We also find Jesus using the perceptions linked with tax collectors to jolt the Jewish leaders from their complacency. While he was teaching in the temple courts during the final week of his life on earth, Jesus frequently clashed with the Jewish leaders, who questioned his authority and resisted his invitations to know him as their Savior from sin.

In this context, Jesus offered this stunning appraisal: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt 21:31).

But perhaps the largest rhetorical role that tax collectors play in the Gospels is linked to our understanding of just how large the kingdom of God is and consequently just how far the forgiveness of Jesus extends into the culture of a sin-ruined world. From the world’s perspective, Jesus was going about building a popular following in all the wrong ways.

An Egyptian tax receipt.

Inside of courting popular leaders, he courted those of lowest social status, spending considerable time with and even eating with the likes of tax collectors and other publicly shunned sinners (Matt 9:10-12; Luke 19:5-7). Jesus then invited Matthew, a tax collector, to become one for his disciples. The Gospel of Matthew does not hide the fact but parades it about for all to see (Matt 9:9; 10:3). And in Luke 19 it is Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in Jericho, who seems to get all the attention.

Jesus invited him to come down from the sycamore tree and then invited himself into Zacchaeus’s home for dinner, much to the chagrin of all the people who muttered about Jesus going to be the guest of a sinner. Yet it was this sinner in whom we see a remarkable change.

Zacchaeus promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and repay those whom he had defrauded at a rate of 400 percent. Of all those in Jericho, Jesus called this chief tax collector a “son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). Why did the Gospel writers give all this attention to Jesus’s connection with tax collectors like Zacchaeus? Because it says something about the kingdom of God; if they are in, there is no one who is ruled out.

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