Tax-collectors are referred to often throughout the ministry of Jesus. (See Luke 18:9-14; Matthew 9:9-13; Luke 19:1-10; Matthew 18:15-17; Matthew 21:28-32.) Understanding the position of the tax-collectors in Jewish society in Jesus’ day will help us understand more about the ministry and mission of Jesus.
The tax burden in ancient Judea
Under Roman rule, the Jews of Jesus’ day paid a religious tax to the Jewish authorities for the maintenance of the temple. They also paid a tax to the Roman government, a tax that was often collected by harsh methods. The Roman tax included both direct income taxes and customs duties. Duties were paid on traded goods, while merchants also paid tolls to use roads and bridges and to enter towns. The cumulative weight of these taxes discouraged economic initiative and thus produced conditions that made the tax ever more oppressive. Historians estimate that the total tax burden on the Jewish people must have approached between 30 and 40 percent, and may have been even higher.
How taxes were collected
The Roman taxes were collected by a class of independent contractors, usually Jews who worked in close association with Romans. The tax collectors paid a fixed sum for the right to collect. Anything they could collect above what they paid for the franchise was profit. This led to considerable abuse. For example, a tax-collector would open every carton of traded goods, arbitrarily assess its value, and exact a payment. Assessments were typically inflated. There was no recourse or appeal for an unjust assessment. Tax collectors also made money by threatening false charges of smuggling, then extorting hush money. They often targeted citizens unable to pay, so that exorbitant interest could be charged.
The position of the tax-collectors in society
Tax-collectors were despised by their fellow Jews. They were an ever-present symbol of foreign oppression, they used cruel methods to become wealthy at the expense of their countrymen, and they worked in close association with Gentiles. For these reasons, tax-collectors were treated as the lowest class of sinners. Socially, they were rejected. Politically, they were regarded as traitors. Religiously, they were excommunicated as apostates. Being a tax collector created an indelible black mark on a man in the eyes of the people. Tax collectors were not allowed to hold any office of community responsibility. They were not allowed to testify in Jewish legal courts. Rabbis debated whether it was possible for a tax-collector to experience true repentance.
Given the status of tax collectors in Jewish society, it is remarkable that Jesus reached out to tax collectors like Zacchaeus and Matthew. The power of redemption is so great that there is no class of people beyond the scope of God’s mercy.
- Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
- What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
- Why were tax-collectors so despised by the Jews of Jesus’ day?
- Why do you think rabbis debated whether tax-collectors could truly experience repentance? How would you answer that question, and why?
- What group of people or social class might have a similar position in today’s society, and why?
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.