THE GOSPEL OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO NED (Subtitle: Jesus onTaxes and Tax Collectors)
by Ned Netterville

This is a condensation of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (the so-called synoptic gospels) focusing on what Jesus said or did pertinent to taxes and tax collectors. The author has added some material where understanding requires elaboration that is missing from the Gospels. Ned’s reconstructed material logically follows from the character of Jesus as fully developed in all four Gospels.
Why focus on taxes and those who collect them? Because Jesus clearly did. The words “tax(es)” and/or “tax collector(s)” appear in the New International Version (NIV) of the synoptic Gospels thirty-six times. Not all of the incidents pertaining to “taxes” or “tax collectors” found in the NIV synoptic Gospels are included here because it would be repetitious to recount one incident three times when an incident involving Jesus and taxes is told in all three of the Gospels without much variance. Sections from the NIV Gospels quoted verbatim or nearly so are in boldface.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone was sent to their own town to register. Joseph went up to Bethlehem to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.

The purpose of the census was to enable Caesar to levy heavy taxes on all of the Jews, overlooking no one. The child Jesus was soon to have wealth beyond anything his parents of humble estate could have imagined, which Rome’s tax collectors would be eager to rapaciously devour. For three Maji bearing gifts of great value came to honor Jesus where he lay in the barn. Unfortunately, on their way to Bethlehem they stopped in Jerusalem and told King Herod of their intentions. He asked them to visit him again on their return and tell him where he could find the child so that he too could pay his respects (by killing the child and his parents and stealing the gifts.)
When the Maji found the child, they opened their treasures and presented him with gold, frankincense and myrrh, but returned to their own lands by another route to avoid telling Herod of the child’s whereabouts, for they perceived his intentions were evil. When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape this place, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.
So Joseph got up immediately and left with the child and his mother during the night, thereby eluding not only Herod’s killers but Rome’s census takers and tax collectors as well, and Jesus was never registered on Herod’s census. When Herod realized he had been duped by the Magi, he was furious, and gave orders to government soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity.

So that what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.

When Jesus was twelve, Mary told him of the various events that occurred at the time of his birth. From her account of the actions of Herod’s government agents, and from his own perceptive observation of the world around him as it was governed by Rome, including hellacious taxes on the Jews, which were impoverishing many to the point of losing their beloved land, the young Jesus developed a well-founded revulsion to governments, kings, emperors, soldiers, taxes, tax collectors and census takers.

When Jesus was thirty-years old his cousin, John the Baptist, went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit worthy of repentance.” “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

When tax collectors came forward to be baptized, they asked. “Teacher, what about us; what should we do?” John thundered, “What makes you think you’re different?. Nothing more than what I have directed the others must you do.” (Note: John’s instructions to the tax collectors provided here are a literal translation of the Greek words in the earliest Bible manuscripts and differ significantly from the NIV’s creative translation.)

Then Jesus came and he too was baptized.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days and was tempted by the devil. The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I give it to whom ever I choose. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “From my youth I have known that human kingdoms and governments are Satan’s domains, but you must also know that it is written in Scripture: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” “I worship God, not the state. Begone, Satan!”

Jesus then went throughout Galilee and Judea healing many with diverse ailments, infirmities, handicaps and injuries, and all those who believed he had the power to do so were healed. Large crowds began to follow him and people hung on his every word. On one occasion he led his followers to a high place where he delivered his remarkable Sermon on the Mount, an invocation of love, forgiveness, and the renunciation of all force and violence–even in self defense.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

As he came down the mountain in the company of his disciples, the one he called Peter (or Simon when Jesus was unhappy with him) said to Jesus, “Why do you point out tax collectors as examples of sinners? If your words get back to Herod or Pilate, you will be forbidden to preach to people–or, God forbid, worse.”

Jesus gave Peter a withering glance and asked, “Tell me Simon, of all sinners, which ones display their wickedness openly for all the world to see, and with the blessings of the government? Even prostitutes are more discrete when violating God’s Commandments than tax collectors, who openly threaten, bully, extort, and rob with impunity because they are granted immunity by Caesar, but obviously not by God. As for Pilate and Herod, those foxes can do nothing to me that my Father hasn’t prepared me for.”

Then Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his toll booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to Jesus, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

As Jesus went on from there, he saw another man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and, just as Levi, had done, Matthew got up, left everything behind, and followed Jesus.

That night Jesus had dinner at Matthew’s house, and again many tax collectors and other sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they again asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Overhearing, Jesus interjected, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but sick people like these tax collectors. As for you, Pharisees, go and learn what this Scripture means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Note: Many bible scholars assume Matthew and Levi are one in the same person because the accounts of the incidents are so similar.)

All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.

