Tax Collectors

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Do you ever wonder why tax collectors in the Bible get such a bad rap? Jesus advocates paying taxes, yet even he lumps the tax collector into a category with prostitutes and other undesirables. Why is the tax collector singled out as scum?

In Jesus’ day, Jews live under an oppressive Roman Empire, and they view tax collectors as disloyal Jews who work for the enemy—the hated Romans. Furthermore, most tax collectors live lavish lifestyles because they cheat their fellow Jews by collecting more tax than required, keeping the extra for themselves. Thus, they became symbols of the worst kind of people.

This background gives insight into the calling of Matthew (also known as Levi, Mark 2:14-17), and the conversion of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). When Jesus reaches out to these two tax collectors, they see their need, and they follow him. This rattles the cage of the religious hierarchy who can’t comprehend a Messiah pursuing sinners. Jesus’ actions and words turn their theology upside down. One example is Luke 18:9-14:

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Notice the context. Jesus tells this parable to some who are confident of their own righteousness and look down on everybody else. Jesus contrasts the way that two people approach God in prayer. The first is a Pharisee, one of the religious elite, who approaches God with great pride in his religious activities, and with a condescending attitude of superiority over others. He asks nothing of God because he has his own righteousness. The second man, a tax collector, fully aware of his sin and his unworthiness, stands far off, beating his chest in repentance, and asks God for mercy. Jesus then declares that the tax collector is the one God vindicates.

The truth is, neither of these people keeps the law perfectly, both are law-breakers and sinners, but only one recognizes his sinful condition and need for God’s mercy. The other doesn’t see his need. Jesus concludes that one will be exalted, and one will be humbled.

How can Christ-followers in the 21st century apply this?

• In this age of tolerance, society dictates a label of morally equal choices. It’s unacceptable to call out the tax collectors of our day. But God will draw some of them to himself, and if God’s people are silent, if we condone their sin, how will they see their need for God’s mercy?
• We must guard against thinking that our religious activity and spiritual disciplines make us acceptable to God. We come to God on the basis of Jesus’ finished work on the cross, and never on our own merit.

I’d love to get your input on this parable and any modern-day application.

8 comments to Tax Collectors

  • One of the most misunderstood and possibly one of the most quoted verses in the Bible is Matthew 7:1 “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” Implying, what right do you have to judge another person? Implying, “since when did you become perfect?” God has given us His Word that instructs us the difference between right and wrong. If we follow the advice of those who say, “do not judge” – Hitler would have never been defeated. The thinking would be, “Who am I to judge Hitler?” This is not biblical thinking. God does call us to judge, but not with the attitude of a pharisee. Thankfully leaders of some nations stood up and said, “What Hitler is doing is wrong.” Yes, they judged Hitler, and were right in doing so. Jesus even judged the Pharisees and called them out in Matthew 23. In Acts 5, Peter called out and judged Ananias and Sapphira. Be careful not to learn your Bible and theology from the liberal media – quoting Scripture like Matthew 7:1. Study the Word, learn the Word, process the Word, and properly interpret the Word. God’s power can change anyone – even a tax collector or pharisee. And today, God’s power can change anyone who has gotten off the path (or was never on the path) and needs a loving friend to confront him/her – in love – with what God’s Word has to say. So, the next time you hear someone boldly quote Matthew 7:1 (implying it is never acceptable to judge anyone), gently challenge their thinking and use Hitler as an illustration. What other illustrations (like Hitler) can you think of?

  • Barbara

    Thank you Janet and Ethan. I so appreciate being reminded that we are to judge wrong behavior and why, especially in this age when Matthew 7:1 is used to shut up those who are standing for Biblical principles.

  • Lynette Nobles

    I agree – we must discern right from wrong! I have told my children that when people say “don’t judge me” they are trying to say “don’t tell me I’m wrong and what the punishment will be”. The judge in the courtroom decides the punishment. We are to be choosy – is that right (godly) or wrong? Thanks, Janet, for a great modern-day view of the morally bankrupt tax collector. Jesus loved the person, but not the sin!

    • Hi Lynette,
      The parable of the tax collector and Pharisee deals with the attitude one comes to God with. Jesus compares the attitude of self-righteousness and superiority over others, with the attitude of humility and contrition.
      The passage on “do not judge” (Matthew 7:1) is a separate issue. The fuller meaning comes from the context in verses 1-5. The point of the passage is, don’t be a hypocrite (:5), judging other’s sin when you are guilty of the same thing. Instead you should deal with your own sin first, take the log out of your own eye first, and THEN you will see clearly TO REMOVE the speck from your brother’s eye. In other words, you ARE supposed to help others deal with their sin. The warning about you being judged with the same measure you judge others, is not a concern if you have dealt with your sin first.
      I hope that is helpful.

  • Ruth

    Your comment, Janet, about judging others when you are guilty of the same sin, made me think immediately of the beginning of Romans 2, which is part of my current memory project. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Rom. 2:1, NIV 1984)
    It is so much fun to find connections with what I am memorizing to what other people are talking about.
    I haven’t commented on your blog before, but I read it regularly and have really appreciated your book, His Word in My Heart, which has helped me to stay motivated to keep memorizing Scripture passages for a number of years. I have also shared it with others.

    • Ruth, thank you so much for your comments. I love it too when scriptures coincide with other scriptures. It confirms that God’s Word is truth and the whole counsel of God is needed. Thanks for showing us the connection in Romans 2:1. I marked it in my Bible when I read your comment. I love hearing about your memorizing project. What a joy to take in God’s Word and make it part of your life! I’m so proud of you, and thrilled for your rich fellowship with God that comes from memorizing passages.

  • Chérie

    Like many Christians today, I grew up in a Pharisee home where tax collectors and the like were feared and hated. No ill towards my parents, but I was adopted by a Dad and a Mom from the tiniest towns in Oklahoma and Texas —respectively, where I lived until I was in elementary school. I will argue with someone until we are both dead about when and where I was actually saved.

    Sinners prayer, nothin’…. I know when the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit began in this little girl’s heart.
    It took a while for that heart however, to go from Pharisee to Christian.

    One area now that brings me to my knees constantly is the concern over my own parents and their right standing with the Father. They were the chosen ones for my adoption. God chose them. My mom introduced me to HIM. A Midwest Southern Baptist —THINK: almost westboro — version of HIM, but nonetheless.
    HATE, FEAR and RULES was all I knew.
    Because of HIS great mercy for me and because of some weird chip in this little girls brain, I latched on to a toddler size thought: my parents and my Bible don’t match.

    I challenge each of you to grab onto your own HATE or FEAR in the way you would catch a football if a touchdown would save a soul. Listen for it; notice if you taste it and look for it in the mirror.
    As you do— you will have scales fall from your eyes and see precious souls caught in the same lie with different names: Gay, Atheist, and the Pharisee we might sit by at church.

    Don’t be afraid if you see yourself.
    Just fall to your knees and repent. He’s been waiting.

    Are ya ready?
    I’m taking this ball and runnin’ it all the way.
    When you hear about “HORRIBLE, DISGUSTING, HIDEOUSLY EVIL people who are keen on decapitating Christians in more ways than one….
    Close your eyes for a NANO second, and remember the ones who took part in the literal slaughter
    of our own soul S A V I O R….
    I’m sure y’all can figure that one out. When you do please repent every minute of every second so that all the millions of Pharisees in our world (especially in the United States) can cross over from death to life along with the hated. Pharisee to Christian. Gay to Christian. Atheist to Christian.

    The old 70’s song has been waiting and waiting and waiting
    to be the one mantra for all who have crossed over from death to life.
    “They will know we are Christians by our LOVE.”