Pursuing the Humility of the Gospel: Part 3

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

You ARE Pursuing the Humility of the Gospel When You Exalt in the Mercy of God and Humble Yourself

A Look at the Tax-Collector: Luke 18:13-14

After extensive consideration of why Jesus chose a Pharisee to make His point on prayer, He now turns to a tax collector.  And if there were ever a "sinner's prayer" to be found in the Bible, this would be it for certain.

Some Historical Background on Tax Collectors

Taxes were immense in the days of the Roman government, not entirely like today. One estimate I read (Jesus and His World, John J. Russeau and Rami Arav, p. 278), put the total tax burden on the Jewish people of that day at 49%. Some of these taxes were directly collected by the Roman government. Others were indirect taxes collected by others not directly connected to the government. One indirect tax was called the vectigalia,and it was basically a toll collected on the transportation of goods and materials. 

Today it would be tantamount to being stopped at a toll both and paying not just a toll for your car to pass, but also having to get out, let the customs officers look through all your stuff, declare a value on that stuff for you, and then tax you based on the value they assessed. So imagine if you will a large sign posted beside the road with the stated tax percentages listed on it.   Then add to that the arbitrary authority on the part of the tax collectors to assess and declare the value of your stuff! 

The publicani got their job for two primary reasons. First, they were either wealthy or they had connections. Either way, publicanis would be notified of a vectigalia that the government needed to collect. An amount would be posted for each region of the country. That amount represented the dollar figure the government wanted up front in order to sustain the cash flow of the government, to pay soldiers and government officials in that region. 

If you were a publicani you would then get together with all the other publicani at a vectigalia auction of sorts, and you would bid on that amount, and the rights to collect in that region would go the highest bidder. You would then report to a procurator for the duration of your service.If you were the winner you would then have to pay that amount up front immediately. This would then allow you to take what you paid, divide it up among the number of people counted at the last census, and charge each traveller in your area at least the configured minimum amount, plus whatever else you deemed fit for your time and profit. Then you would receive some sort of certification or badge to show people you are the publicani for that area. 

You would normally sit at a city gate or along some strategic intersection on the road system and wave people over to the side of the road. Flashing them your ID and badge would be followed with a statement of the tax percentages (2-5% in that day), followed by some questioning of the travelers, an examination of their stuff, and then an assessment of its value.  Finally, you would then charge them a tax based on the value you alone assessed, with no negotiating whatsoever.

If the traveller wasgoing on a long journey, they could expect to see your other publicani colleagues throughout the course of their journey. This is why your other title would be called a "Tax Farmer," because you were farming commissions off the taxes your other colleagues or employees charged. If you were a keen business person you would probably hire several publicani to work for you, and you'd have your own small business, with you being the chief tax collector. Zaccheus was just such a person. 

There were only three exceptions to this taxation: materials being transported for "the people of Rome," anything carried for religious purposes, and items taken for personal use on the journey. If you suspected that the traveller was lying to you about the purpose of the stuff, perhaps trying to avoid declaring anything that might be taxed, you would have the power to impound their goods and confiscate their livestock using a public pasture.

Now, this whole system and practice could not avoid dishonesty from its very inception. The publicani system by its very nature made each publicani an institutional thief, where the government basically allowed abuse to breed and run rampant.  It was all run by a few wealthy men who alone had the real financial backing to front thousands upon thousands of dollars to the Roman government to begin with. 

These oligarchs then had a system of middle managers up underthem who were known as the publicani who would collect for them. That way the oligarchs could keep their hands clean AND make money at the same time. And how did they make so much money? By charging insane interest rates to people on money that was lent out. If you're an American reading this post, you are no doubt seeing many scary similarities to our governmental economic system.  The whole thing smelled of financial debauchery. The instructions from John the Baptist in Luke 3:12-13 show all this fraud to be true, as well as the restitution pledge of Zaccheus in Luke 19:8. Success for a publicani depended entirely on suspicion, intrusion, harrassment, force, and extortion.

In the next post, I'll elaborate on why Jesus uses a person from this kind of tax collecting system for His parable on humility on prayer.

About the Author: Rob is a entrepreneur in Statesboro, GA, where he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 18 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

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