“After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, 'Follow me.' And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” Luke 5:27-28.
Looking back, tax collectors seem more like ambitious entrepreneurs (an amiable quality today), than prostitutes and sinners as so likened in the synoptic gospels. During the Roman Empire, Palestinian officials had the direct responsibility for collecting regular taxes (poll taxes & land taxes), but the taxes on transported goods were outsourced to private contractors. These tax collectors “paid a stipulated sum in advance for the right to collect the tolls in a certain locality, and then tried to make a profit on the transaction” (Buttrick, 522).1 Roman taxes were seen as excessive and embezzlement by these tax collectors as inevitable, so they were repeatedly likened to robbers and thieves (so much so that lying to a tax collector was akin to deceiving bandits to avoid loss).
However, it was the political Jewish climate that created the true hostility toward these small businessmen. Many Israelites saw Rome as a military dictator oppressing the land. Some even saw “any act of submission to Caesar – such as paying taxes – [as] treason to God” (Buttrick 522). Thus, Jewish tax-collectors, such as Levi (Matthew) and Zachaeus were seen as traitors who had sold their souls to aid a foreign occupier oppress their own people. They were forbidden to serve as judges or witnesses in trial or even to participate in the synagogue (Howell, 72). It is in this light that Jesus calls these flagrant traitor-sinners to redemption, not tolerating or accepting their activities, but turning them away from their deception and fraud to a better life. This is precisely what these two did – repent of their ways. Zachaeus restored and rewarded those he defrauded and gave the other half of his possessions to the poor while Levi gave up his life entirely to follow Jesus as Matthew, one of His 12 disciples.