In this third and final post in this series, I want to look at the New Testament view of tax collectors in general, and specifically at one chief tax collector, a wee little man named Zacchaeus.
The Tax Collector Stigma
For the Jews, the occupation of tax collector was at the bottom of the barrel socially. It was right down there with slopping pigs, prostitution, and leprosy. In order for the Roman government to collect taxes, they needed people in every district who knew the people (and the culture) of those around them. For the Jews, this meant that their own people had to serve a Roman government that at best tolerated their belief in the one true God and that considered their emperor a supreme divinity worthy of worship. In fact, everything about the Roman pantheon and worship sickened devout Jews, so to work for that government was essentially an act of treason against one’s own people. In fact, they were often called “sinners” by the Jewish people.
The process of tax collecting was a rather inexact science as well. Rome didn’t really give their tax collectors a salary. The norm was that the Roman government expected a certain amount of taxes in the aggregate from a district, and it was up to the local tax collector to decide how much to tax people. There were no forms to file and no concept of a “personal” income or wealth tax. If the tax collector wanted to get “paid” for his services, he would often add a “hidden” surcharge to each bill. (It wasn’t really hidden, though; the people knew how the tax collectors operated.) Anything the tax collector collected over the aggregate amount the Rome demanded was kept by the tax collector for his compensation.
Rome was organized well. They had a hierarchical structure in their government that allowed them to effectively rule a large territory. As you might expect, then, the local tax collectors in the various districts would report to a regional “chief” tax collector. If Rome told the chief tax collector, “We want 100,000 denarii from your region,” the chief tax collector would add his own cut to that, divide it out among his subordinates, and demand that amount from the subordinates. So for Rome to get its 100,000 denarii, it was possible that as much as 200,000 denarii was collected from the people. In other words, they were taxed twice as much (or more) as what Rome demanded.
Zacchaeus, the Chief Tax Collector
And so we come to the story of Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, in Luke 19:1–10. It is apparent that Zacchaeus has a fascination with Jesus and his teachings, so much so that the short little rich man climbed up into a sycamore-fig tree so he could catch a glimpse of Jesus over the crowd. As Jesus is walking along with the crowd, he sees Zacchaeus, calls him out of the tree, and says, “I’m having lunch with you today.”
Now we don’t have to imagine the reaction of the crowd here, because Luke tells us how they responded. They were a bit disgruntled. After all, I’m sure there were a lot of good Jews in the crowd who had some very pressing needs: sick relatives to heal, spiritual questions to ask, and relationships to restore. But out of that whole crowd, Jesus pays special attention to a man, known by the crowd, who was considered one of the worst sinners in Israel for his collaboration with the Roman government. Wouldn’t you feel a bit put-out as well?
But Zacchaeus, perhaps realizing his own fallen nature, doesn’t even give Jesus a chance to come to his house. In fact, he announces something astounding to Jesus and the crowd that probably caused a few of them to swoon and faint: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Because salvation is not just an assent to a belief but evidence of a changed life, Jesus responds: “Today salvation has come to this house.”
The Lesson for Today
As I said in the first post in this series, high taxes are considered sinful in Scripture. Zacchaeus himself seems to have been a good man, but he had become slave to a system that in the end did not set well with his conscience. The recent revelations about the U.S. IRS showing bias against conservative and religious groups for tax-exempt status is evidence of just how corrupt that particular organization is. But do you think they’re going to return four times the amount those organizations got cheated out of? Not a chance. Yet if we make a mistake and shortchange the IRS, well you’d better be prepared to pay the penalties. That’s not equitable in the least.
As with the Medicare & Medicaid regulations I mentioned in the previous post, the IRS tax code is a behemoth that needs to die a quick death. With a 2016 budget of $14 billion (and about 40% of that spend on enforcement), it’s easy to see how we could reduce spending by simplifying the code and reducing the out-of-control bureaucracy. I think all Americans understand this, and that is why the political candidates who are pushing for a simplified tax code have the most traction right now.
As an update to the previous post, the new report on Medicare and Medicaid overpayments came out last week; Medicaid improper payments alone have nearly doubled in the last two years! The 2015 figure: 9.78%, or $29.12 billion. That’s twice the IRS budget for 2016! Officials continue to blame the second increase in as many years on the States’ failure to catch up to new provider enrollment requirements. Well, can you blame them? With the regulations and size of these programs far exceeding the capacity to effectively manage them, and with States already strapped for cash for being practically forced to expand Medicaid and foot the bill for other unfunded mandates, it’s no wonder the States can’t keep up. They’re in the same boat as the populace at large.
Paul says in Romans 13 that we’re to be subject to the governing authorities. Of course, he was speaking to people who lived under the rule of a king, so they didn’t exactly have a voice. The government that God has instituted for America is a democracy, rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. As citizens, then, we do not “rebel” when we demand a change to systems that we find unfair or oppressive. In fact, in a democracy, it is our civil obligation to not only say something, but to actively work to promote policies that improve the general welfare of the people. Unfortunately, in an increasingly selfish and fragmented society, government is working to promote the specific welfare of specific classes of people, and all for the purpose of enslaving those people to dependence on the government instead of reliance on themselves.
The views expressed herein are my own. Period.