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Jesus and the Tax Collectors | IRS Tax Collectors Modern Days Equivalent to Roman Tax Collectors

I am just finishing up a New Testament class I took at Regis University this summer and thought it was interesting to find that tax collectors were even more despised 2000 years ago (which is hard for me to imagine being that I hear from taxpayers everyday about how bad the IRS is).  I wonder how the contemporaries of Jesus would fell paying today's rates of 25% late filing and 25% late payment plus daily compounded interest of over 7%! 

Jesus had a special relationship with tax collectors. Matthew was one. So was Levi. Many others ate and drank with him. I can tell you from first hand experience that many of the people working at the IRS need Jesus (more notably the ones who work at the collection call center-ACS).  So let's start with the calling of Matthew:

Matthew 9:9-13 (NIV)

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth.

"Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

So why were the tax collectors so despised?

The New Testament quotes John the Baptist saying:

Luke 3:12-13 (NIV)

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"

"Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them.

So that implies it was common for tax collectors to collect more than people owed and pocket the extra money. This is substantiated by Jewishencylopedia which says this:

The Romans left to the governors or procurators the collection of the regular taxes, such as the land-tax and poll-tax, but leased the customs duties, the market tolls, and similar special imposts. The lessees were generally Roman knights; but there were among them Jews also. The fact that they were helping the Romans in the exaction of the heavy taxes imposed upon the Jews, combined with the rapacity of some tax-collectors who, taking advantage of the indefiniteness of the tariffs, overcharged the taxpayer, rendered this class of officials hateful to the people. Hence the stringent Jewish legislation which classified the tax-collectors with robbers. Thus, for instance, it was forbidden to take payment in coin from the treasury of the tax-gatherer or to receive alms from it, because the money had been gained by robbery. The tax-gatherer was ineligible to serve as judge or even as a witness. If one member of a family was a tax-gatherer, all its members were liable to be considered as such for the purposes of testimony, because they would be likely to shield him.

And this:

Local tax-farmer; the office existed among the Jews under the Roman dominion. The Romans were accustomed to farm out, generally for five years, the customs dues on exports. These taxes were mainly ad valorem, and therefore, as the value placed upon goods varied, lent themselves to extortion; hence the unpopularity of the publicans, especially when, as under the Romans, they were Jews exploiting their fellow Jews. Echoes of this ill repute are found in the New Testament, where publicans are coupled with sinners (Matt. ix. 10; Luke v. 30, vii. 34), and even with the most degraded persons (Matt. Xxi. 31).

That wasn't the only reason they were hated though. Jewishencyclopedia also says the had a reputation for cruelty. This is born out by the writings of Philo of Alexandria. He was a Jewish scholar who lived in the time of Jesus. He said this about tax collectors in THE SPECIAL LAWS II: 92-95:

Moreover let the governors of cities cease to oppress them with continual and excessive taxes and tributes, filling their own stores with money, and in preserving as a treasure the illiberal vices which defile their whole lives; for they do, on purpose, select as collectors of their revenues the most pitiless of men, persons full of all kinds of inhumanity, giving them abundant opportunity for the exercise of their covetousness; and they, in addition to their own innate severity of temper, receiving free license from the commands of their masters, and having determined to do everything so as to please them, practice all the harshest measures which they can imagine, having no notion of gentleness or humanity, not even in their dreams; therefore they throw everything into disorder and confusion, levying their exactions, not only on the possessions of the citizens, but also on their persons, with insults and violence, and the invention of new and unprecedented torture. And before now I have heard of some persons who, in their ferocity and unequalled fury, have not spared even the dead; but have been so brutal as even to venture to beat the dead corpses with goads; and when some one blamed their brutality, in that not even death, that relief and real end of all miseries, could prevent their victims from being insulted by them, but that, instead of a grave and the customary funeral rites, they were exposed to continued insult, they made a defence worse even than the accusation brought against them, saying that they were insulting the dead, not for the sake of abusing the dumb and senseless dust, for there was no advantage in that, but for the sake of making those who through ties of blood or of friendship were nearly connected with them feel compassion for them, and so inducing them to pay a ransom for their bodies, thus doing them the last service in their power.

Yet Jesus would party with them:

Luke 7:34 (NIV)

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."

But Jesus didn't think they were a lost cause:

Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Jesus even said:

Matthew 21:32 (NIV)

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

which nicely ties up with his original mission:

Matthew 15:24 (NIV)

He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel."


Luke 15:3-7 (NIV)

Then Jesus told them this parable: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

So Jesus was offering salvation to Matthew and Levi and Zacchaeus and all the other tax collectors who listened to him. And if they could repent and be saved then so could everyone else. People in Congress need to read this! 

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