The publicans were the tax-gatherers of Jesus' time for the Roman capitalists to whom the taxes had been farmed out for a fixed sum to rich contractors. They were under-collectors of the Roman tribute. As head of the government the procurator had charge of levying taxes and collecting the various revenues. The publican paid the procurator a fixed sum which they then set out to recover by collecting appropriate taxes. They would often lend money to impoverished fellow Jews who found themselves unable to pay. By this act of hypocritical kindliness they converted a public obligation into a private debt, on which they could charge usury as interest. In general they were so grasping and extortionate, they were no more popular among the Gentiles. The chief collectors were men of wealth and political influence, but they farmed out the direct work of gathering the revenue to a class who were notorious for their greed and extortion. Those who engaged in this service were despised by the Jews, and they were not allowed to enter the temple or the synagogues, or to give testimony in a court of justice.

The publicans were hated by the Jews, who considered them as traitors and avaricious tools of the Romans. No respectable and pious Jew would associated with these tax collectors because they were regarded as friends and agents of the hated Roman rulers and close associates of Gentiles whom most Jews avoided as a matter of course. In addition, tax collectors often bought their office from the Romans and made extra money on the side by charging exorbitant amounts to the ordinary people. If a Jew could scarcely persuade himself that it was right to pay taxes, how much more heinous a crime must it have been in his eyes to become the questionably honest instrument for collecting them? If a publican was hated, how still more intense must have been the disgust entertained against a publican who was also a Jew. The Jews had a proverb, "Take not a wife out of the family where there is a publican, for they are all publicans."

The publicans humbled themselves before Jesus, the great physician, merciful to repentant sinners. He rejected the dignified scribe but chose the despised and hated tax-gatherer. Both Matthew and Zaccheus were publicans. Many people then, were deeply shocked by Jesus actually going to a tax collector's office and choosing a tax official to be one of the 12 men constantly in his company. He saw men not as groups so much as persons. Some tax collectors were all their enemies said of them, greedy, dishonest, traitors to their people, the scum of the earth. They ganged up against their victims and cooperatively served their greedy interests, Jesus saw that. "If you love those who love you," He said, "what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?"
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