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INTRODUCTION. Nobody likes taxes! The Jews deeply resented paying the taxes required of them by their Roman conquerors. There were taxes, taxes, and more taxes! The Roman governors were in charge of all financial matters. The general or direct taxes were collected by Roman officers as a part of their official duties. These taxes went into the imperial treasury and were very heavy. A census was taken by the Romans in Egypt, and thus perhaps throughout the whole empire, every fourteen years. The purpose of the census was to levy a poll tax–a tax for the privilege of existing! An example in the New Testament of this enrollment or census for the purpose of taxation occurred when Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:1-5).
In addition to the general taxes, customs or tolls were imposed upon merchandise exported and imported, and upon the goods of the merchants traveling through the country. The Romans required a certain amount of customs or tolls from a specified area. The right to collect these taxes was sold to the highest bidders called publicans. These publicans or tax collectors paid to Rome the required amount of taxes and then could keep for themselves anything they collected over that amount. "There was an import and an export tax on everything which came into and went out of the country. There was a tax for entering a walled town, a market or a harbour. There was a tax for crossing a bridge. There was a tax for using main roads, for possessing a cart, on each wheel of the cart and on the animal which drew it. The tax collectors could stop a man anywhere and make him undo his bundles and demand tax on this and that article in them" (William Barclay, And Jesus Said [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970], p. 101).
Naturally these publicans were extremely unpopular as many were dishonest and made their living by extorting high taxes from the citizens. Those publicans who were Jews were doubly despised by their fellow countrymen for selling themselves to the Romans. They were considered as sinners and renegades.
One day when Jesus was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus, a publican, wished to see him. Zacchaeus was a rich publican. He was eager to see Jesus and received him joyfully into his house. Jesus' visit resulted in the conversion of this publican. Zacchaeus stood and said he would give half his goods to the poor and restore fourfold to any man he had cheated. The restitution announced by Zacchaeus was evidence of his sincere repentance. Jesus pardoned him and granted salvation to him that day.