Publicans In The Bible

Publicans were despised by most Jews in the Bible, especially those of the higher classes. They were tax collectors who worked for Rome and its appointed provincial officials, collecting taxes on imported and exported goods and sales taxes in the cities and districts of Judaea. The tax collectors were seen as traitors. Although publicans could be Jewish, they were seen as collaborators with the Romans in oppressing their countrymen.

The tax collecting profession of ancient Israel was a despised, hated and much persecuted occupation. It generated in the people who followed this profession an enormous amount of animosity and opposition. Many tax collectors on various occasions were literally killed because they are publicans.

Publicans were people who collected taxes in the Roman Empire. They were considered public enemies by many citizens because they also collected taxes from their friends and neighbors. The word “scoundrel” today comes from the word “publican.” In the New Testament, Jesus speaks about tax collectors. He says, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” The reason for this is because many tax collectors believed he was a prophet, and they were baptized. This goes to show that no one was better than anyone else in God’s eyes.

Publicans were despised and unpopular in Jesus’ time. Publicans faced a great deal of prejudice during that era due to their reputation of collecting large sums of money for the Roman government. As publicans were seen as central figures who helped oppress the populace, it is not surprising to find them at the center of much controversy throughout the New Testament.”

Publicans In The Bible

Publicans were tax collectors and were looked down upon with contempt. Ordinary taxes, such as land taxes, were collected by the Roman officials; but toll taxes for transporting goods were usually collected by Jews under contract with the Romans. These collectors, or publicans, made a profit on the transactions. Their fellow countrymen had no higher regard for them than for thieves and robbers. The trade lent itself to graft and extortion, and the publicans had the reputation of having some of the tax money stick to their own fingers.

The Jews were smarting under Roman occupation and domination, and they considered the payment of taxes as a tribute to Caesar. Jews who made such collections for the Romans were regarded as traitors and as despicable for selling their services to a foreign conqueror. Publicans and members of their families were considered so contemptible that they were not allowed to hold public office or give testimony in a Jewish court. We remember that Matthew was a publican, a gatherer of taxes, until his calling to be a disciple, and, of course, he too was despised by the Jews, as were the others who followed that occupation.

Publicans In The Bible

The word publican is an English translation of the Greek word telónés, which means “tax-farmer.” A publican had the job of collecting taxes. In the Roman world, publicans collected additional fees to pad their already-extravagant salaries. In the Bible, publicans were Jews who worked for the hated Roman government to collect taxes from Jewish citizens.

Publicans or tax collectors were despised in every culture. An invading government employed citizens of the conquered nation to do its dirty work. In order to entice men to betray their countrymen, officials promised hefty bonuses to publicans and allowed them to extort as much money from the citizenry as they could get. Because of the corruption inherent in the system and the abetting of the enemy, it is easy to understand why publicans were despised as traitors to their own nation. They could only find companions among other publicans or from within the criminal element, so association with a publican automatically cast suspicion on a person’s reputation.

Jesus’ contact with publicans is one reason why the Jews found Jesus so scandalous. One of the first men He called as a disciple was a man named Levi (Matthew), who was a publican (Matthew 9:9). Matthew soon hosted a dinner for Jesus and many of Matthew’s cohorts (verse 10). This shocked and outraged the religious leaders. Jesus was a rabbi, considered among the elite of religious society who would never even share the same road with such men. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they asked Him (Luke 5:30). Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (verses 31–32).

Jesus’ calling of Matthew (who later penned the gospel by that name) demonstrates that the Son of God had come for all sinners. No one was too far gone that God’s grace could not reach him. Publicans were considered the worst of the worst, but Jesus singled out a tax collector and added him to His circle of friends. Tax collectors were assumed to be beyond hope and therefore not worthy of forgiveness. But Jesus spent three years shattering those rigid religious opinions.

As Jesus traveled through Jericho, He caused another stir by seeking out a publican named Zacchaeus. Again, the people muttered that Jesus was breaking protocol by entering a publican’s house (Luke 19:7). But the result was a changed life: “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham’” (verses 8–9). To everyone’s surprise (except God’s), Zacchaeus the publican was redeemed, and his faith in Christ resulted in a changed life. Jesus used the occasion to remind everyone of why He had come to earth: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (verse 10).

Jesus made a point of finding society’s worst and elevating them to a status equal to the rest of us. He demonstrated that every human being is worthy of the opportunity to know Him. So He went for the outcasts: He forgave an adulteress (John 8:3–11), healed lepers (Luke 17:11–19), spoke with Samaritans (John 4:7–30), and described the Father as eagerly awaiting the return of His prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). And He made a life-changing visit to one publican and called another one to His inner circle. Choosing Matthew and saving Zacchaeus, both publicans, forever squelched elitism within God’s kingdom (Galatians 3:28). If Jesus can use publicans in mighty ways for His glory, He can use anyone.

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