Jesus said to the crowd, “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

As his disciples were walking out of the hearing of Jesus, Peter said to Levi, “There are now more tax collectors than fishermen l(James, John, Andrew and Peter) among Jesus’ followers. When I was a fisherman, I hated you tax collectors, but Jesus has shown that his love can make even tax collectors wholesome. When we go to Jerusalem, the people will make Jesus king of the Jews, and I am going to ask him to make me his chief tax collector.“

Levi stared at Peter in disbelief. “Simon,” he said, mimicking Jesus when he was angry, “you have been with Jesus for as long as anyone, yet you do not know him. He will wear no crown nor rule men, and he has nothing to do with tax collectors who will not abandon their sinful occupation. When Herod and Pilate learn how many tax collectors Jesus has won over, they will no doubt murder him.”

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one tax collector who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

When Jesus and his disciples returned to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

Peter thought it was a strange question, for no tax collector had ever asked him if he paid his taxes–as if he had a choice. They simply ordered him to pay. Not wanting to get Jesus in trouble with the authorities, he reflexively replied, “Yes, he does.”

When Peter came into the house, Jesus prevented him from speaking and said to him, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duties and taxes—from their own children or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then we children of the One True King are exempt!” Jesus said. “But to save you from the trouble your big mouth and misplaced obeisance to human authorities has gotten you into, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to the extortionists, and never again intimate that I pay taxes!”

On his way to the Sea of Galilee, a lake he had fished  professionally since he was a child on his father’s boat, Peter sulked and worried about what Jesus had told him to do. In all his years as a fisherman he never heard of such a thing as a fish having a coin in its mouth. Was Jesus pulling his leg? Were his instructs spoken ironically? Was this his way of ensuring the tax would not be paid? Was Jesus testing him? He had failed the test of walking on water. How long was he supposed to wait to catch the first fish before giving up? Until his fear of government authorities subsided? Damn this propensity to speak first and think later. He was so distraught he even wondered if Jesus knew what he was doing when he had invited Peter to join him. In the end, Peter not to play the fool and try the fishing-for-coins gambit. The tax remains unpaid to this day.

Speaking to his disciples, Jesus told them how to handle conflict among themselves, employing the word “church” for the very first time. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

To the chief priests and elders in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus said,  “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house. This man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The conversion of Zacchaeus from chief tax collector to disciple of Jesus cost Rome and Judea, which was Pontius Pilate’s tax jurisdiction, untold sums in lost revenues.

Keeping a close watch on Jesus, the lawyers and chief priests sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch him in something said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar; should we pay or not?” He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give God what is God’s.” They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

When the spies reported back to the lawyers and priests who sent them, men who were intimately familiar with Scripture, they castigated their envoys. “You idiots! Didn’t you realize that he told you and everyone else who heard him not to pay Caesar’s tax? Do you not know that Scripture (e.g., Psalm 24:1, and several other passages) declares: ‘the earth and everything in it belongs to God?’ If everything is God’s, what is Caesar’s? Nothing, eh? Exactly. Fortunately for us, Caesar doesn’t know Scripture, nor the truth regarding who owns what. But we do, and obviously Jesus does too. However, Pilate will soon know what Jesus’ words meant, for we shall tell him.”

Three days later the bodyguards of the chief priests  and lawyers seized Jesus like a common criminal when he went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives early in the evening. They dragged him before the Sanhedrin, a council of religious leaders, where he was mocked and tortured throughout the night.

Early the next morning the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our Roman nation. He opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and says he is the Messiah–a king. He stirs up the people all over Judea with his revolutionary rhetoric. He started his preaching in Galilee and has continued all the way here.”

Pilate as governor and procurator was responsible for the collection of Rome’s taxes in Judea, the equivalent of a district director of the IRS in the United States today. He dare not tolerate a popular tax resister preaching such inflamatory rhetoric within his jurisdiction lest he lose his lofty position and perhaps even lose his head. Pilate may have doubted the validity of the charges against Jesus, since he knew the duplicity of the priests and lawyers, and he may not yet have learned of Zacchaeus’ resignation or Jesus part in it, nevertheless the act of publicly opposing Rome’s taxing scheme was so dangerous to Rome that he had to treat the charge with the utmost gravity. The pragmatic course of action was to eliminate one unimportant Jew rather than risk the possibility that he was indeed the infamous tax-resistance preacher his accusers said he was, whether he was actually guilty of anything or not. Therefore, Pilate ordered Jesus to be tortured and crucified to ensure the continued unhampered collection of Rome’s taxes in Judea. Both Romans and those Jews who reaped of the fruits of Caesar’s taxes undoubtedly applauded Pilate’s judgment.

Disciples of Jesus persist to this day, but there are no more Romans. It was on the anvil of taxes that the Empire was smashed.