Publicans were men who collected taxes, usually working for Herod, not Rome, and those who bought or farmed the taxes. It was an excommunicable offense for a Jew to be a publican and they were generally hated by the Jewish people. However, the Bible records that many were very receptive to the gospel when taught it and many accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostle Matthew was a publican before being called to Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus Christ invited both sinners and publicans to have dinner with Him, an action that resulted in criticism by Pharisees and scribes. He said that he came to call the sinner to repentance, not the righteous. He said the publicans would go to Heaven before the chief priests and elders because they believed in John the Baptist and the priests and elders did not. The publicans wanted to know what they had to do to get baptized and Jesus told them not to charge people more than they actually owed. It was to the publicans that Jesus gave the parable of the lost sheep. He also issued a parable in which the Pharisee exalted himself and the publican humbled himself and would, therefore, be the one who was exalted.
A publican named Zacchaeus was a sinner and disliked by the people. However, when he learned Jesus would be coming into his neighborhood, he felt a longing to see him. He went out to the streets but they were so crowded he, being short, couldn’t see, so he climbed a tree. Jesus spotted him and asked him to come down from the tree because Jesus was going to have dinner with him. People were shocked that Jesus would choose the home of a sinner, but Zaccaeus was converted during the Savior’s visit, vowing to return all ill-begotten gains with interest and to change his life.