Jesus’ friendship with tax collectors caused controversy because they did ‘dirty work’. At the present time their mantle has passed to bankers. Christians need to rethink their attitudes – and so do bankers – in the light of Jesus’ friendship.
Jesus’ choice of company was unconventional and he found himself in trouble because of it. The scribes and Pharisees noticed Jesus’ odd social habits early in his ministry and complained to his disciples, asking ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (Mark 2:16). The issue recurs: ‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ ‘(Luke 15:1-2).
The accusation clearly rankled with Jesus, since he observes of the people of his generation: ‘the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”’ (Luke 7:34). Commentator George Caird comments of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ attitude: ‘His critics believed that their whole duty is to avoid anything that could contaminate their sanctity, and they are bewildered at his disregard of their spiritual security policy.’
Tax collectors worked both for the Romans and for Herod, who needed money for his ambitious building projects. They were deeply unpopular and barred from synagogues. The Romans got other people to do their dirty work. Jews collected taxes from their fellow-Jews, so they were seen as collaborators and traitors.
Three grades of collectors made up a large pyramid system: supervisors at the top, chief tax collectors with responsibility for a particular town or area (like Zacchaeus for Jericho, Luke 19:2) and managers of toolbooths (like Levi by Lake Galilee, Mark 2:14). The collectors paid themselves from the money they collected; the Romans didn’t mind collectors charging as much as they liked so long as they passed on an agreed sum.
So this was a group of people who had made themselves rich at the cost of deep unpopularity. In making the effort to socialise with them, Jesus shows that he was not exclusively concerned with the poor. His heart went out to all who were socially marginalised, those who were ostracised and suffered from prejudice. Such prejudice is often illogical or unfair: inasmuch as tax collection serves the common good by raising money for public services, it is a legitimate profession. Someone has to do ‘dirty work’, however unpopular; compare the situation of the Jewish money-lenders in medieval Europe. But prejudice that is unfair often gets mixed up with criticism that is justified.
Jesus saw the individual who lay behind the extortionate practice and the social isolation. So he takes the initiative in calling Levi to be a disciple, just as he defies the crowd in addressing Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree and inviting himself to lunch. The fact that he spent time eating and drinking with tax collectors shows Jesus enjoyed their company. Maybe he found their no-nonsense approach and readiness to open up their homes refreshing.
Yet Jesus had no illusions about the sickness of the tax collectors’ way of life and the need for them to change. So he defends his practice against his critics by saying ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners’ (Mark 2:17). In Luke 15:11-32 his response to criticism is to tell three parables illustrating God’s love for the ‘lost’: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.
What is the relevance of this dimension of Jesus’ ministry today? Few people are enthusiastic about paying tax, and in some countries there is a deep-seated disillusionment about the prospect of governments putting it to good use. But in most societies the occupation of tax collector no longer attracts the same opprobrium that it did in Jesus’ time.
In the UK and USA today it is bankers who have assumed the mantle of tax collectors in terms of incurring unpopularity and public disdain. It was not ever thus. Bankers used to be respected as models of rectitude. That image has changed dramatically as a result of the trends of the last 25 years, culminating in the errors of judgment that led to the financial crisis of 2007-9. Bankers have been castigated for pursuing risky policies and arcane practices which, when exposed as unsound, led to a loss of confidence in the system. The fact that government action to shore up several leading banks increased the level of public borrowing to an unsustainable level, and drastic cuts in public spending ensued, contributed to that unpopularity. Above all, the huge rewards available to people who work in banking leave the general public feeling amazed, aghast and angry.
So bankers are looking like the new social outcasts. In this curious turn of events Christians must beware of simply following the crowd, joining in the mud-slinging. There are wild accusations that need challenging. When Western governments pumped money into the banks to ensure their survival it was not primarily to rescue bankers. That action guaranteed the security of deposits made by ordinary members of the public. Not all banks behaved irresponsibly in the lead-up to the crisis; even those with sound financial practices were affected by the deadlock in inter-bank lending which threatened to bring the system to its knees. The financiers who triggered the crisis were not solely responsible for the escalation of public debt; many governments already had huge deficit budgets.
In evaluating responsibility and blame, it is important to make measured judgments and avoid the temptation to scapegoat a particular group. If Jesus went out of his way to show he accepted Zacchaeus, Christians might well emulate him today by befriending a beleaguered banker.
Revolution in Attitude
However, Jesus’ friendship provoked a revolution in Zacchaeus’ attitude. This seems to have happened without Jesus having to lecture him on his moral shortcomings; being in the presence of the master over a meal was enough. Zacchaeus is moved to assert: ‘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).
One would like to hope that this combination of generosity and restitution might be an inspiration to those in the banking community. No doubt many are generous in giving some of their wealth to worthy causes. Restitution, in contrast, might strike most bankers as both uncalled for and difficult. Yet inasmuch as their mistakes did cause demonstrable suffering to others, they owe the public something. The least they can surely do is show restraint concerning the financial rewards that they expect to muster from their work. In particular, I suggest that bankers do some serious heart-searching about the expectation that they receive both a high basic salary and substantial bonuses. One or the other, maybe; but how do you justify both?
From Faith, Hope & the Global Economy, pp.134-138