What is a Publican in the Bible?
The Publican is a person in the Bible who has no status in society. He works as a tax collector for the Romans, but is considered a traitor by many. He stands far away from God. He is afraid to approach Him and is not willing to look up at Him. His eyes are lowered, and he beats his breast as a sign of inward pain. He is an example of a traitor, and we need to avoid him!
The term “publican” comes from the Greek word “telones,” which means “tax collector.” In the Bible, publicans are mentioned 21 times, and is most often associated with the chief tax collector. In antiquity, taxation systems were complex and centralized, and powerful political powers often farmed out tax collection duties to outside contractors.
In the Bible, Jesus had many interactions with publicans, including one such encounter in the gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus invited publicans to eat with him, and he drew near to one of them. This incident shocked the religious leaders, and Jesus answered the question of whether a Christian could eat with a publican in Luke 5:30.
In the Bible, publicans were despised by the people. They were often hired by the invading government to do the dirty work. They were rewarded with large sums of money in exchange for extorting the citizens’ money. As such, publicans were viewed as traitors to their own nation. These publicans only found companions among themselves, as they were considered the criminal element. As a result, any association with a publican automatically casts doubt on a person’s good reputation.
The word “heathen” appears more than 140 times in the King James Version of the Bible. During the Middle Ages, it had a more specific meaning, which meant “unbelieving, pagan, or irreligious.” Nowadays, it refers to people of a non-Jewish culture. The word carries a negative connotation, and can be used to describe people from barbaric societies. Heathendom can also refer to nations with a backward technology. Modern translations of the Bible use the word “nation” instead of “heathen” to refer to groups of people.
Jews looked down on publicans. They were considered unclean, and the Jews refused to give them change. They were also considered heathens. They were even more reviled by the Samaritans, who were the most hated group of Jews in Jesus’ day.
In the Bible, we find a number of examples of traitors to the community. One of the most prominent examples is the tax collector, Zacchaeus. A tax collector was a man of equestrian rank who gathered taxes from the people. These publicans were generally detested by the Jewish community. They were listed with the sinners, harlots, and heathens in Matthew 9. In Matthew 18 and 21, we see that true Jews would not accept alms from publicans. However, it is noteworthy to note that there were some who were followers of John the Baptist and Jesus. It is interesting to note that Matthew was the first to mention these men.
Another example is Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were a Jewish political-religious sect who arose after the Romans imposed a governor in Jerusalem. The apostolic band of Zealots eventually displaced the government of Archelaus, son of Herod the Great. Nonetheless, this example is not likely to gain credibility among the Palestinian Jews.
Accused of elitism
The Bible is often charged with being elitist, but a populist approach to biblical interpretation can be just as evangelical. A populist approach is based on the fundamentals of evangelical doctrine, such as the Bible being the inspired word of God. This approach has led to enormous growth in the church worldwide. Despite the criticisms of elitism, populists are making progress. Their populist view of Scripture provides weighty answers to life’s big questions.
This view is supported by the fact that Jesus had close contact with publicans. Matthew, a publican, was an ally of Jesus. He also had contact with a rabbi named Nicodemus, whose father was eagerly awaiting the return of the prodigal son. In Luke 5:30, Jesus is accused of elitism by the religious leaders because he eats with the publicans.
Unworthy of forgiveness
The Bible tells us that we are all “unworthy of forgiveness for a publican” (Matthew 7:21-38). The Publican is a corrupt man. He judged people by their outward appearance, not by the heart. Yet he is the least worthy of forgiveness before God, and he begs for God’s forgiveness in this passage. He is a hypocrite who tries to earn God’s mercy by acting as though he is above others, rather than being one of God’s children.
The Pharisee and the Publican both prayed, but each had his own way of thinking about his repentance. The Pharisee, on the other hand, thought of himself as righteous and superior to all others. The Pharisee relied on his self-righteousness, while the publican appealed to God for mercy.