Among Jesus’ activities that sparked controversy was His interaction with publicans, more accurately described as tax collectors. Matthew, himself a tax collector (see Matt. 9:9), recounted Jesus’ reaction to the derision: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children” (Matt. 11:18-19, KJV).
The prevalent corruption and questionable associations of most publicans prompted these criticisms. Taxes and tax collectors were deeply despised in Jesus’ time, as described in the ISBE: “Hatred of paying duties seems to be ingrained in human nature. Customs officials are always unpopular. The method is necessarily inquisitorial. The man who opens one’s boxes and bundles to appraise the value of what one has, is at best a tolerated evil. In Judea, under the Roman system, all circumstances combined to make the publican the object of bitter hatred. He represented and exercised in immediate contact, at a sore spot with individuals, the hatred power of Rome. The tax itself was looked upon as an inherent religious wrong, as well as civil imposition, and by many the payment of it was considered a sinful act of disloyalty to God. The tax-gatherer, if a Jew, was a renegade in the eyes of his patriotic fellows. He paid a fixed sum for the taxes, and received for himself what he could over and above that amount. The ancient and widespread curse of arbitrariness was in the system. The tariff rates were vague and indefinite (see Schurer, HJP, I, ii, 67 f). The collector was thus always under the suspicion of being an extortioner and probably was in most instances. The name was apt to realize itself. The unusual combination in a publican of petty tyrant, renegade and extortioner, made by circumstances almost inevitable, was not conductive to popularity.”
Fausset Bible Dictionary’s entry on Publican notes: “Hence we see what a breach of Jewish notions was the Lord’s eating with them…, and His choice of Matthew as an apostle, and His parable in which He justified the penitent self condemned publican and condemned the self satisfied Pharisee. They were at least no hypocrites. Abhorred by all others, it was a new thing to them to find a Holy One a ‘friend of publicans’….”
It is notable then that Jesus continued his involvement with tax collectors in spite of the problems it created for Him. His association was not to endorse any unethical or ungodly activities, but to express His genuine interest in each individual.
Paul was thankful for the Lord’s willingness to save him even though he had committed grievous sins: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15).