Calling the tax man
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth.
- from Luke 5:27
Tax collectors have never been popular social figures. Back in first-century Palestine, people did more than dislike tax collectors: they hated them.
Israel in the first century faced a harsh occupation by the Roman military and government. The Romans financed that occupation through the collection of taxes. For subsistence farmers living hand-to-mouth the taxes felt especially burdensome: the annual tax, property tax, poll tax, and the tolls … don’t get us started about the tolls.
Levi would have been a toll collector. But those tolls weren’t like the tolls we pay on 540 for a smoother ride to the airport. Animals would have to be unloaded. Bags would have to be emptied. Passing the tax collector’s booth would have felt like going through security. The tax collector would assign value to the goods you were carrying and charge you accordingly. Fights would ensue. People were cheated and bribed.
The Roman tax system in Palestine pitted Jew against Jew. The Jewish tax collectors had a quota to meet and also had liberty to charge additional fees. Tax collectors who failed to meet their quotas were punished or killed. No one aspired to be a tax collector. They weren’t respected by the Romans. They were branded as traitors by their own people. Lots of money changed hands, but the life of a tax collector carried tremendous social costs.
Jesus changed everything for Levi, as we’ll see this week. We don’t know the course of Levi’s life, how he ended up sitting in the toll booth financing the oppression and occupation of his people. For us, his story starts with his encounter with Jesus.
Take some time today to break out a Bible (or go to www.biblegateway.com) and read Luke 5:27-32. Ask yourself what it would have felt like to be Levi in the story … what it would feel like before Jesus arrived, what that encounter with Jesus would feel like, and what it would feel like to respond to Jesus.