Okay, “Tax Collectors” may not sound like a very exciting topic. And if I felt compelled to write about it, why didn’t I write this in April, for goodness sake?
To be honest, I’m in the midst of research for my third biblical historic novel. This time—Matthew. You know, Matthew the disciple or, as he was better known, Matthew the tax collector. Thus, I’m in tax collector research mode and YOU get to be the beneficiary. Now isn’t that exciting?
Look at it this way, you get a head start on the novel and the opportunity to see an author’s mind at work!
We only know the names of two tax collectors mentioned in the New Testament—Matthew and Zacchaeus (the wee little man who climbed the Sycamore tree.)
But what do you know about tax collecting in first century Israel? Do you even care? As in all things biblical, the more we know of the culture, the more we can understand the context of things Jesus said and did, so let’s jump right in.
Tax collecting is as old as the Old Testament and it is mentioned first pop out of the bag in the New Testament. It was ultimately taxation that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Oh, Caesar called it a “census”, but essentially the census gave records for taxation. Yes, Rome’s territory and authority had spread over a good part of the world, including Israel.
As in our day, taxes helped with road repair, aqueducts, and the like, but mostly it paid for Roman soldiers who paraded in and out of the country keeping the possibility of uprisings at bay.
The Equites were Romans at the top of the taxation ladder who handled the contracts and financial arrangements. As in all government hierarchy, magistrates were under them, and sub-magistrates down the line who lived in the provinces they served. All of these made the big bucks or maybe I should say the big stack of Roman coins!
At the bottom of the rung were the tax collectors who did the nitty-gritty work and these men were Jews, not Romans. That’s where the rub came in. Most Jews felt like these tax collectors were not only taxing them to death (or to poverty), but the people detested the fact that their fellow Jews were willingly “working for the enemy” so to speak.
To add insult to injury, the tax collectors were required to collect “x” amount and then they could charge anything over that amount that they could get by with.
At times, Jesus spoke in apparent agreement of Jewish negative opinion of the activity of these tax collectors. One time he talked about loving our enemies. He said,
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Matthew 5:46-47
He pretty much put tax collectors and pagans in one barrel together. But we will find next week that he does have a heart for the tax collector and all who are lost. After all, he called a tax collector to be one of his disciples!
~ Joyce ~