In the Roman Empire, poll and land taxes were collected by imperial officers as part of their official function. But the authority to collect taxes on exports, imports, and goods taken through a country by merchants was purchased at public auction. Thus the right to collect such taxes went to the highest bidders. When they collected taxes, they made a profit from tax receipts that exceeded the amount of their bid. These men, known as publicans, farmed out to subcontractors the right to collect taxes in certain portions of their territory. The subcontractors, in turn, were in charge of other men who personally collected the taxes. Zacchaeus, for example, appears to have been the chief over the tax collectors in and around Jericho. (Lu 19:1, 2) And Matthew, whom Jesus called to be an apostle, was one who did the actual work of collecting taxes, apparently having his tax office in or near Capernaum.—Mt 10:3; Mr 2:1, 14.
Thus, in Palestine many Jewish tax collectors were active. They were held in low esteem by their fellow countrymen, since they often exacted more than the tax rate. (Mt 5:46; Lu 3:12, 13; 19:7, 8) The other Jews generally avoided voluntary association with tax collectors and classified them with persons known to be sinners, including harlots. (Mt 9:11; 11:19; 21:32; Mr 2:15; Lu 5:30; 7:34) They also resented tax collectors because of their being in the service of a foreign power, Rome, and in close contact with “unclean” Gentiles. Hence, to treat a “brother” who proved to be an unrepentant wrongdoer like “a tax collector” meant having no voluntary association with him.—Mt 18:15-17.
Christ Jesus did not condone the corruption prevalent among tax collectors. Though criticized for doing so, he was willing to help spiritually those who manifested a desire to hear him. (Mt 9:9-13; Lu 15:1-7) In one of his illustrations, Jesus showed that the tax collector who humbly recognized himself as a sinner and repented was more righteous than the Pharisee who proudly viewed himself as righteous. (Lu 18:9-14) And humble, repentant tax collectors (like Matthew and Zacchaeus) came in line for membership in the Kingdom of the heavens.—Mt 21:31, 32.