Two Tax Collectors

by Ed Gallagher

Tree of Zacchaeus, Wikimedia Commons

The Bible is big on repentance. 

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Mark 1:15

I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

Luke 13:3, 5

Men and brethren, what shall we do? 38Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Acts 2:37–38

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

Acts 17:30

And not just in the New Testament. The Old Testament prophets were constantly calling on the people to turn back to God, even if our English translations don’t actually contain the word “repent.” To quote just one of the more famous examples: 

Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; 17Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. 18Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Isaiah 1:16–18

One of those odd features of the Bible is that Paul doesn’t use the word “repent” very often in his letters: the verb appears once (μετανοιέω, metanoiéō; 2 Cor 12:21) and the noun “repentance” a few times (μετανοία, metanoia; Rom 2:4; 2 Cor 7:9–10; 2 Tim 2:25). But like the Old Testament prophets, Paul talks about the concept a lot more than he uses the specific word. For instance, listen to what the Apostle says here: 

Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20That is not the way you learned Christ! 21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:17–24

You could hardly get a better description of repentance: no longer live that way, take off that old lifestyle, clothe yourself with a new lifestyle, and learn to think in a different way. Or consider this one: 

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 Corinthians 6:9–11

In the KJV, verse 11 begins with the familiar “such were some of you”—you used to live in that sinful way, but no longer. And then there’s Romans 8, which I will not quote, because I’d have to quote the whole chapter, but just take a look there at Paul’s description of the new life characterized by the Spirit as opposed to the old life of the flesh. And while you’re in Romans, take a look at chapter 6. 

So, anyway, the Bible is big on repentance. And Luke is especially big on it. Going back to counting words for just a moment, Luke uses the verb “repent” (μετανοιέω, metanoiéō) more than any other writer (9x in Luke; 5x in Acts),1 and he is responsible for half of the appearances of the noun “repentance” (μετανοία, metanoia) in the New Testament (Luke 5x; Acts 6x).2 Jesus came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). He tells parables about how God loves repentance (15:7, 10). In Luke’s Gospel, the resurrected Jesus sends the apostles out into the world to preach repentance (24:47). With all this emphasis on repentance, Luke makes sure to put plenty of examples of repentance in his Gospel. In this series of lessons, we’ve already looked at the sinful woman from Luke 7 and the parables from Luke 15. There’s also the instruction by John the Baptist about what repentance should look like for people in general and specifically for tax collectors and soldiers (3:10–14). And then there are the stories we’re considering in this lesson, also about tax collectors (18:9–14; 19:1–10). 

Tax Collectors

Tax collectors keep coming up in Luke’s Gospel. The Greek term for tax collector (τελώνης, telōnēs) appears in the New Testament only in the Synoptic Gospels, and nearly half of the references are in Luke (3:12; 5:27, 29, 30; 7:29, 34; 15:1; 18:10, 11, 13). Tax collectors were well-known for their extortion. In a previous lesson I’ve suggested that we think of them like a small-time mafioso or perhaps a loan shark. I don’t mean to say that they were violent, but they were crooked—or, at least, that was their reputation. Just look at what Jesus says about tax collectors in Matthew’s Gospel.

If [a straying brother] refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Matthew 18:17

The implication is that you would normally have no association with a tax collector. What was wrong with a tax collector? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus could not imagine a bigger sinner than a tax collector (or, at least, he couldn’t think of a better example of a sinner for his audience).

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

Matthew 5:46

We can get an idea of why tax collectors were considered so beyond the pale from Luke’s Gospel. When the tax collectors asked John the Baptist what they should do in order to demonstrate their repentance, this is what he told them. 

Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. 

Luke 3:13

And that’s it; that’s the sum total of John’s advice. Apparently John thought it was a pretty big problem that tax collectors were taking in more money than their orders prescribed. Zacchaeus—a “chief” tax collector (19:2)—admits that it’s possible (wink wink) that he may have defrauded some people (19:8). 

How would this defrauding have worked?3 In the words of biblical scholar David J. Downs, “Rome exerted its power and raised funds to support its military activities through levies on conquered peoples.”4 Taxes were paid to Rome by the local government, and it was up to the local government to recoup that loss, so they in turn charged the local population taxes. But the tax collectors in the Gospels may have actually been collecting tolls. Downs (p. 224) describes these tax collectors as “individuals contracted to extract tolls at transit and trade points. It is generally agreed that these toll collectors were responsible for gathering local tolls (telē) levied by cities (CIS 3913), including duties on agricultural produce sold in Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 18.90), although they may also have played a part in the collection of tithes and the Roman tribute.” Another description of the Roman tax system:

The Roman method in general, because of the lack of a permanent civil service, was to farm out the right to collect taxes of a province to the highest bidder […]. He then set the taxes at a rate which enabled him to recoup his price and also to make a profit from their collection. This he did through agents, who were generally recruited from the native population. These are the tax collectors in the gospels. They in their turn set out to make a profit. Taxes were of two kinds; direct taxes, i.e. those on produce and the poll tax, and indirect taxes, i.e. tolls and customs duties.

