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Groups in the Gospels (2)

Howard A Barnes, Westhoughton

Temple-based occupations (cont)

(4) Levites

It has been reckoned that there were nearly 10,000 Levites in the days of the Gospels! Like the priests, they too were made up of 24 companies, each serving one week at a time in supportive roles in the temple as guards, policemen, doorkeepers, singers, musicians, cleaners and general servants (1 Chr 23.27–32). Although mentioned only three times in the New Testament (Lk 10.32; Jn 1.19; Acts 4.36), their work was indispensable for the effective operation of the temple.

Publicans - tax collectors

Throughout the Roman Empire, taxes of all kinds were collected to finance the provincial government and the central authorities in Rome. For the actual collection of taxes, either regional Roman taxation officers were appointed, or tax collection was put up for auction every few years to wealthy individuals or to companies. In the latter case the tax was paid in advance and was then collected from the local population at an inflated rate: this was called "tax farming". The particular form of taxation operating varied at different times and in different places. Our Bible word "publican" comes from a Latin word indicating that taxes eventually went into the public treasury - thus these officials were called "publicans".

Kinds of taxation (total tax burden around 30%)

Just like today, there were two types of taxation.

Direct taxes: ground tax (like our council tax); income tax (like our PAYE);poll (head) tax; e.g. the poll-tax registration of Joseph (Lk 2.5); see also "tribute" (Mk 12.14).

Indirect taxes: i.e. VAT, custom duties and tolls, etc. These were usually around 5%. For this purpose Matthew sat at his custom house/toll booth (Mt 9.9, Mk 2.14, Lk 5.27). These taxes included duties on: things bought and sold; admission to markets; bridge money; road money (like our toll roads); harbour dues; walled town dues; even duty on axles, wheels, pack animals, pedestrians, bridges, ships, crossing rivers, etc.

As in all taxation systems there were chief tax-collectors, e.g. Zacchæus, as well as ordinary tax collectors such as Matthew. The tax collectors in Palestine were usually Jews and they regularly charged far too much, so that they were generally well-off. Apart from their conscience, there was really no way to prevent them overcharging since they often had Roman soldiers to enforce their demands. They were therefore hated by their fellow Jews because they were thought to be cheats, as well as traitors to the Jewish nation. They were considered to be defiled because of their frequent contact with Gentiles, and so they were often classed with: sinners (Mt 9.10-11;11.19; Mk 2.15-16; Lk 5.30; 15.1); harlots (Mt 21.31-32); Gentiles (Mt 18.17).

Jews would not even take change from the hands of publicans, but made sure they had the right money, even if they had to borrow from friends.

John the Baptist’s and the Lord Jesus’ treatment of publicans

Publicans were not, however, beyond the grace of God. John the Baptist’s preaching touched them and they repented and were baptised, and were then taught by John only to charge the correct amount of tax (Lk 3.12-13). The Lord Jesus later taught that paying taxes to Caesar was right (Mt 22.17-21; Mk 12.14-17).

In the public ministry of the Lord Jesus, many publicans came to Him (Mt 9.10; Lk 5.29; 7.29; 15.1), and: He let them "draw near" (Lk 15.1); He went into their homes (Lk 19.5-7); He sat with them (Mt 9.10); He ate with them (Mt 9.11); He was considered to be their friend (Mt 11.19; Lk 7.34).

There are three individual publicans brought to our attention in the Gospels.

• Matthew, the disciple (Mt 9.9; Mk 2.14; Lk 5.27-29) and Gospel writer, who gave up his tax business to follow the Lord when called (cp. Simon the Zealot, Lk 6.15; Acts 1.13). Matthew was probably already converted and doing his job honestly before the Lord called him to full-time service.

• The humble tax-collector in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk 18.9-14). He thought little of himself and asked God for mercy.

• Finally, there was Zacchæus, the chief-publican at Jericho (Lk 19.1-10), in whose home the Son of God was a guest. It is interesting that when Jesus was in Jericho He preferred to eat at this publican’s house than with any of the priests who lived in Jericho, who were said to have numbered over 10,000. To be continued.

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