Jesus was no ordinary Rabbi. He was constantly being accused of mixing with the most undesirable elements of Jewish society and of actually being one with them. Consider the following passages:
Matthew 9:10-11: Why does your teacher mix with tax collectors and sinners?
Matthew 11:19: A friend of tax collectors and sinners
Mark 2:15: Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?
Luke 5:30: Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?
Luke 7:34: Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.
Luke 15:1: This man welcomes sinners and eats with them
Today I will examine the first half of these accusations regarding tax collectors, who are called publicans in some older Bible translations. If you thought publicans meant owners of pubs like I did then you need to do a quick mental swivel as it always means tax collector in the New Testament. The Latin word for tax collector is publicanus. Public revenue in Latin is publicum.
Tax collectors were seen right throughout Israel as traitors and oppressors. They were an outcast of the highest order, on the same level as a prostitute as you can see from the quotes above. Their offerings were not accepted at the local synagogue or the temple in Jerusalem. Their money was seen as stolen. They could not give testimony in court cases. They had to leave their profession behind and publicly convert back to Judaism if they wished to be accepted as a Jew again. They were considered a pagan and a financial prostitute (Matthew 18:17), the lowest of the low, the filthy rich.
The typical tax collector had taken up a franchised contract with the occupying Roman authorities to supply the machinery of the Roman Empire with finances, military supplies, building materials etc. If they collected more than the contract stipulated then they got to keep the rest, if less, then they were in trouble. Tax collectors often came from the riffraff of the upper-class, therefore they would regularly use sub-contractors so that they didn’t do the actual dirty work.
Tax collectors also often operated as local money lenders and loan sharks, lending some of their ill-gotten excess taxes to the poor at exorbitant interest rates. They were fleecing their people twice over. Part of their duty, as agents of the state, was also to report misbehaviour such as smuggling and stealing. The threat of violence was par for the course, and still is.
Being in close contact with the Roman state, and despised by their own people, they frequently took on the lewd culture of the occupying Romans as well. Their formal functions were often lavish Roman style banquets complete with sexually oriented Roman style entertainment! The public artwork dug up at Pompeii gives us a very graphic picture of this ugly lifestyle. This is another reason why we see the terms tax collector and “sinner” lumped together so often by the Pharisees. “Sinner” was a euphemism for prostitute.
This all begs the question of why Jesus would hang with these people? Two of these tax collectors, Matthew and Zacchaeus, are recorded as becoming followers of Jesus and immediately tried to influence their peers to follow Jesus as well (Matthew 9:10, Luke 19:1-10). But there would have been many more during those hectic three years of Jesus’ ministry who became followers, particularly as Jesus said to his disciples on their first practical assignment to only target the Lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6), which would have obviously included tax collectors, especially for Matthew as he knew a lot of them!
Jesus gave us several reasons why he particularly targeted this group, the lowest of the low in Jewish society, for redemption and the Kingdom. In Matthew 9:12-13 he said to his accusers that It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick…For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. He said to his accusers in Matthew 11:19 that the Wisdom (of his approach) will be proved right by her actions. In Luke 15:1-31 he gives extensive teaching in response to his accusers that includes the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. A solid answer indeed.
The story of the prodigal son, given as it was in direct response to accusations of hanging around with tax collectors and sinners, is particularly pointy. The Prodigal son in the parable specifically represents tax collectors and “sinners”! The jealous stay-at-home son in the parable represents his Pharisaic religious accusers! They must have been smarting after hearing this unflattering portrait of themselves. Jesus was declaring that the kingdom of God was not for self-righteous rule keepers but for the repentant, the contrite and the desperate, as exemplified by the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10). John the Baptist had preached this same message before Jesus and many tax collectors had responded to him also (Matthew 21:32, Luke 3:12). This group knew they needed help. The Pharisees didn’t.
This new concept that anyone could enter into a relationship with our heavenly father based simply on redemption and repentance instead of religion and rules was a huge paradigm shift for the Jewish mind to take on board. It was radical. It was new wine and new wineskins. It was exciting for those who were despised and rejected, threatening for those in power.
Jesus knew well the arrogance of the old Jewish wineskin of laws, rules and pride so he backed it up his story of the prodigal son with further teaching about a proud Pharisee and a contrite tax collector going to the temple but only the repentant tax collector, begging for divine mercy, was accepted by our heavenly father (Luke 18:9-14).
And that’s still not the end of it! In Matthew 21:28-31 Jesus is teaching on the temple steps in Jerusalem and yet again being interrogated by the Jewish religious leaders. So, he told them a story about two sons sent to work by their father. One said No, but later went. The other said Yes but didn’t go. Then the punch line: I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you! Ouch.
This continual engagement with tax collectors was therefore not random at all but specifically planned as the ultimate example to an incredulous population of the true meaning of redemption. Those who were previously and absolutely completely cut off from God because of their sin now had hope. There was no greater example that Jesus could give the Jewish people of the reality of grace and redemption in his new kingdom.
No wonder they decided to kill him! This was deeply threatening to the power and status of the religious elite. Their whole worldview paradigm was under threat. How dare he! The Way, the Truth and the Life spoke eternal divine Truth to entrenched religious power. Truth paid the price, but Truth rose from the dead. Truth then sent this wonderful gift of grace and mercy to the whole world, and the world has never been the same since!