Matthew: Tax Collector

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During the time of Jesus in first century Israel, taxes were collected by people called publicans. The word publican comes from the Latin word publicanus, which is translated from the Greek word telones (tel-o’-nace) which mean a collector of taxes. There were two levels of publican in Jesus day; chief publicans and ordinary publicans.

Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief publican – or chief tax collector (Luke19:2) and that he was very wealthy.

It was common for a chief tax collector to have a team of tax collectors working for him, so Matthew, being an ordinary publican, may have been working as a part of a larger team.

Taxation

Contrary to popular belief, Roman taxes were not as high as you might think. Every adult man was to pay 1% of his annual income as income tax. There were also import and export taxes, crop taxes (1/10 of grain crop and 1/5 of wine, fruit, and olive oil), sales tax and property tax. There was also an emergency tax, which was often as high as 3% of the annual income and was levied in times war to help fund new military conquests, which was very often.

There were positive aspects to being taxed by the Romans, because taxes paid for a good system of roads, law and order, and a level of security. In return, the Romans allowed a level of religious freedom, and a certain amount of self government, as well as other benefits, like emergency aid if there was a natural disaster. But it was a system open to dishonest gain, bribery and extortion.

Every few years, the Roman senate would ‘auction’ the rights to collect the taxes in the various provinces. An enterprising businessman could tender for the right to collect that tax.

If he won the tender, he would then pay, in advance, the total amount of expected tax that was to be collected in his province, based on the known population of that province. The money was paid to the Roman treasury, where it was held in trust, with the treasury actually paying the interest earned back to the chief tax collector once he met his required quota.

It was then up the chief tax collector to make sure he collected enough tax to meet that quota… plus any extra just in case… plus whatever he wanted to add to make a profit. The treasury didn’t care about how much extra was collected, as long as it got what was required.

To make sure no one was missed, the chief tax collectors employed people to do the actual collecting. Matthew was one of those people. Of course, ordinary tax collectors were free to add their profit margin to the tax also.

Loathed and Despised

But why were tax collectors hated so much? Well for starters, Matthew, like so many tax collectors, was a fellow Jew, and there was something distasteful about a Jewish person collecting tax from his own people to fill the coffers of the empire that had invaded your country, your home.

And there was nothing worse than a fellow Jew making a tidy prophet at your expense. But there was more to it than that.

Paying taxes to the Roman Empire was offensive to the Jewish people, and there was one tax in particular that offended them the most… the Poll Tax.

A Roman denarius with the head of Tiberius. The main inscription reads: Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.
The reverse inscription reads: Highest Priest.

The poll tax is the tax discussed in Matthew 22:15-22. It is significant that the Jews raised the question of this particular tax with Jesus, because the poll tax was the main tax used to finance the occupying Roman army. As a tax required to be paid by every person under Roman rule, it implied that Rome owned not only the land but the people themselves. The Jews believed that as a people, they belonged only to God, and the land was their rightful possession, given to them by God.

So in their view, if Jesus answered “No” to their question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” – the Herodians could charge Him with treason against Rome. But if He said “Yes,” the Pharisees would accuse Him of disloyalty to Israel and God.

But Jesus, true to form, gave an answer that destroyed both arguments:

“…give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”

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