To be able to understand the profound gratitude of both Matthew and Zaccheus one needs to appreciate their sense of shame and worthlessness before they met Jesus. Hated by their own people they were considered traitors; they collaborated with the national enemy, the Romans. The Jews despised them because of their constant contact with Gentiles. Lowest of the low, they were lumped together with prostitutes.
Tax collectors would report fellow citizens who could not pay their bill. More often than not, the deficiency would result in enslavement. “Individuals were driven to sell the bodies of their handsome boys and virgin daughters; communities to sell their temple-treasures and works of art, and the statues of their gods; the end of it all was slavery when adjudged the property of their creditors” wrote Lucullus.
Not much has changed in the last two thousand years: in Pro lege Manilia we read that “… the tax-contractors were the backbone of Roman society, funding the wars.” As a result the they were protected by soldiers. Everyone was ordered to “give these [so-called] respected and distinguished body of men your most careful attention.” Hence, no harm would come to them. They were thus hated and feared, and did whatever they wanted.
Matthew records how he was sitting in the Capernaum tax office one day when Jesus passed through. Jesus stopped, spoke to him, and said “Follow Me!” Without hesitation Matthew stood up, left his business, and followed Him (Matthew 9: 9). He later invited Jesus for a meal and the Pharisees, speaking to the Lord’s followers, criticized Jesus saying, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax-gatherers and sinners?” (9: 11). Only Matthew among the Gospel writers records this part of Jesus’s answer: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are ill. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion and not sacrifice’ ” (Matthew 9: 12-13). This last sentence is borrowed from the Old Testament book of Hosea (6: 6). In 12: 7 Matthew is careful to repeat the same words, “I desire compassion and not sacrifice” (also a quotation not found in the other Gospels), thus reflecting this tax collector’s experience of acceptance and mercy.
Watch the Visual Bible dramatization of Matthew Chapter 9 and 10:
Other times Matthew records the word tax collector (τελώνης) when the context is not complimentary: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (5: 46). “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds!” (11: 18-19). “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (18: 17).
Derogatory use of the word for tax collector would seem to argue against the claim that Matthew penned the Gospel. If Matthew were the author, some say, he would be expected to have suppressed these uses of τελώνης in an effort to cover up his part as a publican. However, the reports of such sayings can more logically argue for authorship by Matthew. These usages can perhaps be compared to an ex-convict who was converted in prison and who wants to proclaim every opportunity he gets, “I’m free! I’m free! Jesus can set you free too!” Or these usages may be compared to the ex-alcoholic or former drug user who realizes the magnitude of God’s forgiveness, then goes on to talk about the depths from which he came. In other words, Matthew was not ashamed of pointing to the mercy and grace of God which saved him.
Zaccheus, on the other hand, was no ordinary tax collector. As ἀρχιτελώνης the archbishop of tax collectors, he was the regional director who contracted out jobs to such men as Matthew. Of all the remarkable happenings Matthew had witnessed, the conversion of his superior must have captured his interest. Yet Matthew is silent. Speculations abound, but where Scripture is silent so will we be silent.
Watch the Jesus Film dramatization of Luke Chapter 19:
Luke also recorded the important parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18: 10-14), whereas Matthew did not. For Matthew — “the publican” — to have included this parable would have been poor taste. By doing so Matthew would have seemed to be saying, “Look, at how humble I am!” Its absence from the first Gospel can be construed as evidence of Matthean authorship.
Matthew has three other references to the tax collectors which are not found in the other Gospels: Matthew 10: 3; 18: 17; and 21: 31. Of these the first one merits special mention. It is part of the list counting the twelve Apostles, as also presented in Mark, Luke, and Acts. They all list Matthew by name; however, in Matthew’s list, when he writes his own name, he adds ἀρχιτελώνης, which none of the others do.
The call of Matthew stands out as an extraordinary event. Even though Philip and Nathanael had interesting stories of their call (as the other disciples are sure to have had), Mark and Luke make the call of Matthew stand out. It seems as though the call of Matthew had special significance for them. Why? Perhaps the reason is that Jesus was calling Matthew as His official historian.