 C. F. Evans, Saint Luke (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 240–41. 

This system resulted in tax collectors being marginalized—but, of course, they would be marginalized only from a particular vantage point. They had their own circles, and as long as they stayed there, they probably felt very little marginalization. I want to avoid thinking in terms of the poor, oppressed tax collector that is finally given value by Jesus. If I may attempt a modern analogy, we might think about the tax collectors as being “marginalized” or “outcasts” in the same way that the so-called “liberal elites” are marginalized. Or, to go back to my earlier suggestion, we might think about a loan shark, or a bookie. Are any of these groups marginalized or outcast today? They are, from the perspective of the circles to which they do not belong. (That makes the description “marginalized” almost a truism: they are marginalized among groups to which they don’t belong.) I don’t think we would say that the “liberal elite” live a marginalized or outcast life. But if they entered a conservative church, they would probably feel some marginalization. Loan sharks, I imagine, do not feel like outcasts because they quite reasonably avoid the kind of people who would give them such a feeling. So do I avoid such situations. Again, the issue of marginalization really comes up when someone tries to “cross over” into someone else’s territory. I think we’ve all experienced that—we’ve all had the feeling, “I don’t belong here.” All of that to say, I bet tax collectors in the first century rarely felt marginalized; rather, they probably felt powerful, and they enjoyed the friendship of powerful people, and they could take care of their families, providing nice things for their wives and arranging for a good education for their children. But they knew they weren’t welcome in conservative Jewish circles, for a variety of reasons: perhaps some Jews thought tax collectors were unclean because of their close association with Gentiles; probably most people suspected they were guilty of extortion; likely a lot of people were jealous of the comfortable lifestyle and protections enjoyed by tax collectors, especially in light of the way they came by this lifestyle and these protections; and such a lifestyle usually entailed a diminishing concern for the intricacies of God’s law. Tax collectors were sinners, from the conservative Jewish perspective, and everybody knew it. 

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector 

If anyone needed to repent, the tax collector did. Certainly not the Pharisee. The Pharisee had a close relationship with God. He thought constantly about God, about how to please God, how to embody the Torah. That’s why he became a Pharisee, because he wanted to live a life wholly devoted to God, with all his heart, all his soul, and all his strength. So, of course, a Pharisee—famous for piety—would be a perfect example of how anyone can become self-righteous. 

Jesus uses a Pharisee in his parable at Luke 18:9–14 because everybody knew that Pharisees were the salt of the earth, calling Israel back to repentance, walking examples of how to please God and live the Torah in a modern, corrupt world. And Jesus used a tax collector in the parable because everybody knew tax collectors were the exact opposite of Pharisees: tax collectors didn’t give a flip about God or his Torah, they cared only about themselves, certainly not about their nation. Whereas Moses “chose to share ill-treatment with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb 11:25), the tax collectors made the opposite choice. They loved the fleeting pleasures of sin, and if enjoying those fleeting pleasures meant avoiding the ill-treatment of the people of God, all the better! 

But Jesus came, in part, to inaugurate the great reversal (Luke 1:52–53). Remember the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–12; cf. Luke 6:20–26)? The standards of this world are being flipped upside down. In the great reversal, you should invite people you don’t know to your parties rather than your friends (Luke 14:12–24). You’ll find your life by losing it, not by avoiding the cross (9:23–24). And even Pharisees may find themselves on the outside looking in—looking in at tax collectors enjoying fellowship with God. 

That’s the upshot of the last statement of this parable: 

I tell you, this man [= the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other [= the Pharisee]; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Luke 18:14

Jesus tells us what the problem is: the Pharisee exalted himself, and so in the great reversal he will be humbled. But the tax collector humbled himself, and so he will be exalted. This sounds similar to what Jesus had said earlier, about picking out the worst seat for yourself at dinner parties so that you can move to a better spot (14:7–11). In fact, that earlier teaching ends with the same punchline as our parable. 

So, how did this Pharisee exalt himself? Here’s his prayer: 

God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.

Luke 18:11–12

Wow, what a terrible prayer! So self-righteous, sanctimonious, proud! Let us pause to pray: “God, I thank thee that I am not like this Pharisee!” 

John Everett Millais, The Pharisee and the Publican, 1864, Wikimedia Commons

Remember, this parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (v. 9). Let’s not fall into the trap of magnifying the folly of the Pharisee lest we suffer the same condemnation. The Pharisee was, by his own account (and it’s believable), a very religious person, who constantly thought about how to live out his faith. The Pharisee’s commitment to fasting and tithing is commendable, and an example. In fact, the things he says in v. 12 are not at all exaggerated; Jesus mentions how scrupulous the Pharisees were about tithing (11:42), and we’ve already heard of the “frequent” fasts of the Pharisees (5:33). But the prayer is a demonstration of someone “who trusted in himself that he was righteous,” and that’s what gets the Pharisee into trouble. 

