Publicans were tax collectors for the Roman empire. They were despised by the people because many were corrupt. Jesus was criticized for living with publicans.
The publicans levied taxes on their countrymen to maintain the Roman empire. The taxes of the empire were heavy and the tax collectors often charged too much, getting rich at the expense of the people’s misery. Jews, who disliked Roman rule, felt betrayed by publicans.
The publicans had a very bad reputation. The tax collector was known as a thief, a miser, without a heart. Pharisees and other religious men refused to live with publicans, so as not to be contaminated.
Jesus and the publicans
Jesus never rejected anyone who wanted to follow him. Jesus was not disgusted by the tax collectors; he saw that they were people who were in great need of salvation. So he made friends with tax collectors, visited their homes and even ate with them. Jesus did not approve of his conduct but he offered forgiveness and a chance to change his life ( Matthew 9: 11-13 ).
Jesus once told a parable about a publican and a Pharisee. The Pharisee thanked God for being much better and “holier” than the tax collector. But the publican acknowledged that he was a sinner and asked for forgiveness. God forgave the repentant publican but not the arrogant Pharisee ( Luke 18: 13-14 ).
See also: who were the Pharisees and Sadducees?
Some publicans became followers of Jesus. Matthew, one of the apostles was a publican ( Matthew 10: 2-3 ). Zacchaeus, the chief of publicans, was also converted. The people were scandalized because Jesus ate at the home of a “sinner”. But Zacchaeus promised to give half of his assets to the poor and return four times as much to anyone who had extorted. – See the story of Zacchaeus here.