There are a number of parallels between the story of Zacchaeus and the call of Levi (Luke 5:27-32; Mark 2:13-17):
• Both Levi and Zacchaeus are tax collectors.
• Jesus has dinner with both.
• The Pharisees criticize Jesus (in the account of Levi) and the crowd grumbles against Jesus (in the account of Zacchaeus).
• Levi leaves everything to follow Jesus, and Zacchaeus offers to give half his possessions to the poor and to make restitution to anyone whom he has defrauded.
• The call of Levi concludes with Jesus’ words, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” The encounter with Zacchaeus concludes with Jesus’ words, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save that which was lost.”
There are several parallels/contrasts between the story of Zacchaeus and the rich ruler (18:18-30):
• Both are rich.
• Both are people in authority.
• While the rich ruler fails to respond to the requirement to give away his wealth, Zacchaeus gives half of his wealth without even being told to do so.
• While the story of the rich ruler ends with Jesus saying, “For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God,” the story of Zacchaeus ends with Jesus saying, “Today, salvation has come to this house.”
Zacchaeus is also an outsider, as are people in a number of recent stories in this Gospel:
• Lepers (17:11-19).
• A widow (18:1-8).
• A tax collector (18:9-14).
• Children (18:15-17).
• A blind beggar (18:35-43).
LUKE 18:15-43. THE CONTEXT
The last half of chapter 18 shapes our understanding of this text:
• First, people bring little children to see Jesus. The disciples rebuke the parents, but Jesus intervenes saying, “Allow the little children to come to me, and don’t hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (18:15).
• Then a rich ruler comes to Jesus asking how he might be saved. He goes away sadly after learning that he will have to give away his riches. Jesus says, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” Those who hear Jesus ask, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus replies,“The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (18:18-27).
• Then a blind beggar sitting at the side of the road shouts his plea for mercy. The crowd tries to quiet him, but the man persists. Jesus orders the man to be brought to him and declares, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you” (18:35-43).
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 rich ruler, Jesus leaves the door ajar. It is difficult for rich people to be saved, but God can save them. This leads into our Gospel lesson, the story of Zacchaeus, a rich man who finds salvation. The rich ruler is too attached to his possessions to give them to the poor. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, voluntarily pledges to give half his possessions to the poor and to make restitution to anyone whom he has cheated.
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
1He entered and was passing through Jericho. 2There was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector (Greek: architelones), and he was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, and couldn’t because of the crowd, because he was short. 4He ran on ahead, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass 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).
Tax collectors contract with Romans to collect taxes in a particular town or region, and pay a substantial fee for their franchise. Zacchaeus most likely subcontracts the actual collection of taxes. His profit is the amount of taxes collected less the franchise fee and salaries of lesser tax collectors. The system is prone to abuse, rewarding tax collectors for excessive collections. If citizens rebel, Roman soldiers stand ready to back the tax collector (although a tax collector who provokes excessive rebellion risks losing his franchise). Jews despise tax collectors as mercenaries and thieves.
Zacchaeus would have only a small circle of friends to include a few minor Roman officials, those in his employ, and people drawn to his wealth. Outside that circle, he would have mostly enemies. His would be an insular, lonely existence. His wealth only partially compensates for his isolation (and perhaps for his guilt feelings, depending on how we understand verse 8—see below).
“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
5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must (Greek: dei) stay at your house.” 6He hurried, came down, and received him joyfully (Greek: hypedexato auton chairon—welcomed him with joy). 7When they saw it, they all murmured, saying, “He has gone in to lodge with 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
8Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give (Greek: didomi) to the poor. If I have wrongfully exacted anything of anyone, I restore (Greek: apodidomi) 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.
But other scholars support the traditional interpretation where Zacchaeus is promising to give money to the poor and to make restitution. Stein offers a series of reasons to support this view (Stein, 466-467)—the most compelling of which are as follows:
• If Zacchaeus is describing his current behavior, he sounds boastful—a behavior that Jesus would not consider exemplary.
• In this Gospel, wealthy men who encounter Jesus are lost and need salvation (6:24; 12:16-21; 16:19-31; 18:18-25).
• Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Jesus announces salvation (affecting Zacchaeus’ relationship to God), not vindication (affecting only his relationship to other people).
• “The previous pericopes (18:9-14, 15-17, 18-30, 35-43) all deal with individuals being confronted with the offer of salvation”—not vindication.
• In 19:10, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Additional points that support the traditional interpretation include these:
• The assumption that Zacchaeus has been doing the right thing all along diminishes the story—reduces it from a salvation story to a vindication story.
• Zacchaeus’ joyful response and generous pledge (vv. 6-8) are more in keeping with a conversion experience than simple vindication.
• The animosity of the crowd shows that they believe Zacchaeus to be guilty. They would hardly respond so negatively to Zacchaeus if he had routinely dealt honestly with taxpayers and given large sums of money to the poor.
In short, the context seems better served by a Zacchaeus whose behavior is transformed by Jesus rather than a Zacchaeus who has been behaving properly all along.
If Zacchaeus is, indeed, guilty of substantial fraud, his offer of fourfold restitution will impoverish him. He will voluntarily do what Jesus asked of the rich ruler (18:18-27), which is to give his wealth to the poor.
LUKE 19:9-10. TO SEEK OUT AND TO SAVE THAT WHICH WAS LOST
9Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came 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).
Jesus does not save Zacchaeus in isolation, but declares, “salvation has come to this house”(oikos—which in this context implies “household” or “family”). Zacchaeus’ salvation benefits his whole family. It also benefits the entire community as he gives money to the poor and restitution to those whom he has defrauded. The life of the community is transformed by the presence of a tax collector whom people can trust.
“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!
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated. We are using the WEB because we believe it to be the best public domain version of the Bible available.
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Copyright 2004, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan