Rome avoided running local tax booths directly. She would, instead, auction off a certain region for tax collection. Romans of the equestrian rank would form stock companies and bid for a region—usually on a five-year basis. They, in turn, would farm out each portion of that region to tax commissioners. Zacchaeus seemed to be such a tax commissioner in the district of Jericho. Finally, there were the tax gatherers or “publicans” as we know them in Scripture. Local tax collectors were able to speak the language of the empire and of the region. They had to be fairly well educated and knowledgeable about the people they worked with. As a rule, Jews were hired to tax Jews. Once Rome received the money it demanded from the region, the middlemen made a profit on the remainder. Anything beyond that was gravy for the tax collector. Nearly everything was taxed: durable goods, consumables, slaves, and land. Publicans would often inflate the price of merchandise and tax it accordingly. Legalized extortion was carried out for the Jews’ bitter enemy, Rome, and it is understandable that rabbis put publicans out of the synagogue.
This had been the world in which Matthew lived.
Balge, R. D., Balge, R., Ehlke, R. C., & Inter-Lutheran Comission on Worship. (1999, c1989). Sermon studies on the Gospels : (ILCW series A) (electronic ed.) (226). Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House.