“Tax Collectors and Sinners”
By Kyle Pope
The Bible records that after the calling of Matthew (or Levi) the tax collector, Jesus went to a dinner at his house (Mark 2:15; Luke 5:29). Wayne Jackson, in his article entitled “The ‘Publican’ Factor” notes:
is forthrightly described as familiarly associating with the publicans. He let
them “draw near” to him (Luke 15:1), went into their homes (Luke 19:5), sat
with them (Matt. 9:10), ate with them (Matt. 9:11), and was a “friuend” to
these despicable people (Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34).
No generation has ever loved those who carry out civil
taxation, but what made these men so “despicable?” The study of ancient systems
of taxation and tribute is a complicated matter. The challenge is to isolate
conditions present in first century Palestine in order to interpret their
effects as witnessed in Scripture. Brother Mike Willis gives a good summary of
the problem in writing, “Because of their extortion and position as agents of
Rome, the publicans were socially rejected, religiously excommunicated and
politically viewed as traitors” (“Call of Matthew” 130).
The environment of New Testament
taxation was first set under the Ptolemaic control of Palestine (ca. 300 B.
C.). Under this system the government contracted with telonai “tax-farmers” which purchased the right to collect taxes in
various regions. Donahue explains, “the lessee would pay the state in advance
the sum to be collected so that the state would have workable capital for the
coming year” (43). This continued until 63 B. C. when the Romans introduced the
publicani, Roman agents who directly
collected taxes for Rome. Julius Caesar removed the publicani in 44 B. C. and Palestine returned to systems of
Upon the death of Herod the Great,
the division of his kingdom brought with it differences in the system of
taxation in different regions of his former kingdom. Michel notes:
The ethnarch Archelaus and the tetrarch Herod
Antipas had their own financial arrangements. The latter used the farming
system. The dues collected in Capernaum at the time of Jesus flowed into his
coffers … In NT times direct taxes were not farmed out in Judea. It seems as
though the Sanhedrin, under the supervision of the procurator, had to see to
the collection of taxes and was responsible for their payment (97).
indicates that in Jesus’ day the perception of tax-collectors as agents of Rome
and traitors may have differed from Galilee to Judea. Donahue writes, “In
Galilee payment of taxes and tolls could not be construed as direct support of
the Gentile in the same way as taxes paid to the Roman officials in Judea would
have been” (45). Scholars generally draw a distinction between direct and
indirect taxes, and between taxes and customs (or tolls). The latter were
“minor taxes, sales taxes, customs taxes, taxes on transport” (ibid. 42). It is
generally thought that Matthew was this type of Galilean “customs” tax-farmer.
problem was not only a matter of direct or indirect support of Rome. The system
of tax farming itself was prone to abuse. Llewelyn notes, “If a tax-farmer
collected more than the sum contracted to the state, it belonged to him. In
other words, the tax-farmer received the surplus, if any, above the contracted
sum and associated costs. This constituted his profit” (52). Michel adds,
“Since the tax-farmer had paid or pledged to pay the state a specific sum he
had to collect more than this if he was not to suffer financial loss or even
incur severe penalties” (99).
What then did John the Baptist
mean in teaching repentant tax-collectors, “Collect no more than what is
appointed for you” (Luke 3:13)? To curb abuse, authorities in some cases set
limits on how much tax-farmers could collect for their profit. Keener cites a
number of recorded instances in which this abuse took the form of violence and
intimidation (292-3). John was teaching the repentant to turn from all such
abuse. There is no question that tax-collectors as a class were considered of
questionable morality. Nine times the NT uses the phrase “tax-collectors and
sinners” (9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1). However, John’s
teachings indicate that simply being a tax-collector was not inherently
considered a sinful occupation.
When Jesus called the tax collector Matthew, Rice, notes
that Matthew does not add (as Luke does) that he “left all” observing that, “the Holy Spirit who
inspired the Gospels directed Matthew in modesty and truth” (141). The
Evangelist does not conceal his background, nor does he boast of his own
sacrifice. It is
a wonderful demonstration of divine inspiration and a reflection of a humble
spirit, that Matthew, does not avoid the historical fact of his former life
among “tax collectors and sinners.” Root asks the heart-searching question:
How often do we have a pharisaical attitude! When in
the gutters of life, we see the writhing mass of sinning humanity, how often do
we pull about us our cloaks of self-righteousness and go our way, not only
despising the sin, but also forgetting the sinner for whom Christ died! (73).
Jesus did not turn a blind eye to those who needed his
mercy. May we have the love, courage, and faith today to follow His example.
[*] The use of
the term “publican” in the KJV reflects the incorporation of the Latin publicanus into English with the generic
meaning “tax-collector.” Properly speaking, the telonai of the NT were not publicani.
Donahue points out, “The literal Greek translation of the Latin publicanus is demosiaones, a word which does not appear in the Gospels” (54).
John R. “Tax Collectors and Sinners: An Attempt at Identification.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 33
Wayne. “The ‘Publican’ Factor.” Christian
Courier. Nov. 8, 2004 [online]
Craig S. A Commentary on the Gospel of
Matthew. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1999.
S. R. “Tax Collection and the Telonai of the New Testament.” New Documents Illustrating Early
Christianity Vol. 8 Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,
Otto. “Telones” Theological Dictionary
of the New Testament Vol. 8. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Erdmans
Publishing Co., 1972.
Orrin, Ed. Standard Bible Commentary:
Matthew. Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Co., 1967.
Mike. “The Call of Matthew.” Guardian of
Truth 34.5 (1990): 130, 150.