excitement must have been palpable, for a man with a reputation like Jesus to come to his residence was almost unbelievable. The people who heard the exchange began to “grumble” about how bad it was for Jesus to go to a sinner’s house. We will always have murmurers and complainers, especially when people do not understand the facts behind the situation. It was during the meeting at his house that Zacchaeus’ life would change forever. Whatever Jesus said caused Zacchaeus to stand up and proclaim that he would give half of his goods to the poor, and if he had cheated anyone, he would restore them four times. Jesus not only heard his words, but saw his heart and proclaimed, “Salvation has come to this house.” Jesus then continued with a teaching about faithfulness. (Luke 19:1-27) Today, Jesus is still offering an invitation to follow Him, and whoever accepts His invitation will experience a life changing reality.