There is nothing more evident throughout the gospels than the scorn and detestation in which a body of people called “the Publicans” were held by the Jewish people.
Publican was a Roman title (publicanus) belonging to the collectors of the public revenue, and was applied equally to the Romans of rank and character, who held offices analogous to those of farmers of the revenue and commissioners of taxes, and to the natives in the subject provinces of the empire, who in subordinate capacities were content to earn their livelihood by extracting from their countrymen the tributes due to their foreign masters. The latter are the “publicans” of the New Testament; and from the frequency with which they are mentioned it would seem that, although doubtless the superior officers were Romans, the actual collectors were principally Jews.
It has not been our lot to be acquainted with any country, the inhabitants of which are so alive to their obligations to the state, as to receive with pleasure and regard with respect the collectors of the revenue, under whatever name they may come, whether tax-gatherers, rate-collectors, excisemen, custom-house officers, or tollmen. It always has been thus; and it always has been and is thus, in an eminent degree, in the East, where the antipathy to anything like a regular and periodical exaction for government objects, goes far beyond the dogged churlishness with which the drilled nations of the West meet the more complicated demands upon them. This may, among other causes, be owing to the fact, that the Eastern tax-gatherer feels quite at liberty to use his stick freely upon the person of a tardy, inadequate, or too reluctant tax-payer.
But there was never any people, eastern or western, ancient or modern, who held taxation in so much dislike, and tax-gatherers in so much abhorrence, as the Jews did in the time of our Lord. The reasons were somewhat peculiar to themselves. The text, Deu_17:15, was so interpreted as to imply that the law forbade the payment of tribute to strangers. It was also held that Israel must ever be of right a reigning nation; and all believed that it would soon, under King Messiah, become a glorious and triumphant one. The taxes imposed by the Romans were therefore regarded with disgust and impatient abhorrence, as badges of the national dishonor; and those Jews who made themselves the instruments of this disgrace to their country, were accounted the vilest of the vile, the scum and offscouring of the earth. They became in fact outcasts from all society except that of their own degraded class. No decent man would partake of their food, entertain them at his own table, or enter their houses. They were not allowed to enter the synagogues or the temple, or to take any part in public prayers. No offerings from them were even accepted at the temple; they were not allowed to hold any office, even the lowest, in the courts of judicature; and in these courts their testimony was not allowed in any causes. Hence it became as a proverb applicable to one who was to be shunned or cast forth, “Let him be to thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Mat_18:17).
This public stigma upon the office inevitably reacted upon the officers. An office, laboring under such odium, and involving such great social penalties, could not be undertaken by respectable men, who had regard for their character and honor. But there will always be found reckless men willing to undertake any employment, and who would find a certain pleasurable excitement in the opportunities of avenging upon society the hate of society against themselves; needy men, to whom constant and well paid employment will afford ample compensation for the “scoffs and scorns of the time;” and grasping men, to whom opportunities of gain from undue exactions in the exercise of their office, supplied inducements which the public scorn could not countervail.
Hence the character of this body speedily came down to a par with the public estimation of it; and the publicans were a sort of heartless rascals, who met the pointed finger of scorn with that of defiance, and were in all respects fully deserving of the social exclusion to which they were doomed by public opinion. But there were exceptions, and bright ones, though they were rare; and it was not to be supposed that our Lord would sanction by his example the social ban upon men who had souls to be saved, and whose employment had nothing in it radically evil, and might be worthily and honestly discharged.
He therefore defied the prejudices of the time by treating publicans as He did other men, associating freely with them when occasion presented, and more than once conferring upon them signal honor. For this He was several times stigmatized as himself “a publican,” and “a friend of publicans and sinners.”
It was, therefore, probably not without a special object, that He made choice of his next apostle from this body. It was frequent in that age for a person to bear two names, and this publican, the son of Alphaeus, was called Levi, and also Matthew, which is the same as the Old Testament name of Matthias.
This publican is the evangelist to whose honored hand we owe the first gospel.
He was sitting by “the receipt of custom,” and as it appears that it was not in the town, or at the gate, but by the sea-shore, it is presumed that he was one of these inferior officers employed to collect the dues levied upon the fish brought to shore, and upon the vegetables and fire-wood received from the other side of the lake. When Jesus passed by He called to him saying, “Follow me,” and “he left all, and rose up, and followed Him.” The same evening Matthew, who had a house in Capernaum, gave an entertainment to his new Master and brother disciples; and doubtless strict Pharisaic opinion felt itself outraged, scarcely less by our Lord going to a publican’s house to eat with him, than by his choosing such a man for one of his most honored servants and closest companions. However, it may be observed that Matthew was no longer a publican when he had quitted the office, though even to have been a publican was in those days reproach enough.