PARALLEL STORIES: There are a number of parallels between the story of Zacchaeus and the call of Levi (Luke 5:27-32; Mark 2:13-17):
CONTEXT Luke 18: The last half of chapter 18 shapes our understanding of this text:
In each of those instances, Jesus reverses the ordinary. He welcomes children and beggars, whom people prefer to keep in the background-but places heavy demands on the rich ruler, whom most people would welcome gladly.
In the case of the blind beggar, Jesus blessed the one who wants to see. This also ties into the story of
Zacchaeus, who exposes himself to ridicule by climbing a sycamore tree because he wants to see Jesus. He, too, receives a blessing.
LUKE 19:1-4. ZACCHAEUS CLIMBED A TREE TO SEE JESUS
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. 3 Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and he was unable due to the crowd, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree in order to see Him, because He was about to pass through that way.
Jesus "entered and was passing through Jericho" (v. 1). This is a subtle reminder that Jesus is nearing the end of his journey to Jerusalem and his cross-a journey that began at 9:51 and will end shortly with his arrival in Jerusalem (19:28 ff.). Jericho is a wealthy city. It occupies a strategic position astride the road to Jerusalem and near a Jordan River crossing, and is a center of commerce. Its inhabitants export date palms and balsam (Barclay, 243).
"Zacchaeus... was a chief tax collector (architelones), and he was rich" (v. 2). The word, architelones, is not found elsewhere in scripture, but the "arch" at the beginning of the word refers to a ruler or supervisor of tax collectors. Being a chief tax collector for a wealthy community almost guarantees prosperity, and Luke specifies that Zacchaeus is rich (v. 2). Elsewhere in this Gospel, tax collectors are presented favorably (3:12; 7:29; 15:1; 18:10), but the rich are not (1:53; 6:24; 12:16-21; 14:12; 16:19-31; 18:18-25; 21:1).
"He was trying to see who Jesus was, and couldn't because of the crowd, because he was short"(v. 3). Like the blind man in chapter 18, Zacchaeus wants desperately to see. Also like the blind man, he is limited physically so that he is unable to see.
"He ran on ahead, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way"(v. 4). His behavior in this instance is remarkable. His ability to function as chief tax collector requires that people respect his power and comply with his directives. His position demands dignity and authority. On this occasion, however, he exposes himself to sharp elbows or worse as he pushes through the crowd. He invites ridicule by climbing a tree, which calls attention to his short stature.
LUKE 19:5-7. TODAY I MUST STAY AT YOUR HOUSE
5 And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, "Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house." 6 And he hurried and came down, and received Him joyfully. 7 When the people saw this, they all began to complain, saying, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!"
"Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must (dei) stay at your house" (v. 5b). In Luke 10, Jesus sent the disciples on an evangelistic mission. Now he conducts a personal mission. Jesus conveys a divine purpose when he says that he "must" (dei-"it is necessary") stay at Zacchaeus' house. He must do so "today," conveying a sense of urgency. Jesus did not come to Jericho by happenstance. He came to save Zacchaeus.
Those who emphasize that a sinner must observe certain "steps" to win salvation should note that Zacchaeus "does not beg Jesus for mercy... or express any sorrow. Jesus makes no reference to Zacchaeus' faith..., repentance or conversion..., or discipleship" (Fitzmyer, 1220). Jesus initiates the action without any prompting from Zacchaeus. However, we should also note that Zacchaeus obeys Jesus' command to "hurry and come down" from the tree. The result would be quite different if Zacchaeus failed to respond to Jesus' invitation.
"He (Zacchaeus) hurried, came down, and received him joyfully" (hypedexato auton chairon-welcomed him with joy) (v. 6). How surprised and honored Zacchaeus must feel! Jesus is popular, and brings honor to any home that he visits. Why would he honor a man like Zacchaeus? Nobody, including Zacchaeus, knows, but Zacchaeus responds "with joy" (chairon).
"When they saw it, they all murmured" (v. 7a). In the Old Testament, the Israelites grumbled against God (Exodus 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Numbers 11:1; 14:2, 27, 29, 36; Deuteronomy 1:27; Jeremiah 2:29; Psalm 106:25). In this Gospel, it is usually Pharisees who grumble about Jesus eating with sinners (5:30; 7:34; 15:1), but here "when they saw it, they all murmured."
