Tax collectors and soldiers are advised by John the Baptist
In the immediately preceding co-text to this passage, John the Baptist has told the crowds listening to his preaching that “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down” (Luke 3:9). John’s message is that one must not rely solely on genetic descent from the patriarch Abraham for salvation, rather, they must become figurative children of Abraham (i.e. those included in the covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 17, that he will have many descendants, who will blessed by God) by repenting from their sins, using Abraham as an archetypal example of morally upright behaviour (Luke 3:8) (see Mikeal Parsons, Luke, p. 66). The trees, of course, stand for the people receiving the message, the fruit, being the actions that they choose in response to what their have heard. The question “what should we do?” (asked by both the tax collectors and the soldiers here, but also by the crowds en masse in Luke 3:10) is typically Lukan (see also Luke 3:10; 10:25; 18:18; Acts 2:37; 16:30; 22:10), and expresses the people’s uncertainty as to how to go about imitating the good example of Abraham. The reply that John gives is unique to Luke (the teaching of John in 3:3-9 is found also in Matthew 3:8-9), and asserts that one should avoid a lifestyle of overindulgence (Luke 3:11).
In verses 12-14, however, the author moves from the general “crowds” that have been addressed thus far, and specifically identifies tax collectors and soldiers as being given individual responses by John. This is significant, because elsewhere in the Gospels, tax collectors are identified alongside “sinners” (ἁμαρτωλός in the singular), “fornicators” (πόρνη), and “Gentiles” (ἔθνη) in a bid to associate them with morally dubious members of society (see Matthew 5:46-47; 9:9-13; 11:19; 18:17; 21:31; Luke 15:1, 18:9-14; Mark 2:14-17). Both Greek and Jewish sources are disapproving of tax collectors, viewing them as corrupt (see, for example, Dio Chrysostom, Orations 14.14; Mishnah Nedarim 3:4; Tosefta Nedarim 2:2). As Guy Nave argues, the advice John gives his entire group of listeners in 3:8 not to be complacent about their repentance because of their genetic link to Abraham suggests that he is addressing a wholly, or predominantly Jewish audience (Guy Nave, The Role and Function of Repentance, p. 156). In this connection, it is important to remember that these Galilean Jewish tax collectors were not working directly for the Roman authorities, as Galilee, unlike Judea, was not yet subject to direct Roman taxation. Rather, they were “toll collectors” (in John Donahue’s words) tasked with collecting the various taxes put in place by Herod Antipas, which would be customs duties on sale and transportation of goods. Therefore, “In Galilee payment of taxes and tolls could not be construed as direct support of the Gentile in the same way as taxes paid to the Roman officials in Judea would have been” (see John Donahue, “Tax Collectors and Sinners,” p. 42). The privilege of controlling taxes was auctioned to the highest bidder, and this head tax collector would then employ various tax/toll collection agents. The mistake of associating the tax collectors in Luke’s story directly with the Roman emperor seems to be made, for example, by Pyung-Soo Seo, Luke’s Jesus in the Roman Empire, p. 69-70, and various other commentators.
Such toll collectors were unpopular not only because of their employment by a Roman-sanctioned authority (Herod Antipas), but also because of accusations of swindling, which seems to be the issue hinted at in John’s response to their question of how they can bear the “good fruit” of righteous living. It seems that dishonesty from tax collectors was a serious issue, to the degree that various government initiatives tried to regulate the profession (see John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p. 150). Given that tax/toll collectors were likely employed on a commission basis, the temptation for dishonesty would have been great. As Llewelyn notes, “if a tax-farmer collected more than the sum contracted to the state, it belonged to him. In other words, the tax-farmer received the surplus, if any, above the contracted sum and associated costs. This constituted his profit” (Stephen Llewelyn, “Tax Collection,” p. 52). John advises the tax collectors not to collect more than they are supposed to, and his instruction here indicates that simply being a tax collector did not make one immoral or untrustworthy, but rather, it was an occupation prone to abuse. Such corruption needed to be avoided by tax collectors seeking to live a righteous life and follow in the footsteps of Abraham. The Abrahamic theme is important throughout Luke’s narrative, but of particular relevance here is the fact that Luke 19:9 also has Jesus refer to the unpopular tax collector Zacchaeus, in whose house he chooses to stay, as a “son of Abraham,” because Zacchaeus decides to follow Jesus and give half of his possessions to the poor, in addition to promising to repay anyone whom he has extorted excessive money from, giving them back four times what he owes. Lukan theology, therefore, sees God’s forgiveness as open to anyone who is willing to repent from their sins and attempt to live a moral lifestyle, even tax collectors, whom society largely looked down upon for their violation of what was perceived to be appropriate political, economic, and social practice.
Next, attention turns to soldiers (verse 14), whom John advises not to extort money from people, and to be satisfied with their wages. Mikeal Parsons (Luke, p. 67) cites Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XIV.204, in relation to John’s advice to the soldiers, which narrates a decree apparently issued by Julius Caesar to prevent soldiers in occupied territories from extorting money from local people, but this is an inappropriate comparison, as it is more likely that the soldiers around to listen to John’s speech would have been Greek speaking auxiliaries of Herod Antipas, rather than direct representatives of the Roman army. Alternatively, as John Nolland (Luke 1-9:20, p. 150), who follows the older interpretation of M.-J. Lagrange (Évangile selon Saint Luc, p. 110), suggests, it is possible to see these soldiers as Jewish military “police” specifically accompanying the tax collectors as protection. Nolland suggests that if this is the case, then these soldiers would have likely been involved in the same corrupt social practices as tax collectors were commonly accused of, hence Luke’s connection of the two groups here, and the not dissimilar advice given to both. Indeed, the verb συκοφαντέω (“falsely accuse/slander”) is also used for the dishonest tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke 19:8.
Both tax collectors and soldiers, as groups identified with corrupt professional practice, make ideal exemplars of the need for repentance, and highlight the encompassing nature of Jesus’s message (pre-figured here by his forerunner, John). That John’s teaching warns against relying on the Jewish claim to Abraham’s descent as an assurance for salvation forwards one of the most important aspects of Jesus’s soteriology – Jew and Gentile are equal in their eligibility. This may be one reason why the Gospels make such extensive use of tax collectors – Jewish tax collectors such as those in this passage are representative of both Jewish sin and Roman oppression (even if only indirectly). Those scholars who see a direct affront to Roman authority in passages such as this one, therefore, push the imperial context too far – Jewish condemnation of tax collectors was already abundant. This said, John Donahue concludes that there would have been times during the development of the Gospel tradition when tax collectors would have been viewed as having more to do with the Roman authorities than at others (Johan Donahue, “Tax Collectors and Sinners,” p. 59-61). As workers carrying out the instructions of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch, this association with Rome might be indirect, but it is still noteworthy – indeed, Herod Antipas himself is presented negatively in the Gospels: see Mark 6:14-29; Luke 23:6-13). The fact that Jesus’s soteriological mission overlooks the character flaws identified in tax collectors (and in this passage the soldiers who were perhaps protecting them), which this passage makes clear were significant problems for the Jewish population, is what makes it unique.