759. Tax Gathering

 •  3 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Listen from:
Luke 5:27. He went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom.
See also Matthew 9:9; Mark 2:14.
1. The publicans were the Roman tax-gatherers, of whom there were several classes. The Roman senate farmed the taxes to rich capitalists, who agreed to pay a certain sum into the public treasury, and reimburse themselves with the taxes they collected. These capitalists were called publicani, and often formed themselves into a joint-stock company, appointing one of their number as general manager. He usually resided at Rome, and was called magister.
The publicani were an influential section of the Roman knights, an ancient order who occupied a kind of middle rank between the senators and the people. These, however, are not mentioned in the New Testaments. The “publicans” so frequently referred to there were the portitores, or men who were employed by the publicani to collect the taxes in the provinces. They were the actual custom-house officers, and were commonly natives of the provinces where they were stationed. They were supervised by the sub-magistri, who made the returns to the magister at Rome. Zaccheus was a sub-magister, or “chief among the publicans” (Luke 19:2). Levi, or Matthew, was one of the portitores, or tax-gatherers.
The publicans, of whatever class, were looked upon with disfavor by the masses of the people. The complimentary reference of Cicero to the publicani, which has sometimes been cited as an evidence of their high respectability, is thought to have been merely the flattery of an orator who sought to accomplish political purposes thereby. The portitores, however, were especially detested. Their duty, if honestly discharged. would have made them unpopular enough; but when, as was often the case, they went beyond their legal rights and levied exorbitant taxes, using all the machinery of the law to help them, their unpopularity greatly increased. Many of them were Jews, and were regarded by their Jewish brethren as no better than the heathen with whom publicans were often classed. See Matthew 18. It is said that the Jews would not associate with them, nor allow them in the temple or in the synagogue; nor would they permit them to give testimony in Jewish courts. Even the presents which they brought to the temple are said to have been rejected. They were completely excluded from their fellows.
These statements serve to illustrate the reference made to the publicans in the Gospel narratives. They were classed with sinners. See Matthew 9:10-11; 11:19; Mark 2:15, 16; Luke 7:34; 15:1. They were mentioned with harlots. See Matthew 21:31-32. They were alluded to as occupying the lowest position in morals, the vilest of the vile: “even the publicans.” Matthew 5:46-47.
2. Sitting at the receipt of custom accurately expresses the posture which is occupied in the East by all who transact business. The merchant sits when he sells, and even carpenters and washerwomen sit at their work No one stands when at work unless it is entirely unavoidable.
3. There were houses or booths built at the foot of bridges, at the gates of cities, at the mouths of rivers, and by the sea-side, where the tax-gatherers transacted their business. Such a place was the τελώνιοω or “receipt of custom.”