If you had to nominate a group for “Most Hated People in Scripture,” tax collectors would probably be the first to mind. In fact, tax collectors are singled out for scorn directly or indirectly over 30 times in the gospels.
In democratic societies, the tax collector plays an important, but annoying role in sustaining a system that ultimately benefits the citizenry. In the gospels, however, the tax collector is a whole different animal and Jewish hatred for them is palpable. Thus, people do not respond well when Jesus embraces them in repentance as followers and even makes one as His close disciple.
So a natural question would be: “Why do the Jews of the gospel era feel such a profound hatred for tax collectors?”
The answer to this question is a bit of a history lesson. So, bear with me while I tell you a story. The tax collectors don’t come in until the end, but when they do, perhaps you will hate them just as much.
The Story Answer
The Jewish self-consciousness of Jesus’ day is intimately bound up with the lost glory days of the Davidic kings and the centuries of struggle under foreign rule following their exile.
David himself establishes as free of a society as one might hope for in the ancient world. It is like a proto-constitutional republic. The people covenant with the house of David to be their kings. The sons of David are sworn to rule by Torah, and by principles of shepherd leadership, as spiritual equals with the people. Given the corruptive nature of power, this doesn’t always work out so well, but between exodus and exile, they are at least ruled by brothers and not foreigners. Throughout these years they are fed spiritually through the prophets on the promises of a reestablished Davidic rule, where Messiah will restore all things to proper order.
After being in exile, the Jewish people are allowed to return to their homeland, but they remain under foreign control. They are kicked about like a soccer ball for a few centuries between competing empire builders. Life is not too terrible when these foreign rulers leave the Jewish people to their own devices in exchange for tribute raised through taxes.
During the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, however, things take an ugly turn. Antiochus hates the Jews and is determined to crush them through various means. He seduces Jewish youths to the dark side of Hellenistic life. He also bans Torah, interferes in Jewish religious practices, and defiles their sacred sites.
The Jews push back hard against Antiochus and win their freedom, living under their own brother rulers for the first time since the exile. This is no Davidic Messianic reign, but it does seem to the Jews to be an important step in that direction. When Messiah comes, surely their Jewish rulers will hand over power to Him.
Not surprisingly, Jewish power struggles get messy and some 60 years before Jesus’ birth, hard-won Jewish freedom is lost to Rome. The Jews find themselves yet again under foreign rule. Rome begins by working with existing Jewish leadership, but the level of Roman control and interference grows steadily as the decades pass.
Herod the Great, a pseudo-Jewish Roman representative, proves despotic in psychotic ways. Upon his celebrated death, Rome divides power between Herod’s surviving heirs, and, eventually, appoints purely Roman prefects over various parts of old Davidic territory. Dreams of Messiah never seem less likely, and are, for that very reason, most pronounced. If ever the Jewish people needed Yahweh to fulfill His Messianic promises, it is then.
The Taxman Cometh
So what do we have? We have a people nurtured on unprecedented levels of freedom, nursed on great Messianic hopes for a divine peaceable kingdom, raised in the great light of Torah, who descend into the madness of pagan domination for centuries. They have been abused, bullied, tormented, tortured, and murdered. They are daily prevented from being the people they believe God has called them to be, and the oppression of it weighs heavily upon them.
It gets worse. Taxes under the Roman Empire are complicated and layered. Companies buy the right of taxation for regions, guaranteeing Rome a certain income into their coffers, and receiving in exchange a free hand to pick the pockets of the people. It is a thoroughly corrupt system greased and protected with bribery. The lowest men are appointed at the bottom rung to do the dirtiest job; the actual confiscation of funds. These are men who take special pleasure in exercising power over others and pressing every advantage they have over them to the full.
There are crown taxes, income taxes, property taxes, produce taxes, bridge taxes, road taxes, harbor taxes, import taxes, export taxes, town taxes, special taxes on certain goods, some as high as 12 ½ %. Any attempt to move goods to market involves constant harassment. On command, farmers have to unload their goods, allow them to be searched, assessed, and taxed at the discretion of the tax collector.
Common people are always vulnerable to false accusations and the penalties for nonpayment by cash-poor farmers can be extreme. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:21-34 tells it true, saying, “…since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made,” and we find, “seizing him, he began to choke him, … and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.”
It gets worse still. Many Jewish people throw in their lot with the oppressors. The common Jewish person might not be able to say much about their leaders whose power and wealth was largely dependent on continued Roman support of their leadership, but another class of betrayer is ready at hand for their ire—the Jewish tax collector. They are the greedy, smug, sneering, mocking face of Roman oppression worn by fellow Jews, who, but for their abandonment of faith in the promises of God, would have been brothers in arms. They are ranked with murderers and the grossest of sinners.
Good News, Bad News
It is just too much to bear. In the complex experience of this betrayal, frustration boils over. It is important, as we read the gospels, to feel the depth of it. We must know their crimes, and look on knowingly with the crowds and Pharisees as Jesus says to one of the chiefs of these wicked men, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” and then, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:5-9) We must feel what it was for the people to look on as these turncoats come to Jesus, like prodigal sons fattened upon the stolen wealth of their brothers, and to find Jesus accepting their repentance and rejoicing, He claims, with the angels.
It should affect us deeply. Jesus’ forgiveness does not diminish their crimes, rather, it exalts the grace and mercy of God. Indeed, no class of sinner is beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit’s conviction or the Father’s forgiveness.
And that is good news for you and me, the Chief of Sinners.
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