“Behold, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold”- Luke ch19 v8
The tax-collector Zacchaeus makes this offer in the moment of his repentance. In the laws of Moses, “fourfold” is the level of restitution
demanded from a man who has stolen a sheep (Exodus ch22 v1).
Some people have been puzzled, not by the generosity of the proposal but by the mathematics.
“How is it possible for him to give away four times the amount of money that he’s got?”
I’ve heard this from people who should have known better, including a retired minister.
There is no need for this puzzlement. The question is based on the assumption that the whole
fortune of Zacchaeus was obtained by fraud, which
is not the case.
We need to understand how the system worked.
In Roman history, the PUBLICANI were big financiers or groups of financiers who would enter into contracts to carry out public works or collect
provincial taxes. They would bid for the right to collect taxes and keep the proceeds, so most of their profit came from the difference between the
two sets of payments.
The English government, in the reign of Charles II, made use of a similar system, known as “tax-farming”.
Tax-farming is a very wasteful way of collecting taxes, because too much of the potential revenue has to be given away to the middle-man.
In both cases, it was the primitive state of the civil service organisation that created these opportunities for private enterprise.
The gospel “publicans” may have been the local representatives of the men in Rome.
My own theory is that a “chief tax collector” like Zacchaeus could have been an independent operator who bought his local tax-collection franchise
from the people who bought the provincial franchise.
The easiest taxes to collect would be those imposed on the movement of people and goods.
All kinds of provisions, for example, would be produced in the countryside and sold in the towns.
Therefore they would have to pass through the town gate. So that’s one place where the tax collector sets up his table and sits “at the receipt
of custom”, collecting a fee for every bushel of grain, every basket of figs, every pound of cheese, and every gallon of wine or oil that comes into
If Zacchaeus held the collection franchise for the town gates of Jericho, that would explain his wealth, and it would also explain his presence on the
scene when Jesus was passing through.
The wealth of Zacchaeus was the accumulating difference between the coins he was collecting in his coffers and whatever amount he had paid for the
Now most of this wealth would have been legitimate.
Tax-collecting, in itself, is not wrong-doing in religious terms.
Then why is the publican treated as an outcast and a sinner?
He is an outcast because he is taking money from his own people for the ultimate benefit of outsiders.
He is a sinner because the publicans, as a class, cannot resist the temptation to cheat the public and take more than their due.
In the case of taxes on produce, the cheating could be done easily enough by the traditional method of using false weights and measures- “we may
make the ephah great and the shekel small and deal deceitfully with false balances” (Amos ch8 v5).
If your grain measure is a little smaller than it should be, then ten bushels of grain can be taxed as eleven bushels, over and over again.
Therefore some proportion of the fortune of Zacchaeus would have been obtained by fraud.
We can work it out, approximately.
Zacchaeus will be giving half his goods to the poor. That takes 50% out of the calculation.
He still has enough left to provide fourfold restitution.
This means that the fraction of his fortune which was obtained by fraud cannot be more than a quarter of what remains, or twelve and a half percent of
the original total.
Though it probably won’t be much less.
If the actual figure is 10%, then the fourfold restitution would take a further 40% of his fortune, leaving him with 10% to live on.
As I see it, the real difficulty in the restitution is not the mathematics but the logistics.
How is he expecting to identify all the people who have been defrauded over the years, AND the amounts which are owing to them? Would his
record-keeping be up to the task?
On the first point, he may have collected most of his revenue from regular “clients” who came in with the latest produce week by week. He would
see them again, then, and some of them could have been at the nearby gate when the promise was made.
As for the amounts, he’s not likely to have a column in his ledgers for “fraudulent receipts”; the claimants for compensation might have to be
satisfied with an estimated assessment, erring on the side of generosity.
So when Zacchaeus promises restitution, he may be renouncing a luxurious lifestyle, but he won’t be attempting the impossible.
edit on 25-3-2018 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)