"He has gone in to lodge with a man who is a sinner" (v. 7b). Just as Zacchaeus exposed himself to ridicule by climbing a tree, so Jesus exposes himself to criticism by visiting Zacchaeus' house. Ordinary people see Jesus as their friend. They don't want him to honor a man whom they regard as their enemy.
LUKE 19:8. HALF OF MY GOODS I GIVE TO THE POOR
8 But Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I am giving to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I am giving back four times as much."
"Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give (didomi) to the poor" (v. 8a). Jesus asked the rich ruler to sell his possessions and to give them to the poor. He asks nothing but hospitality of Zacchaeus, but Zacchaeus volunteers to give half of his wealth to the poor and to make fourfold restitution to anyone whom he has defrauded. This exceeds Torah requirements, which require restitution plus one-fifth (Leviticus 6:5; Numbers 5:7) except in the case of the theft of an animal, which requires two, four or fivefold restitution, depending on the circumstances (Exodus 22:1-4). Zacchaeus does not make this offer to win Jesus' approval, but to show his gratitude. He is not trying to win salvation, but is instead responding to the presence of the Savior. He is bearing "fruits worthy of repentance" (3:8).
"If I have wrongfully exacted anything of anyone, I restore (apodidomi) four times as much" (v. 8b). However, it is uncertain that Zacchaeus has defrauded anyone. His verbs, "give" (didomi) and "pay back" (apodidomi) are present tense and may indicate that he routinely gives to the poor and offers restitution to those whom he has wronged. In other words, he might be innocent of wrongdoing, and might be touting his honesty in hope of being vindicated in the eyes of his neighbors. A number of scholars subscribe to this interpretation.
Additional points that support the traditional interpretation include these:
LUKE 19:9-10. TO SEEK OUT AND TO SAVE THAT WHICH WAS LOST
9 And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."
"Today, salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham" (v. 9). As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus has been an outsider, a social leper. Jesus now brings him inside again, declaring him to be a "son of Abraham"-just has he has pronounced the woman crippled with a spirit of infirmity a "daughter of Abraham" (13:16).
"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost" (v. 10). We dare not judge any person hopeless. Whether we are murderers, terrorists, racists, or rapists, Christ seeks to save us all.
In chapter 15, Jesus dealt at length with lost things-lost sheep (15:3-7)-a lost coin (15:8-10)-and lost sons (15:11-32). When they were found, there was great rejoicing. Now he proclaims that his central mission is to seek and to save the lost. The word "seek" implies that Jesus takes the initiative, just as the shepherd took the initiative to find the lost sheep (15:3-7). We can be sure that, when Zacchaeus was climbing a tree to see Jesus, Jesus was also "seeking" to see Zacchaeus so that he might "save the lost."
This is Good News! Who among us is not in need of salvation!
This final event in Luke's long section detailing Jesus' ministry on the road to Jerusalem ends with the story of Zacchaeus. It sums up several of the themes that Luke has developed, including who may become disciples and how discipleship should affect their lives. It concludes with Jesus the Great Shepherd, seeking and saving the lost.
Passing through Jericho (Luke 19:1)
"Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through." (19:1)
Jesus has no plans to stay in Jericho. But it lies on the way to his final destination -- Jerusalem. The words "passing through" translate the Greek word dierchomai, "go or travel through."803
Zacchaeus, the Wealthy Tax Collector (Luke 19:2-4)
Luke, the storyteller, first introduces the chief character, Zacchaeus, and then goes back to Jesus who is entering the city. This quick shift of scenes helps the reader get acquainted with Zacchaeus so that the full significance of the story is appreciated at its climax.
"A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way." (19:2-4)
We meet a small man, too short to see over the crowd. His name is Zacchaeus, an abbreviation of Zechariah, meaning "the righteous one"804 -- a big name to live up to.
The name is incongruous for Zacchaeus, since he is the chief tax collector in Jericho, and tax collectors were notorious for cheating the general public to fatten their pockets. They would assess a tax, and if the person refused to pay or called it unfair, Herod's soldiers would threaten him. Regions of a kingdom would be divided up into districts, and a tax collector would become responsible for collecting a certain amount of tax and passing it up the chain to the government. Whatever he collected over the amount required was his to keep. A chief tax collector would employ tax collectors under him to collect taxes in various parts of the district.
