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The publicans were the “tax collectors” in Israel. The word came from the Roman word “publicani.” Because the publicans were representatives of the heathen conqueror, their work was detested. A Jew who chose to become a “publican” was viewed as a betrayer and a minion to Rome.
The publicans were also hated for their schemes of stealing from their own people more than what was required by the Romans authorities. They took advantage of their official position to coerce and cheat people. John the Baptist preached that all need to repent including the tax collectors (Luke 3:12). For these reasons the tax collectors were viewed as disreputable and they were shunned from society and excommunicated from the synagogue. they were viewed upon and dealt with as heathen dogs.
But the Bible tells us of a tax collector who responded to God’s call and left the life of sin to follow Jesus. This man was Levi Matthew. Mark tells us that “As He [Jesus] passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him” (ch. 2:14). Matthew “left all” that is a profitable business to serve without pay. And in gratitude to Jesus’ acceptance of him, Matthew threw a feast and invited his family and friends (verse 15).
But the pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with the “tax collectors and sinners…” and “they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Mark 2:15–16). Jesus responded saying: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Jesus taught, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5:46). So, the publicans sought Jesus’ company (Luke 15:1).
Jesus also said to the pharisees who were self-righteous, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (Matthew 21:31–32).
Another tax collector who repented of his sins is Zacchaeus, who proved his repentance by declaring to Jesus “I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold. And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:8, 9). Genuine repentance is always followed by reformation.
In His service,