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Custom and Tribute
by Wayne Blank
Custom, or toll, was a Roman tax that was gathered by collectors who were known as publicans. They were commonly stationed at key locations such as city gates and along busy public roads.
The ancient publicans, apart from holding a traditionally unpopular job, were strongly disliked because they were often dishonest, extorting money from the Jews who had no recourse before their Roman rulers (see Ancient Empires - Rome). Publicans were often considered as among the lowest of society, but as so often was the case, Jesus Christ always welcomed, and forgave, the repentant:
"And as He sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when He heard it, He said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." (Matthew 9:10-12 RSV)
"Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John [see John The Baptist] came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him." (Matthew 21:31-32 RSV)
The political meaning of tribute was a tax imposed by ruler on his subjects:
"Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes [KJV tribute] to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites? Show Me the money for the tax." And they brought Him a coin. And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Then He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:17-21 RSV)
The illustration shows two different denarius coins with both of the Roman emperors who reigned during the time of Jesus, Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar (see also New Testament Roman Emperors). A coin identical to one or the other of those was what Jesus was using in the above Scriptures.
The religious definition of tribute meant the Temple tax that every Jew above the age of 20 was to pay for the support of the Temple. Since it had to be paid in the Jewish half-Shekel, money changers were quite active in the Temple area. It was the sight of their unscrupulous dealings that triggered a very strong response from Jesus Christ:
"And they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the Temple [see Temples] and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the Temple, and He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and He would not allow any one to carry anything through the Temple. And He taught, and said to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." (Mark 11:15-17 RSV)
Fact Finder: Which of The Twelve Apostles began as a publican, or tax collector?