As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus probably was responsible for collecting tolls on goods coming into Judea from Perea,805 a main trade route. This business has made him rich. The word for "wealthy" is Greek plousios, "pertaining to having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience, rich, wealthy."806 But despite his riches, or perhaps because of them, Zacchaeus is hated by the people. They see him as a crook and a traitor, who works as a spy for the Roman oppressors in order to take their money and give it to the occupation government, and on to Rome.
Zacchaeus is short, wealthy, and hated. But he is also curious. He hears that Jesus is coming through town and is determined to see him. The word "wanted" (NIV) or "sought" (KJV) is Greek zēteō, "to devote serious effort to realize one's desire or objective, strive for, aim (at) try to obtain, desire, wish (for)."807 One evidence of his earnestness and purpose is the fact that he runs ahead to where he knows Jesus will pass. The words "ran ahead" translate Greek protrechō, "outrun, run on ahead."808 He finds a large tree, and therein establishes a reconnaissance outpost where he will be able to see Jesus without attracting unwanted attention. The sycamore-fig tree (Ficus sycomorus) is a robust evergreen tree that grows to about 40 feet (12 meters) high, with branches spreading in every direction. Their many branches make them easy to climb.809 It is springtime, and new leaves have appeared among the old foliage on the tree. Zacchaeus is ready.
Jesus Invites Himself to Dinner (Luke 19:5-6)
"When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.' So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly." (19:5-6)
I am always fascinated when I read this. Jesus is walking along, mobbed by townspeople. But all of a sudden he looks up and sees Zacchaeus in the tree above him and stops. Does he know he'll find Zacchaeus in the tree that day? We don't know. It wouldn't surprise me. And more remarkable, he calls Zacchaeus by name. Does he know Zacchaeus' name ahead of time, or does he pick it up from angry whispers in the crowd about the man Jesus was peering up at?
Now he calls out to Zacchaeus by name: "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." The word translated "immediately" (NIV) or "make haste" (KJV) is Greek speudō, "hurry, hasten."810 Jesus is not content to make an appointment for later. Now is the time. The phrase "must stay" (NIV) or "must abide" (KJV) is interesting. It uses the Greek word dei, "to be under necessity of happening, it is necessary, one must, one has to, denoting compulsion of any kind."811 "Stay" or "abide" is Greek menō, "remain, stay," often in the special sense "live, dwell, lodge."812
Jesus says he "must" come to dinner! Now! Immediately! We might think of this as presumptuous and rude. But Zacchaeus is overjoyed. Here he was, a social outcast being offered the opportunity to host one of the most famous men in the country. Of course, he is happy. He scrambles down the tree and welcomes Jesus. The word "welcome" is Greek hypodechomai, "to receive hospitably, receive, welcome, entertain as a guest."813
Jesus isn't the first prophet to be sent by God to an individual who would feed him. God tells Elijah the Prophet:
"'Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.' So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, 'Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?' As she was going to get it, he called, 'And bring me, please, a piece of bread.'" (1 Kings 17:9-11)
Jesus has invited himself for dinner at this man's home. Out of hunger? No. But because he knows something about the desire and earnestness in this man's heart. Jesus can see that he is wealthy. His clothes betray that easily. Be he can also see the man's longing and his faith. Jesus has spiritual sight.
I've had experiences in preaching where I knew without anyone telling me the people with whom God was working during the message. Perhaps it could be explained by subtle body language, but I believe that God was showing me certain people who he was working with. Now, I haven't always had this insight -- not by any means. But I know it exists. And I believe that is what Jesus has that day in Jericho; it accounts for him inviting himself to Zacchaeus' home for dinner. Elijah's presence is instrumental in feeding the destitute widow and her son. Jesus' presence is responsible for providing salvation and forgiveness to a wealthy man who is starving for spiritual life.
Guest of a Sinner (Luke 19:7)
But Jesus' choice of dinner companions didn't make him popular in Jericho.