I don’t think Jesus is here condemning all Pharisees, but he is presenting a believable portrait of someone who hasn’t realized how far he is from God, how his very prayer condemns him, renders him unjustified (v. 14). Instead, his prayer should have been more like this:  

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Luke 18:13

But this is the prayer of the tax collector, who—Jesus tells us—“would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast.” Yes, it would be shocking to a first-century Jewish audience that a tax collector would be justified before God rather than a Pharisee, just as it is still shocking to religious people to think that prostitutes (along with some tax collectors!) “are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matt 21:31). But, of course, the reason is that the prostitutes repented of their sin (Matt 21:32), and our tax collector, beating his breast and crying out for God’s mercy, is also an example of repentance. 

If you want to learn how to repent, look at this tax collector. 


Niels Larsen Stevns, Christ and Zacchaeus, 1913, Wikimedia Commons

Another example of repentance: Zacchaeus. The difference between Zacchaeus in Luke 19 and the tax collector from the previous chapter is that Zacchaeus is a “chief” tax collector (ἀρχιτελώνης, architelōnēs). Luke tells us that he was rich (19:2). If anything, a first-century audience probably would have said that Zacchaeus was more corrupt than the average tax collector. 

But Zacchaeus has heard about Jesus, and he’s curious. Maybe he’s heard that one of Jesus’ close companions is a former tax collector (Luke 5:27–32). Maybe he wants to see what could be so attractive about this wandering teacher that someone would leave a good paying job to become a vagabond. Maybe he feels like a sinner and he’s wondering how to begin to change his life. Whatever the motivation, he wants to see Jesus, so he climbs that sycamore tree (v. 4). 

Jesus initiates the encounter. He sees Zacchaeus up in the tree, calls him by name, and invites himself over to his house (v. 5). That did it: Zacchaeus “hurried down and was happy to welcome him” (v. 6). It’s hard to quite know the motivation at this point, or what is going on in Zacchaeus’ head, but it seems like he climbed the tree feeling pretty rotten about himself and looking for a way out. Like the woman who just wanted to touch the hem of his garment (8:43; cf. Mark 5:27–28), maybe Zacchaeus just wanted to get a glimpse and hear some words from this itinerant rabbi. Maybe he climbed the tree thinking that Jesus might say something that could offer Zacchaeus some direction in life. He probably didn’t anticipate hosting Jesus in his own home; that result was better than what he could have hoped for. Jesus had come to call sinners to repentance (5:32), and he recognized a sinner ripe for repentance. 

Of course, people grumbled (v. 7). But Zacchaeus wasn’t just a sinner; he was a sinner ready to repent. And no doubt this is the part of story that suggested to Luke that it needed to be preserved, needed to become a part of his narrative of Jesus’ life. Zacchaeus said: 

Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.

Luke 19:8

Zacchaeus knows how he has become rich, and he knows that it was by ignoring God’s law, which calls for compassion on the poor and for “honest scales” (Lev 19:36). This is what repentance looks like: recompensing those to whom you’ve done wrong, and using your blessings on behalf of others. 

It is interesting to compare this rich man’s pledge to the response to Jesus from the other rich man, mentioned just a few verses earlier (18:18–23). Jesus had told that earlier rich man, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (18:22). Jesus made no similar demand on Zacchaeus, but Zacchaeus volunteers something close to it. Perhaps we can explain the difference in Jesus’ demand this way: that earlier rich man was already a pious Jew (18:21), and Jesus challenged him to draw yet nearer to God. Zacchaeus had not been pious at all, and so these are his first steps in faith. Does this indicate that God meets us where we are? If so, where are we, and what would Jesus challenge us to do? 

The story ends with the famous proclamation by Jesus, “The Son of Man has come to seek out and to save that which was lost” (19:10). Zacchaeus had been lost, but now he is found, he is saved, and salvation comes to his house (19:9). What did it require of him? Repentance, turning his life around. All it takes is giving up your life to God. Jesus demands nothing less (9:23).  

Discussion Questions 

In the story of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (18:9–14), why does Jesus choose to talk about a Pharisee? What did people think about the Pharisees in the time of Jesus? What is the problem with the prayer that Jesus represents this Pharisee as praying? 

Why does Jesus choose a tax collector for his parable? What did people think about tax collectors? In what way is this particular tax collector an example for others? 

People grumble at Jesus in Luke 15:2 and 19:7. Why are they grumbling? 

What is similar about the example of Zaccheus and that of the tax collector in 18:9–14? 

Zaccheus, the “chief tax collector” (19:2), is obviously very rich. Compare his response to Jesus to that of the rich man in 18:18–23. 


(1) Luke 10:13; 11:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7, 10; 16:30; 17:3, 4; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:22; 17:30; 26:20.

(2) Luke 3:3, 8; 5:32; 15:7; 24:47; Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:24; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20. 

(3) For a full examination, see Fabian E. Udoh, To Caesar What Is Caesar’s: Tribute, Taxes, and Imperial Administration in Early Roman Palestine (63 B.C.E.–70 C.E.) (Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2005).

(4) David J. Downs, “Economics,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2d ed., ed. Joel B. Green (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 219–26, at 223. 

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