It is commonplace when thinking about a theology of work in the New Testament to turn to the example of Jesus, who learned his father Joseph’s trade as a carpenter. That the Son of God would devote the majority of his earthly life to manual labor confers a sense of dignity to the human experience. In his book Work Matters, Tom Nelson, who is editor in chief of this publication, puts it this way: “This incarnational pattern of Jesus’ earthly life speaks volumes about the importance of our day-to-day vocational work.”
But in providing biblical insights for a theology of work, I want to take a different route through the Gospels and see how Jesus changed the way others thought about their own work in his time. Doing this may help us consider how the call of discipleship transforms our labor.
In this article, I am exploring the accounts of two tax collectors in the Gospel of Luke, and how Luke’s recurring themes on tax collectors, the rich, and a proper response to God provide important background.
Tax collectors in the Gospels are often grouped with the sinners and outcasts because the crowds largely considered their profession dishonorable; they would often collect taxes from their fellow Jews on behalf of the Roman government and had a reputation for taking more than authorized (and keeping the surplus for themselves). In Luke 3, John the Baptist is preaching a message about repentance for forgiveness in preparation of Jesus’ ministry, and as he baptizes the crowds, collectors ask him how they ought to live after they have received forgiveness. John’s response to them is surprising: “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:13). He doesn’t condemn the practice of tax collection itself, and even Jesus seemingly acknowledges the legitimacy of the Roman tax (Luke 20:26). Rather than abandon their profession, John the Baptist indicates it is possible for them to conduct their business justly.
The dubious practices of Roman tax collectors were systemic, with a structure that enabled abuse. This may explain why we see two different responses from tax collectors in Luke’s Gospel: Levi abandons his post, and Zaccheus reforms his. While Levi is recorded simply as a tax collector, Zaccheus is recorded as a chief tax collector, in charge of the collection for his whole region. Zaccheus is wealthy. When Levi encounters Jesus, he leaves everything behind. But when Zaccheus encounters Jesus, he returns to his work with a commitment to justice and charity, and to using the power of his station to that end. One unlike the other, both responses are evidence of whole-life discipleship in following Jesus.
The call of Levi the tax collector occurs in Luke 5, a chapter in which Jesus calls his first disciples — the fishermen Simon Peter and brothers James and John — and heals a leper and a paralytic in view of the crowds. Not only was he gaining disciples but curious crowds of onlookers watching Jesus and asking questions.
When Jesus sees Levi and says, “Follow me,” Levi’s response is similar to that of the three fishermen: He leaves everything behind to follow Jesus. We might be tempted to psychoanalyze Levi and ask why a scrupulous person would do something so risky and impulsive, but Luke directs our attention both to Levi’s obedient response and to the grumbling of the onlookers. This is where we ask: How do people respond to Jesus? Levi, though resigning his post as a tax collector, celebrates a “great feast” with Jesus and invites his fellow tax collectors, an expensive decision for someone who is now jobless (Luke 5:29). Levi is already living out the call to discipleship, in honoring Jesus and inviting others to meet him. The crowd, however, includes incensed Pharisees and scribes grumbling to the disciples about Jesus spending time with tax collectors. Jesus responds to the critics by saying: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:31-32)
John the Baptist earlier called tax collectors to repent, turning from their ways not by leaving their profession but by conducting business with integrity, and here Levi has brought fellow tax collectors to Jesus to be called to repentance and honorable work. An encounter with Jesus radically altered Levi’s view of his work. For him, obedience meant forsaking all and following Jesus, but for others, obedience might mean returning to their work with newfound dignity.
Such is the case with Zaccheus, the “wee little man” I remember singing about in Sunday school, the man who climbed up in a sycamore tree to see Jesus over the crowd. Luke notes that Zaccheus was a chief tax collector and wealthy, which should signal to the reader what Jesus said about both tax collectors and the rich in the previous chapter, Luke 18.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector, in which he praised the example of the tax collector who prayed simply for God’s mercy and forgiveness compared to the Pharisee whose prayer boasted of his righteousness before others (18:9–14). Shortly after this parable, we see Luke’s account of the rich young ruler, whose refusal to give away his possessions led Jesus to say, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). The humility of the tax collector’s faith in prayer and the difficulty of the wealthy to practice righteous generosity in discipleship are important factors in reading the story of Zaccheus. I previously wrote for Made to Flourish an article which explored how Matthew’s Gospel places the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in contrast to Matthew's telling of the rich young ruler. In Luke’s Gospel, the story of Zaccheus might best correspond as a positive foil to the young ruler’s inability to let go of his possessions.
Like Levi, Zaccheus responds immediately to the call of discipleship when Jesus finds him in the sycamore tree. While Luke’s rich young ruler walks away heavyhearted, Zaccheus greets Jesus with gladness. Again, the crowd murmurs in response to Jesus calling Zaccheus, against whom they harbored resentment because he was a chief tax collector. The recurring mention of the crowd’s response can invite us to consider how we would respond to Jesus approaching Zaccheus in this way. Imagine how the disciples reacted after they were just in disbelief when the rich young ruler walked away. Now Jesus welcomes a wealthy person who had a reputation for dishonorable gain. But before Jesus can speak, Zaccheus declares that he will give away half his possessions to the poor and pay reparations (four times as much as he owed) to those he may have cheated in tax collection.
This encounter with Jesus transforms Zaccheus’ connection to his material wealth and the ethical decisions he would make in his work as a tax collector. As a regional manager of sorts, Zaccheus committed his branch to pay over and above in return if he is accused of cheating. Even working for the Roman government, he is able to return to his job as a disciple of Jesus and work with integrity and charity. Both Levi and Zaccheus respond to Jesus immediately, but their callings differ — as they do for each of us. Regardless, their decisions to follow Jesus encompassed every aspect of their life — and, as especially noted here in Luke, guided how they approached their work.
Back to work
The tale of the two tax collectors shows us that the key to a theology of work is Jesus — not just his example of labor but his identity as the Messiah who calls us to live wholeheartedly following him. In the journey of discipleship, obedience may look differently as you follow the Master’s call. For Levi, that meant leaving his profession. In doing so, he shared with his colleagues the path of repentance. If you find that obedience to God requires you to change professions, could you do the same?
For many who read this, however, my hope is that you will return to your work like the baptized tax collectors in Luke 3, and like Zaccheus who committed to work with integrity and grace. How might working well — acting wisely and ethically in difficult situations, treating others with kindness, and responding to conflict with abundant generosity — demonstrate to the world the call to whole-life discipleship? In both his manual labor and his ministry, the Good Shepherd has walked this path ahead of you. When you hear the call, “Follow me,” you can respond by letting Jesus lead you back to the workplace with gladness.