"All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.'" (19:7)
The word "mutter" is Greek diagongyzō, "complain, grumble (aloud)."814 Aren't you glad that Jesus loves you whether or not others approve? Perhaps the people are jealous that the honor of Jesus' presence goes to such an unworthy citizen. And perhaps they think less of Jesus for associating with people like Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus Repents (Luke 19:8)
"But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." (19:8)
Look at Zacchaeus' reaction to the criticism and shame he is bringing on his guest. First, he stands up, indicating probably that he had fallen to his knees before Jesus. Next, he offers to give half his possessions to the poor. The rich young ruler (who evidently was richer than Zacchaeus) has trouble disposing of his wealth, but not Zacchaeus. In one stroke he pledges half his possessions to help the poor. 50% of one's possessions goes far beyond the 20% that might be considered generous by the rabbis.815 Here is a fledgling disciple who does not love money, but has his priorities in the right place.
Finally, he offers restitution to any he has wronged -- four times the amount he cheated them. Our English translation, "if I have cheated anybody," might indicate that Zacchaeus isn't taking responsibility for cheating, and making it only hypothetical. The verb translated "cheated" is sykophanteō, which means "to secure something through intimidation, extort."816 This conditional clause doesn't put in doubt the fact of the extortion, only its extent. Marshall translates it, "From whomsoever I have wrongfully exacted anything...."817
It is wonderfully refreshing to see such repentance by a man who realizes that his life must change or it will bring discredit upon his guest. These days it is common to see people wearing a cross necklace -- the symbol of Jesus' death for our sins -- and be involved with all kinds of sin and degradation. King David, who committed adultery, murder, and deceit, was heartbroken when the Prophet Nathan reminded him, "By doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt...." (2 Samuel 12:14)
It is so vital to repentance that we recognize, as David did, where he said, "Against you, and you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight." (Psalm 51:4)
Our sins against others discredit the God with whom we identify ourselves, and we owe him a huge apology.
Zacchaeus' acts of repentance were both genuine and required if he is to remove from Jesus the shame of associating with him. Isn't it wonderful that Jesus takes our shame upon himself willingly, waiting, hoping that we will understand and repent. What grace! What mercy! Love changes people. Jesus' love changes us. Our love for others can bring change to them.
Son of Abraham (Luke 19:9)
"Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.'" (19:9)
Now Jesus moves to reconcile Zacchaeus with the townspeople who despise him. They view tax collectors as worse than infidels, banish them from their synagogues, and disown them as Jews. But Jesus insists that Zacchaeus has received salvation (Greek sōtēria). His actions evidence repentance, a change of heart. And Jesus reaffirms that Zacchaeus is indeed a Jew, a son of Abraham. He calls on the man's neighbors to welcome and accept him.
Seeking the Lost (Luke 19:10)
"For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (19:10)
The final passage of this section of Luke's Gospel contains Jesus' mission -- that of a Shepherd, to seek and to rescue the lost and straying. It is a servant's role. There is little glorious about this kind of work. It may look spectacular in mass meetings where the converted stream from the stadium seating to a place of repentance on the infield, but it involves working with slimy people who have committed grievous sins and whose lives are both miserable and misery-filled.
Those people are in our churches, in our neighborhoods, at our jobs, in our schools -- hurting people whose lives are messed up and who need Jesus' mercy and grace. These people need our willingness to love them rather than judge them, our willingness to go out of our way to extend ourselves in love.
Lessons for Disciples
I see a number of lessons in this story for modern-day disciples:
Perhaps you can see some more lessons. In this story I see Jesus as the Great Shepherd, relentlessly seeking and relentlessly saving one lost person after another. And you and I are his assistants, his disciples, his co-workers. His mission is our mission. His clients are our clients. His sorrows, our sorrows. And the joy in Jesus' eyes as he watches an enthusiastic, short sinner, scramble down from a tree and be changed in an instant into a saint -- that joy, too, is ours to share.
PRAYER: Jesus, as I read about Zacchaeus, I think of my own selfishness. Sometimes I am impatient with people, despairing of people for whom you died. Forgive me for my lack of vision. Help me to see you at work in people around me. Help me to be willing to risk whatever reputation I have to join in your search and rescue campaign. I long to see your salvation shine more brightly through me. In Christ's name, I pray, Amen.