Why Exactly Were Tax Collectors so Hated?

Contributing Writer
Why Exactly Were Tax Collectors so Hated?

Towards the end of his life, the American statesman Benjamin Franklin wrote the now famous and proverbial words, “nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

Needless to say, there are very few people in any society who have ever enjoyed handing over a portion of their income to their local tax collector.

In fact, for Jews living in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions during the first century, paying taxes to the Roman Empire was understandably a source of great consternation and displeasure. Those responsible for collecting those funds on behalf of Rome were just as loathed, perhaps even more than any contemporary tax agent or auditor.

But why were the tax collectors of the first century – who we read about in the Gospels and who are often linked with sinners and lowest, most vile of society – so hated and scorned?

Who Were the Tax Collectors and Why Were They So Despised?

As their title suggests, first century tax collectors (or publicans) were responsible for collecting general taxes on property and income, as well as duty on imports and exports and most things that traveled by road throughout the region.

However, unlike contemporary IRS agents, the publicans described in the gospels had been enlisted by the Romans to collect taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire. The tax collectors of Jesus’ day, therein, were Jews collecting money from fellow Jews for an occupying foreign enemy.

It comes as no surprise then that most Jews had little to no love for the Roman occupation, and the thought of funding their own oppression through taxation and excessive regulation was equally as distasteful. Perhaps worse was the fact that fellow Jews, like the tax collectors, aided the Romans by collecting (or stealing) fees from their own countrymen.

For this reason, the tax collectors were seen as traitors to their nation and treated as such.

Though some of their duties were legitimate, the tax collectors were known for cheating their own people by collecting more than required, padding their own pockets in the process.

According to John MacArthur, “they (tax collectors) often strong-armed money out of people with the use of thugs. Most were despicable, vile, unprincipled scoundrels” (152).

The tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2-10) even confessed to Jesus, upon his conversion, that he would give back to everyone he had defrauded, seemingly confirming the habit of extortion tax collectors like him were known for.

As a Jew, being a tax collector, though personally profitable, often made the individual an outcast and social pariah. Furthermore, because of their reputation, tax collectors would have been forbidden from entering the synagogues, being essentially cut off from the Jewish community and places of worship.

Social and religious outcasts, the tax collectors were the most despised individuals in Israel – men deemed lower than the Herodians and even Roman soldiers, and ones regarded on the same level as harlots and prostitutes.

According to John MacArthur, “tax collectors had to keep their distance from any group, because they were so hated. The Jewish Talmud taught that it was righteous to lie and deceive a tax collector, because that was what a professional extortioner deserved” (154).

The fact that Jesus would interact and even dine with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners of similar ilk would have been considered socially unacceptable and even shameful, and on more than one occasion, the Pharisees voiced their displeasure with Jesus for gathering with such scoundrels.

Why Did the Zealots Target Tax Collectors?

Of the various Jewish groups present during the time of Jesus, the Zealots were the most outspoken in their hatred for Rome. According to John Drane, “their overriding conviction was that they could have no master but God, and for them that implied that driving out the Romans must be a top priority” (39).

In fact, their founder, Judas (not Iscariot), was a Galilean who had led a revolt against Rome in AD 6 in response to the passage of a Roman census tax. John MacArthur writes that, “the Zealots were convinced that paying tribute to a pagan king was an act of treason against God” (MacArthur, 176).

Though their early rebellion was swiftly crushed by the might of the Roman army, at the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Zealots were no less influential, seeking to covertly advance their cause by targeting Roman soldiers, politicians, and even Jews friendly to Rome for assassination. Top on their list were the Jewish tax collectors, whom they saw as traitors to the nation, a view held by many in Israel.

Unfortunately, as the Jewish tax collectors were disdained, hostility and attacks against them from the Zealots were largely of no concern to the Jewish population, who were happy to see them “get what they deserved.”

Why Would Jesus Call a Tax Collector to Be One of His Disciples?

Despite society’s disdain for the tax collectors, it comes as no surprise that Jesus’ association with their lot would have shocked the Jewish community. In fact, in response to the Pharisees asking why He would go out of His way to meet and dine with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus responded, “it is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners” (Luke 5:31-32).

Unfortunately, at no time did the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day even consider that they too might be sinful and in need of saving, healing, and forgiveness. They were too smug and self-righteous for that. For this reason, they, like many, looked down upon tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners whom Christ had come to redeem and restore.

In fact, one of Jesus’ own disciples, Matthew, also known as Levi (his Jewish name), was a tax collector by trade at the time of his calling.

In his own Gospel, Matthew writes that, as Jesus traveled through Capernaum, He saw him “sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, ‘follow Me!’” Matthew then writes that “he got up and followed Him” (Matthew 9:9).

Needless to say, for Christ to associate with, let alone call, a tax collector to be one of His disciples, would have drawn the ire of many in Israel.

Ironically, Jesus had also called Simon, a known Zealot, to be one of His disciples, therein putting a tax collector and a violent extremist who once targeted tax collectors for assassination in the same company.

John MacArthur writes, however, that “at one point in his life Simon would probably have gladly killed Matthew. In the end, they became spiritual brethren, working side by side for the same cause – the spread of the gospel – and worshipping the same Lord” (77).

For Matthew, specifically, a social outcast and arguably the most notorious and hated sinner among the Twelve, the invitation to follow Jesus would have been seen as an invitation to start fresh and begin a new life apart from his cursed profession.

Scripture also tells us that Matthew, without much thought or hesitation, quickly got up and followed Jesus, leaving his job as a tax collector for good. At this point, there was no going back, and that likely suited Matthew just fine. This was a desperate man in need of spiritual revival. In Christ, He found what his soul had been searching for but been denied by his own people.

We then read that Matthew proceeded to invite other tax collectors and sinners to dine with Jesus and His disciples (Matthew 9:10). Why? It is likely these were the only friends Matthew had and the only people he knew or associated with. No one else in society would have had anything to do with him.

And yet, these were the very social outcasts and villains Jesus sat with, dined with, loved, and looked upon with compassion. They were the also the ones, unlike the Pharisees, who acknowledged their sin and recognized their need for a Savior.

Therefore, in calling the lowest of society to be one of His disciples, Jesus fulfilled what was written by the prophets:

“For He has brought low those who dwell on high, the unassailable city; He lays it low, He lays it low to the ground, He casts it to the dust. The foot will trample it, the feet of the poor, the steps of the helpless” (Isaiah 26:5-6).

“But I will leave among you a humble and lowly people, and they will take refuge in the name of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:12).

“Exalt that which is low, and humble that which is high” (Ezekiel 21:26).

Not much is known about Matthew outside of the Gospels, which also include very little information about him outside of his calling and prior profession.

However, the tax collector and former social outcast would go on to become a bold leader in the early church, writing about all that Christ had done to redeem His life and how He wanted to transform theirs. This is what we encounter in Matthew’s Gospel, which he ironically targeted to the very people who once hated, vilified, and rejected him.

As John MacArthur summarizes, “The Lord often chooses the most despicable people of this world, redeems them, gives them new hearts, and uses them in remarkable ways” (156).

Certainly, this was the case with Matthew and Simon, but also all outcasts, sick, broken, and sinners in the world who recognize their need for a savior, and whom Christ transformed and is still transforming by the power of His grace and forgiveness.

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Photo credit: ©GettyImages/stevanovicigor

Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.