God’s People, part 128: Taxes

Read Luke 19:1-10

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Later, as Jesus left the town, he saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at his tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me and be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him.”  (Luke 5:27 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

001-lumo-jesus-matthewPart 128: Taxes. Everybody’s favorite subject, right? Taxes are just a bowl of jiggly, cherry flavored joy (aka JELLO). Everybody loves paying taxes nowadays and so it is really hard for us to understand why anyone in the ancient world would hold a grudge against tax collectors, right? If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I will let you know that I am totally being sarcastic here.

In U.S. American history alone, there are ample examples of our bitter hatred of taxes. In fact, it is safe to say that taxes played a huge role in the British Colonies rebelling against England and forming the United States of America. They fought against major tariffs and/or taxes placed on things like stamps and tea, without any representation from the colonies. In other words, the crown decided to raise taxes, and did so without any consideration for the people in the colonies. They had no one appointed to represent their needs to the King.

In Jesus’ day, taxes were even more despised than they were in the days of the American Revolution. Why? Because of the system of taxation they wre forced into. Under Roman occupation, the Romans “employed” local people to collect the taxes that were due to them. These tax collectors were not actually paid by Rome; rather, they were expected to collect what was due Rome and it was completely acceptable and expected that they would raise what was owed to compensate themselves for their services. You heard me right. If someone owed $1,000 for the year in taxes, the tax collector might charge $2,000. They would give Rome its $1,000 and keep the other $1,000 for themselves.

Keep in mind, these tax collectors are locals. What that means is that the tax collectors in Judaea were other Jews making a killing off of the backs of their own people, for the benefit of themselves and the Roman government. Thus, tax collectors were not a popular group of people by any stretch of the imagination. That is what makes Jesus’ acceptance of Levi (aka Matthew) and Zacchaeus so shocking.

On top of Roman taxes, the people also had to pay a Temple tax, local government taxes, military tax (and drafts), customs taxes, import and export taxes, toll bridges, crop/harvest taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, as well as special taxes where there was a war, a building project or campaign to fund. For the common person, these taxes became burdensome and added to the oppression they were experiencing.

With all of this context, it is important for us to note that while the tax collector was hated by most people, Jesus chose to include them in his ministry. He invited them into a new service, a service of giving rather than collecting. His willingness to see the divine in them broke through. His willingness to love them and treat them with dignity, broke through their hearts and sparked in them transformative change.

This should challenge us. Who are the “rightfully despised” in our communities? Who are the people who have earned a bad name for themselves and how do we show them Jesus? How do we bring the Christ who loves them and calls them to experience transformative grace in their lives? Are we willing to see such people as Christ sees them, or will we let our disgust stand in our way? Let us not forget that, ultimately, we’re no more righteous than those people. In fact, we’re less righteous when we think we’re above or better than them. Christ calls us all to humility and to grace.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 5:32 NLT)

PRAYER
Lord, humble me and help me to see all people through your eyes. Amen.

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