Question: "What is a publican in the Bible?"
Answer: 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.