When taxes came due in Jesus’ time

No IRS, but plenty of taxes offered challenges of all sorts

Have you paid your taxes yet? You have until April 18 this year, but the time is upon us and IRS agents are busy.

Imagine if you were a tax agent and attended a party this weekend. As soon as someone asked, “So what do you do for a living?” a lull in the conversation might follow when you answered.

Now imagine being a tax collector in Jesus’ day.

There were plenty of taxes in ancient Judea: religious and secular.

For faithful Jews, there was the voluntary temple tax that had been decreed by Moses to pay for the sacrifices and incense. The amount was half of a shekel or about half an ounce of silver. We see Peter being asked if Jesus paid this tax in Matthew 17:24-27; Jesus had Peter pay the tax for both of them with a shekel found in a fish’s mouth.

Under the kings of Israel, there were also taxes collected to run the government — these weren’t voluntary, and even included military drafts. When foreign rulers took over the region of Palestine, they also imposed taxes. In the time of Jesus, Judea was part of the Roman province of Syria.

According to Bible-history.com, Roman taxes totaled one percent of a man’s income. Doesn’t seem like much, does it?

But there were other taxes: customs taxes, import and export taxes, toll bridges, crop taxes, sales tax, property taxes, and special taxes when there was a war, building project or campaign to finance.

Technically, Romans collected the taxes — rich Romans, who didn’t live in Syria, technically ran the tax service. However, what really happened was that these Romans hired local men to collect the taxes for them. These local tax collectors were called telon?s (a Greek word meaning “paying at the end”), or publicanus in Latin. From this, we get the word “publican” used in some translations of the Bible. In the Catholic translations, we use the phrase “tax collector.”

But those rich Romans in Rome didn’t pay their tax collectors.

Instead, the local tax collectors made their livings off how much extra money they were able to charge people — over and above the legal taxes. And with the above list of different taxes, how could the average person keep track of what they really owed? We might call it “skimming off the top.” This is why John the Baptist advised those repentant tax collectors who came to him, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed” (Lk 3:13).

Most of the time, though, what really happened wasn’t “skimming,” but out and out extortion. Tax collectors, already hated by their countrymen, would take as much as they could get — and often from the poor, who had no recourse. These bully tactics, paired with the fact that many “faithful Jews” of the time believed paying taxes to Romans was a sin, tax collectors were considered unsavory at best and all but excommunicated at worst. Even Jesus noted their popularity when he said, in teaching about an unrepentant sinner: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Mt 18:17).

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that “the unusual combination in a publican of petty tyrant, renegade and extortioner made by circumstances almost inevitable, was not conductive to popularity.”

However, even though Jesus recognized their unpopularity, he did not ostracize tax collectors as a group. We see this when Jesus is accused by Pharisees of eating “with tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 9:11).

Jesus even called one tax collector, named Levi, to be an apostle. Bible scholars believe that Levi (Matthew) was a customs agent at Capernaum, situated along the great trade road between Damascus and the Mediterranean seaports.

Another tax collector we know of by name is Zacchaeus, described in Luke as “a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man” who lived and worked in Jericho. It’s good to note that Zacchaeus, as a chief tax collector, had people like Matthew (regular tax collectors) working under him; he was like a district manager. Which also meant that he “skimmed from the top” of all those who worked for him. Zacchaeus all but admits this when he tells Jesus, “If I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over” (Lk 19:8). And Jericho was a plum job, since it was the center of the lucrative balsam production.

Yet Jesus chose to go to Zacchaeus’ house and eat with him. In fact, it was Jesus’ idea, not Zacchaues’. Why? First, to acknowledge that every person is valuable to God, as Jesus himself said: “This man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” Second, to offer “salvation” to Zacchaeus, who seems to have had an immediate change of heart — even before Jesus sits down to table.

As Pope Francis said in a 2013 homily about Zacchaeus, “We look at Zacchaeus in the tree today: it’s ridiculous, but it is an act of salvation. And I say to you, if you have something weighing your conscience down, if you have done many things, stop for a bit and think that there is someone waiting for you … I tell you that Jesus never gets tired of forgiving.”

There is yet one other important tax collector we hear about in the Gospels, though he has no name. Jesus places an anonymous Pharisee and tax collector in the Temple praying (Lk 18: 9-14). The Pharisee, clearly a practicing Jew, gives thanks to God, but in a self-righteous manner. As St. Augustine said in a sermon about this tax collector parable, the lesson is to “acknowledge yourself feeble, acknowledge yourself human, acknowledge yourself a sinner; acknowledge that it is he who justifies, acknowledge that you are full of stains. … For the confession of sin invites the physician’s healing” (Sermon 87:4).

From that anonymous tax collector, we learn not only about proper relationship with God, but also learn a version of one of the most ancient and beloved prayers of the church, “the Jesus Prayer”: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That might not work with the IRS, but it will work with God, every time.


Sources: “Church Fathers” at newadvent.org; Christianity.about.com; catholiconline.com; Catholic365.com; “Strong’s Bible Dictionary”; “The Bible Encyclopedia”; Biblearchaeology.com; asianews.it; “Easton’s Bible Dictionary”; “Faussett’s Bible Dictionary”; “Smith’s Bible Dictionary;” “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Bible-history.com.