Before we discuss the three publicans, we need to remember how the publicans were viewed by the rest of the Jews. They were given the obligation to collect a certain amount of taxes by the government, and also any additional amount they could extract from their fellow countrymen. As a result, the publicans often received exorbitant amounts from the people, and were hated by many.
When Jesus left the man He had healed of palsy, He saw Levi (Matthew) at the receipt of customs. Jesus said, “Follow me,” and Matthew left all and followed Jesus. (Matthew 9:9, Mark2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32).
Levi did not wait to see that everything was perfectly in order in his own business before he followed Jesus, but left all immediately. He probably was a wealthy man, as most tax collectors were, but left all and went with Jesus. In contrast, we may hesitate to follow Jesus because we want to keep all that we have (Luke18:23). We may give a great deal of thought to our own possessions, income and many material things that will ultimately be of no value. Also, we may consider our family and friends, which may be of great value, but which we must be willing to leave, if necessary, in order to follow Christ. Only after we have properly counted the cost should we follow Jesus, but we should always be aware that the cost of not following will be greater than the cost of following, no matter what we must leave.
Matthew was classed with sinners, as all publicans were. When the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with Matthew and his guests, they asked, “How is that He eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11). Jesus answered, “They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick.”
The scribes and Pharisees were sinful, but in their self-righteousness did not know it. They were looking for the mote in other’s eyes while ignoring the beam in their own eyes (Mark 7:5). We need to always be aware that we are sinners and that we have faults and failures in our lives. Our lives are never completely perfect. However, we need to be able to help others who need God in their lives.
Jesus saw something special in Matthew, even though he was a publican, that could be used in carrying the gospel to sinners. Often we can help others, who seem to us as lacking any redeeming values, to be servants of our Heavenly Father.
In the story of the prayers of the Pharisee and the publican in Luke 18:9-14 we find several lessons. The Pharisee started his prayer with negative reasons for being proud of himself, calling God’s attention to the things he did not do. He said he was not an extortioner, unjust, adulterer, or as this publican. Perhaps he was none of these, but he was guilty of as great a sin, that of hypocrisy (Matthew 6:5).
Instead of looking into his own heart for pride, arrogance and intolerance, he looked at what he saw in others. Also, instead of measuring himself by what he did, he measured himself by what he did not do.
In contrast, the publican in his prayer judged no other person, but showed his humility, reverence and awe in the presence of God. So often, Christians are intolerant and critical of others when they should look inward in order to see their own weakness and sin. So often, we are proud of the things that we consider bad that we do not do, instead of rejoicing in the good we can do.
When we find someone we can help to be closer to God, instead of being critical of the person, ask God for wisdom in finding the best way to help. After you pray, go to the person and do what you can, where you are, with what you have to help him.
Another publican was one who touched Jesus’ life and was blessed by Jesus touching part of his. Zacchaeus was so short that he could not see Jesus because of the crowd (Luke 19:1-10). That did not keep him from seeing Jesus. He did not wait, hoping to be able to get closer, but ran and climbed into a sycamore tree. He was rewarded immediately by Jesus who was willing to abide in his house.
We as Christians often stay far from Jesus because we feel we are so small, or have so little to offer. Instead of trying to get closer to God and Christ, we complain of our inabilities, and thus drift farther away. If we would only look into our hearts and then about us, we can find many things to draw us close to God.
Zacchaeus was already giving half of his possessions to the poor. He was willing to repay anyone he had cheated four times the amount. Probably there are few Christians who give half to the poor or any other good cause, such as preaching the gospel, reaching out to others to win them to Christ, helping the lonely or doing anything else that is sacrificial for Christ. Unlike the man who wanted to build more barns for his treasure, he was willing to give much to follow Jesus (Luke12:13-21). We should be willing to do this when we see the need.
The three primary lessons from these publicans are: Matthew was ready to leave all in order to follow Jesus. If necessary, we must be willing to leave all. The praying publican showed his humility and reverence for God. We should always be humble and reverent. Zacchaeus’ eagerness and resourcefulness in making sure he was near Jesus is worthy of our attention. We should have a strong desire to be near our Savior and serve Him.
These three publicans can serve as examples to us as we strive to live for Christ. Think seriously about this: If we do not demonstrate these traits found in the lives of these three publicans, we are less than Christ would have us be. Christ’s wisdom and compassion in reaching out to these men should help us to look beyond mere labels and understand a person’s real character and worth and thus help him to come to Christ and serve Him.