Luke 19:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB)
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. 2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” 6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”
Zacchaeus is one of the best-known characters in the Bible. That’s probably because of his shortness of stature. When were children, we might have identified with this character, because like him we often found it difficult to see over the crowd. Whether we were brave enough to climb a tree, we understood why Zacchaeus might have tried this ploy so he could see Jesus. What we might not have understood is why everyone around Jesus thought it odd that Jesus would want to eat with Zacchaeus. This whole business about tax-collectors being bad people requires a few more details than children might be ready to absorb. Perhaps the lesson would have something to do with Jesus loving short people (including children).
From an adult perspective, the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is probably well known to most, though unless you understand the nature of the tax-collecting business you might miss the point of the story. That has to do with salvation and one’s place in the covenant community that is linked to Abraham.
The parts we know best concerns Zacchaeus’ shortness of stature and the great effort he makes to see Jesus, when Jesus came to Jericho. Climbing a tree to see someone, might not be that risky for a child who is good at tree-climbing, but for an adult just the act of climbing a tree to see a parade risked not only one’s body, but also one’s reputation. For a man of wealth to take up a child’s action could prove costly. But he was determined to see Jesus, and Jesus seems to have recognized that determination.
We’re told by Luke that Zacchaeus is rich and that he got his riches through his vocation as a tax collector. Not only was he a tax collector, he ran the local office. These tax collectors weren’t like our modern IRS agents. They were more likely private contractors who earned their living by charging more than the Romans demanded. It appears to have been a lucrative business. As the chief tax collector, he likely received a commission from his underlings. That he was rich is proof that he was good at his job! As we know, tax collectors back then were despised by the populace. Since they were usually people who were connected to the community, but who collaborated with the foreign rulers, they were seen as traitors to their people. That meant that they stood outside the fence that surrounded the gathered flock.
When Jesus saw Zacchaeus in that tree, he was apparently impressed and so he invited himself over for dinner. Zacchaeus was only too happy to host him. By inviting himself over, Jesus had embraced Zacchaeus. He brought Zacchaeus in from the cold. Despite the tax-collector’s joy, the righteous elements of the community were none too happy. They viewed him as unworthy of redemption. If Jesus wanted to eat with him, then Jesus must be just as bad (you know, “birds of a feather flock together”). But, Jesus didn’t care. Thus, Zacchaeus is overjoyed. So much so, that makes a rather radical declaration.
He declares, first of all, that he will dedicate half of his estate to the poor. It might not be all his estate, but even half is huge. Remember the ruler who asked what was needed to gain eternal life (salvation)? He claimed that he had kept the commandments. Jesus said that was well and good, but he needed to sell all he had and give it to the poor. He walked away because he was very rich (Luke 18:18-25). Zacchaeus was rich, but his response was different. He offered up half of what he had to the poor, and then he declared that he would make restitution of four times what he had gained through defrauding his clients. Of course, that’s how you made your living if you were a “publican.” You defrauded people. So, he likely was giving up most of his treasure, so that he might have treasure in heaven.
Jesus responds to Zacchaeus’ declaration that salvation had come to his home. By that Jesus meant that he was now restored to the covenant community that is the children of Abraham. Zacchaeus might have been wealthy, but he was still an outcast. That ended with this encounter. He may have strayed from the flock, but now he was restored. That is Jesus’ vocation—to seek out and save the lost.
What word does this story have for us? Where do we fit into the story? Are we like Zacchaeus, in need of being found and restored to the flock? Are we numbered among those who cluck at those who we view with disdain because of the way in which they make their way through life? Do we view certain people as being beyond the pale and unworthy of our company? Or are we standing with Jesus, ready to seek out those who have strayed and invite them to return to the flock?
This story raises interesting questions about the nature of salvation. Jesus’ initial response to Zacchaeus is one of grace, but Zacchaeus goes looking for Jesus. So somewhere in this conversation is a bit of cooperation. Whether Jesus requested restitution, Zacchaeus felt that it was appropriate. It was a sign of true repentance. So, maybe there is need for both faith and works in the process of salvation. Or better, grace leads to transformation, which leads to change of life. It’s not just an inward action, it’s an outward one, which at least in this case has economic ramifications.
Such is Jesus’ ministry—to seek out those who are estranged or who have strayed from the flock and then restore them. For those of us who live within the Protestant Mainline, which often struggles with the idea of evangelism (likely because of heavy-handed efforts we’ve observed), it is important to note that our vocation is that of Jesus. There is no room for excluding those whom we have deemed irredeemable, for no one is beyond the reach of God and God’s grace. Indeed, we are sons and daughters of Abraham, the one who received the covenant promise that through his descendants and that of Sarah his spouse, the nations would be blessed.