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Tax collectors were very despised because they collected taxes for Rome, but Jesus saw this as an opportunity to teach that everyone was accepted by Jesus if they believed.
During the time of Jesus, Israel was divided into various territories that were governed by the descendants of Herod the Great, but Judea was an Imperial territory governed by a Roman procurator and the taxes were very high there. Wealthy Jews would bid for the position of tax collector and get even more rich by adding a substantial fee above whatever was owed. There were also publicans like Matthew who collected taxes for customs or tolls on imports, exports, and merchants who came to buy or sell in Israel. The religious leaders especially despised the tax collectors and they were considered unclean because of their contact with Romans. Their testimonies were rejected in court and they were not redeemable under the law of Moses. When Jesus made friends with the tax collectors his ministry was immediately under suspect.
Luke 15:1 - "Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him."
The Tax Collectors - Bible History Online
Vine's Expository Dictionary - Publican
Strong's Concordance - Publican
Biblical Definition of Taxes in Fausset's Bible Dictionary
Taxes in Eastons Bible Dictionary
Taxes in Smiths Bible Dictionary
TRIBUTE (TAXES) in Naves Topical Bible
Sketches of Jewish Social Life - Taxation and Publicans
Julius Caesar's War Commentaries
The Well Hated Tax Collector
The Bible mentions the "Tax Collectors":
Matthew 5:46 - For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
Luke 3:12 - And [some] tax-gatherers also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?"
Luke 5:27 - And after that He went out, and noticed a tax-gatherer named Levi, sitting in the tax office, and He said to him, "Follow Me."
Luke 5:29 - And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other [people] who were reclining [at the table] with them.
Luke 5:30 - And the Pharisees and their scribes [began] grumbling at His disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?"
Luke 7:29 - And when all the people and the tax-gatherers heard [this], they acknowledged God's justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John.
Luke 7:34 - "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking; and you say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!'
Luke 15:1 - Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him.
Luke 18:10 - "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer.
Luke 18:11 - "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer.
Luke 18:13 - "But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'
Luke 19:2 - And behold, there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; and he was a chief tax-gatherer, and he was rich.