Tax collection under the Turkish government. In the days when the Turkish government controlled Palestine, a system of farming out import and export duties, excise taxes, and
government produce tithes, was in force. A company would guarantee the government a certain sum for a tax, and then, having the monopoly of this, would charge the public enough to make sure a good profit for the deal. Much oppression and injustice was fostered by such a system, but it was continued so long that the public finally accepted it as a necessary evil.
Tax collection under the Roman Empire. A somewhat similar system to the Turkish system was in operation in the Roman Empire in New Testament times. The office of publican, or tax
collector, was in itself legitimate enough, as it was necessary to have government taxes, and important to collect them. But there was resentment on the part of the Jews against paying taxes to a Gentile government. This resentment was increased all the more because among these tax collectors there was much graft and oppression, as charged by John the Baptist: "Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you" (Luke 3:12,13). Because of this situation, the publicans came to be associated by the Jews with notorious sinners. Such expressions as "the publicans and the harlots," and "publicans and sinners" were in common use among them (Matthew 9:11; 21:31). Because JESUS sought to be friendly with, and bring help to, the lowest of men, certain men of His day gave Him the title, "friend of publicans and sinners" (Matthew 11:19). Matthew was a publican who had his customs office not far from Capernaum on the road from Damascus to Acre, where he could examine the goods of travelers along this highway, and could collect the required taxes. Holding this office he had of necessity to violate the Pharisaical Sabbath observances, and would therefore cause wrath to be upon him. But JESUS called Matthew to follow Him. "And saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me" (Luke 5:27).
Zaccheus was not an ordinary tax collector, but rather a tax commissioner, who farmed out a whole district, and had other tax collectors under his jurisdiction. His conversion was so thorough that he agreed, "If I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold" (Luke 19:8).54