Of sinners and other role models

Outrageous! How could Jesus socialise with corrupt tax collectors! The Pharisees were far from charmed. Today is International Customs Day. To mark the day, we will look at three officials who changed and made amends for their sins, or even went as far as to follow Jesus.

International Customs’ Day has been observed since 1953. It was founded by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and recognises the role of customs officials, who make an important contribution to the security of their country and the flow of goods across borders. However, customs officials were not always so highly respected. In biblical times, tax collectors, who were in effect customs’ officials, were synonymous with sinners.

Many who did not want to pay taxes

Nobody likes to pay taxes. This has not changed since the time of Jesus. But unlike then, countries today collect their own customs duties and taxes. Customs officers are employees of the state, and are controlled by the state.

In biblical times, in the New Testament, the state reassigned the burden of collecting taxes to a third party. Any Romans, freed slaves, or local people of the province in question could make a bid and lease the customs revenues for an agreed, fixed annual sum. If the revenue in a year was higher than the agreed upon sum, the tax collector could keep the surplus. If the revenue was lower, however, he had to pay the difference out of his own pocket. While it was a secure source of income for the state, it was a risk for the tax collectors. They often minimised their risk by abusing the system and taking far too much to ensure their personal profit.

One who climbed into a tree

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. He was too short, however, to be able to catch a glimpse of the man in the crowd he had heard so much about. So he climbed into a tree along the road which Jesus was taking to Jericho. When Jesus saw the tax collector in the tree, He called to him: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19: 5).

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. He actually employed local people to collect the taxes or tolls for him. He was very rich. Just like many of his colleagues, he had become rich by cheating his own people. And they despised him for this.

The bystanders were shocked that Jesus wanted to visit Zacchaeus instead of one of the priests who were standing there too. In their opinion, they deserved a visit from Jesus a lot more than Zacchaeus did. But then the tax collector made a vow: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19: 8). A generous promise, for this was the highest penalty under Mosaic Law for embezzlement.

One who regretted his sins in the temple

Jesus liked to tell parables in which tax collectors played a special role. It would have been considered outrageous. For in the eyes of the devout Jews, tax collectors were committing religious treason, for Jews only knew religious contributions. One of the parables talks about a Pharisee and a tax collector in the temple (Luke 18: 9–14). While the Pharisee arrogantly thanked God that he was not like the tax collector, the tax collector stood humbly off to one side, pleading: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Luke 18: 13).

Jesus interpreted His own parable and emphasised that the tax collector left the temple justified because he was humble and acknowledged his failures and repented. Thus Jesus placed the tax collector over the Jewish Pharisee.

One who became a disciple of Jesus

Jesus was not afraid of choosing a tax collector as an Apostle. Levi, who is later called Matthew, was sitting in his tax booth when Jesus walked by and called to him: “Follow Me!” (Matthew 9: 9; Mark 2: 14; Luke 5: 28). His story is told in three of the gospels and all three agree: “So he arose and followed Him.”

The sanctimonious Pharisees found this hard to take. And there was something else about this story that bothered them. Jesus went to Levi’s house and ate with him and many of the other tax collectors and sinners. This was contrary to the purity laws, which forbade Jews from eating with sinners. The criticism of the Pharisees left Jesus cold. He pointed out that He had come “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19: 10).

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Katrin Löwen
International, People/Personalities