Lessons from Luke: the Publican
Did you know that the disciple called Matthew, also known as Levi, was a tax collector before Christ called on him to be a follower?
Today’s post is another in our Lessons from Luke series. Luke tells of Christ’s first encounter with Matthew here:
After that He went out and noticed a tax collector named Levi sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me.”
And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him. And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax collectors and other people who were reclining at the table with them. The Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?”
And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.”I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:27-32
Kind of a timely passage as we enter tax season here in the United States, isn’t it? However, to get the full effect of the story, we need to first take a look at what a tax collector or “publican” was in those days. He was not your friendly IRS agent by any means. Publican were crony capitalists in the truest sense of the word.
The Roman Empire was nothing if not ambitious. Conquering, ruling, road building, partying – all were done without restraint, but that meant that funds were needed. As time went on, the government’s demand for money kept going up – sound familiar? Furthermore, in the first century, it was not possible to ask for a loan from China so the Caesars turned to the citizenry of the Empire and squeezed harder and harder. The publican was the tool used to keep the tax pressure high.
The system for collecting taxes was ingenious. First, the Roman government assigned as estimated tax value to a particular asset. The asset could be a county, a city, a region, a bridge, a harbor, a road, etc. All individuals were taxed and taxes were collected on almost any asset required by commerce. Publicans would bargain with the Roman Empire for the right to collect taxes in a particular location, usually guaranteeing a certain rate of return. This is where things got interesting – the publican was more than welcome to collect more than the tax required by the Romans. The Romans knew that by supporting the power of the publicans, they could maximize tax revenue and the publican knew that he could use the force of the Roman legionnaires to get rich. There were even instances where if a businessman could not afford his tax, the publican would loan him the money at an extremely high rate of return. The publican had the right to say, “You need to give me $100 in cash right now or you can owe me $125 a month from now. And if you don’t come through, you might run into a few Imperial entanglements.” First century publicans make our own IRS seem pretty warm and fuzzy by comparison.
Naturally, publicans were almost universally despised and to an even greater degree by the Jewish people who viewed the payment of taxes to a Gentile government as almost sacrilegious. To make matters worse, Matthew himself was a Jew! Here was a Jewish publican taking advantage of his own people in order to fill the coffers of a foreign power and line his own pockets!
In my next post, we will examine Christ’s dealings with this despicable human being.