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Why all the hatred toward “tax collectors” in Jesus day? Sure, nobody really likes paying taxes, but everybody does it anyway. So why were tax collectors so universally despised?

Tax collectors in that time were so reviled that their occupation (telōnēs in Greek) became synonymous with the word “sinner” (see Matthew 9:10-11). In fact, the simple act of eating a meal with a tax collector like Matthew enraged the religious elite of that day. Why? There were two main reasons:

1) During the time of Christ, Jewish tax collectors were traitors to the nation of Israel. Living in God’s Promised Land under the occupation of the Roman army was onerous to nearly all Jewish people. Tax collectors, though, not only accepted that circumstance, they embraced it, extorting money from their fellow citizens to turn it over to the oppressive Roman government. They were collaborators with the enemy and even worse, aides to godless, unclean Gentiles. Pastor Chuck Swindoll explains, “Tax collectors had betrayed their people, rejected their heritage, despised their temple, and renounced their God. Tax collectors had sold themselves to foreigners, which put them on the same level as shameless harlots.”

2) During the time of Christ, tax collectors were thieves and abusers of people. The Roman government used a system of “tax farming” to collect monies from its conquered peoples. An entrepreneur would “buy” the obligation to pay taxes for a certain region, then would strong-arm people into overpaying their tax obligations to the state. The entrepreneur would pay the monthly quota owed to Rome, and then pocket the rest to amass personal wealth. These tax collectors literally had a license to steal—and they used (abused!) that power freely.

In that context, it’s hard to say which was more astounding: that Jesus would dare to ask a tax collector (traitor! sinner! thief! abuser!) to be his disciple—or that a reprobate tax collector would actually follow Jesus’ call.

 

Works Cited:

[SLU, 135; ELB, 269]

 

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