Only mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew leaves the parable of the publican to Luke (Luke 18:9), because he is the publican from whom it is drawn. In the New Testament are meant not the "publicani" (never mentioned in the New Testament) who were generally wealthy Roman knights, capitalists at Rome, that bought for a fixed sum to be paid into the treasury (in publicum) the taxes and customs of particular provinces. Under them were "chiefs of publicans," having supervision of a district, as Zacchaeus (Luke 19), in the provinces; and under these again the ordinary "publicans" (in the New Testament sense) who, like Levi or Matthew, gathered the customs on exports and imports and taxes (Matthew 9:9-11; Mark 2:14, etc.). The office for "receipt of custom" was at city gates, on public roads, or bridges. Levi's post was on the great road between Damascus and the seaports of Phoenicia. Jericho, Zacchaeus' head quarters, was center of the balsam trade.
Jesus, preferring a publican's house to that of any of the priests at Jericho, then said to number 12,000, marks the honour He does to Zacchaeus and drew on Him the indignation of Jewish bigots. Even the chief publican, Zacchaeus implies, often "took from men by false accusation" (esukofanteesa, rather "unfairly exacted," "extorted"); Luke 3:13 also, John the Baptist's charge "exact no more than that which is appointed you." Still more odious to the Jews was the common publican, with whom most they came in contact. Inquisitorial proceedings and unscrupulous extortion in a conquered country made the office, hateful already as the badge of God's elect nation's subjection to pagan, still more so. Most Jews thought it unlawful to pay tribute to pagan.
To crown all, the publicans were often Jews, in the eyes of their countrymen traitors to Israel's high calling and hopes; to be spoiled by foreigners was bad, but to be plundered by their own countrymen was far worse. Publican became synonymous with "sinner" and "pagan" (Luke 15:1-2; Matthew 18:17; Matthew 5:46; Matthew 21:31; Mark 2:15-16). The hatred and contempt in which they were held hardened them against all better feelings, so that, they defied public opinion.
As the Pharisees were the respectable and outwardly religious class, so the publicans were the vile and degraded. Hence the rabbis declared, as one robber disgraced his whole family, so one publican in a family; promises were not to be kept with murderers, thieves and publicans (Nedar 3:4); the synagogue alms box and the temple corban must not receive their alms (Baba Kama 10:1); it was not lawful to use riches received from them, as gotten by rapine; nor could they judge or give testimony in court (Sauhedr. 25, sec. 2). Hence we see what a breach of Jewish notions was the Lord's eating with them (Matthew 9:11), 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" (Matthew 11:19).