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Historical Cultural Context
The Third Sunday of Advent
Year C
December 12, 2021
John J. Pilch
Toll Collectors and Soldiers

The American system of taxes has little if anything in common with the ancient Roman system. The Greek word that Luke uses here identifies these people as toll collectors. It was their job to collect tolls on goods entering, leaving, or being transported across a district as well as on goods passing crossover points like bridges, gates, or landings.

These toll collectors to whom the Baptizer refers here (and in Lk 5:27, 29, 30; 7:29, 34; 15:1; 18:10, 11, 13) worked for a person like Zacchaeus (Lk 19:2), a “chief” toll collector. In the Roman Empire a chief toll collector was usually a native who bid for the right to collect tolls but had to pay the assessment to Rome immediately upon winning the bid. It was then his task to recoup this sum and make a profit if possible.

The Baptizer says “shake no one down or threaten to report to authorities.”

Employees of the chief toll collector were often homeless folk with no roots, thus totally incapable of finding other work. The evidence indicates that any cheating or extortion on their part would benefit their employer rather than their personal pockets. Still, many of these employees were fair and honest. And very few of the chief tax collectors were “rich” like Zacchaeus. The entire system was risky, open to abuse, and far from profitable.

So the Baptizer addresses mainly the employees of the chief toll collectors and urges them to be satisfied with “the amount prescribed for you” (Lk 3:13), that is, their commission. This is culturally sound common sense. He says nothing about reforming this oppressive system.

There were no Roman legions stationed in Palestine at this time, and Palestinian Judeans were exempt from service in Roman armies since the time of Julius Caesar. These soldiers, therefore, are best understood as Judean men enlisted in the service of Herod Antipas. The soldiers were despised because they worked for Rome’s puppet king and strove to enforce the will of Rome, the occupying power. That they are moved to “conversion” is as remarkable as the toll collectors’ desire for a better life.

Literally, the Baptizer says “shake no one down or threaten to report to authorities.” In other words, don’t practice extortion or blackmail. Be content with your pay, or rations and provisions. This is nothing more than the ideal of military conduct proposed by Caesar Augustus.

In the three samples of John’s preaching presented by Luke, the evangelist seems unable or unwilling to propose reform of unjust tax systems or to encourage conscientious objection. Indeed, true to Luke’s intention of convincing Gentiles that Christians are not a threat to Roman civilization, he portrays the military in a positive light (see also Lk 7:1-10; 23:47).

The impact of John’s preaching is nonetheless important: “The people were filled with expectation.” Could John be the Messiah? No, John distinguishes himself very carefully from “the one who is to come.”

What is an American believer to make of the Baptizer’s exhortations? Greed, selfishness, and abuse of power and position are still with us. Who among us will be the modern voice crying in the wilderness? Who will call us to conversion and invite us to live fully the good news?

John J. Pilch