Focus on Jesus Series
Tax Collectors and Sinners
by Ed Vasicek
In our studies through the Life of Christ, we repeatedly see terms like "tax-collectors" or "sinners." At first glance, we can understand something of the meaning of these terms, but their definition is really a bit more involved. Let's start with the tax collectors.
Even today, the word "tax" brings chills to our spine. We see visions of Form 1040; we grieve over the loss of what could have been discretionary spending. But most of us realize that the government needs money to function, and it is our civic duty to bear part of the load. But things in Israel were different. Israel was under the control of the Roman government. The Jews did not appreciate this arrangement at all, and there was great debate amongst the Jews as to whether a devout Jew should pay taxes to Rome. The religious and civil leaders of Israel had struck up an agreement with Rome, but many Jews felt as though they were compromising their convictions even by using Roman coins because they bore an image of Caesar. This made them uneasy in light of the Second Commandment forbidding images. Most Jews existed peacefully with the Romans, but the level of resentment was high. Some Jews exploited the situation and renounced their primary loyalty to Israel by becoming tax collectors ("publicani" was the Roman term) for the Roman government. John MacArthur writes:
By the nature of his position, his first loyalty had to be to Rome. Nationals of a country or province occupied by Rome could buy franchises that entitled them to levy certain taxes on the populace and on travelers. A franchise required collecting a specified amount of taxes for Rome and allowed anything collected beyond that figure to be kept as personal profit. Because his power of taxation was virtually unlimited and was enforced by the Roman military, the owner of a tax franchise in effect had a license for extortion. For those reasons the publicani were understandably considered traitors by their own people and were usually even more despised than Roman officials or soldiers.
"Sinners," on the other hand, was a term employed by the Pharisees to refer to what we now call "low life:" thieves, prostitutes, etc. The Pharisees were very conscious that everyone was a sinner, and sometimes sinners are classified as the common people who did not buy into all the trivial rulings of the Rabbis. Such is not the case. Although the Pharisees and other "intent" Jews may have thought themselves better than the less devout, they acknowledged the majority of common people as fellow Jews and heirs of life.
When Jesus was associating with tax collectors and sinners, He was associating with a wicked and immoral bunch. Even today, it can be more difficult to evangelize those who live fairly righteous lives than the irreligious. The irreligious are more likely to acknowledge their lost condition and their need for a Savior. The religious sometimes (not always) think they can establish their own righteousness before God and are not open to the righteousness which was provided for us by Christ's death on the cross. This spiritual "paradigm blindness" can only be overcome by the Holy Spirit's workings.
Highland Park Church