Written by Derek J. Brown |
Friday, September 8, 2023
Jesus didn’t eat with tax collectors merely to “hang out” with them, but to call them to repentance and salvation (Luke 19:10). Jesus’ model of evangelism, then, shows us that we must be willing to engage with the gospel those whom the world despises. But it also shows us that we are not called to merely spend time with flagrant sinners, nor should we engage with them in a way that condones their sinful lives or participates in their sin. Rather, we are to use these opportunities to lovingly call them to repentance.
To understand the tax collectors of Jesus’ day and how they were viewed by their fellow Jews, we must first gain some insight into the tax system in Israel. At the time of Jesus, Israel was under Roman occupation, and Rome exercised its authority over Israel by placing governors over some of its provinces (e.g., the Herods in Galilee and Judea).
Rome also installed a comprehensive tax system throughout its empire to fund the local and national governments, infrastructure, public building projects, markets, stadiums, and so on. Throughout the empire, taxes were levied on property, exports and imports, the use of roads, income, crops (wine, fruit, and oil), entrances into towns, the transportation of goods; and there were even taxes on salt, purchases (sales tax), animals, vehicles, and the selling of slaves. (The Jews were also taxed annually for use of their temple.)
Rome exercised little regulation over their tax franchises.
Rome eventually started to offer regional tax “franchises” to entrepreneurs who would bid for the opportunity to oversee a tax collection service in a given area. The entrepreneur would then hire local tax collectors to gather taxes from residents.
Apart from setting the required tax quota, Rome exercised little regulation over these franchises, so the Publican (a Latin term that referred to the owner of the franchise, not a local tax collector) was able to establish his own commission. By offering these franchises to the highest bidder and allowing the Publican to set his own rates, the system was vulnerable to fraud. These tax collectors were usually involved in collecting indirect taxes (tolls, customs, etc.) and were usually located at the entrance of major towns and ports of entry.
Jewish tax collectors in Jesus’ time were considered no better than thieves.
Jewish tax collectors in Israel were despised for at least two reasons. The first reason was due to their connection with a foreign power that was presently occupying Israel.