Luke’s story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector
The story of Zacchaeus, a rich, short, and thoroughly unpopular chief tax collector in Jericho, has entranced readers and hearers for two millennia. People grin because it is funny and absurd—but somehow wonderfully believable. Wanting to see Jesus, Zacchaeus broke accepted norms for one of his status by running, scrambling up a sycamore fig tree, and seemingly hiding therein. Upon meeting Jesus, he unexpectedly volunteered to make financial amends by giving away half his possessions and restoring what he may have wrongfully taken. Told only in Luke (19:1–10), the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus occurred a little more than a week before Jesus’s crucifixion in Jerusalem.
When Jesus entered Jericho after healing a blind man, a crowd immediately formed. People jockeyed to see him and many probably wondered if he and his disciples would stay awhile. Zacchaeus, likewise curious, sought to see Jesus. However, the crowd, forming an impenetrable line, refused to let this vertically-challenged, probable shyster pass.
Undeterred and determined, Zacchaeus ran ahead outside the city to a nearby sycamore, climbed up, and waited. Known for their abundant leaves and high, bowl-like canopies, sycamores yield colorful clusters of figs.
Meanwhile, Jesus continued walking through Jericho and eventually stopped under that sycamore. He looked up, called Zacchaeus by name, and told him to hurry and come down! Announcing loudly enough for all to hear, Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today!” (v. 5) (italics added). Luke does not record how the newly-discovered Zacchaeus descended, but I think he slid down the trunk and landed with a thump!
He straightened his robe and gladly welcomed Jesus. Meanwhile, the crowd grumbled. No doubt Jesus and Zacchaeus heard loud reminders that Jesus was going to a sinner’s house (v. 7)!
Scholars debate what happened next. Did Jesus, his entourage, and Zacchaeus immediately go to Zacchaeus’s house, or did Zacchaeus’s upcoming, surprising declaration immediately follow his descent? I favor the latter. Why? Because his words sound planned, rehearsed, decisive. As a chief tax collector, he routinely handled money and made decisions.
Ignoring his malcontented neighbors, Zacchaeus directly addressed Jesus: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (v. 8).
I picture Jesus joyfully throwing back his head and shouting loudly for everyone to hear, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost” (vv. 9–10). Jesus not only validated Zacchaeus’s announcement but also made a pun on himself and his name, which comes from the Hebrew word for “salvation.”
As a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus probably had bought his position from a Roman official. Perhaps he supervised other tax collectors. Rome allowed its personnel to charge more than the tax and keep the profit. The system bred corruption. Jewish communities across Judea hated it and grouped tax collectors with sinners (15:1–2). Tax collectors took tolls and tariffs on farm crops and transported goods. Despised in Roman Palestine and considered unclean, they were accused of cheating and widely regarded as traitors.
Amazingly, Jesus sought their company! Early in his ministry, Jesus had chosen Levi, a tax collector, as a disciple (5:27–32). When summoned, Levi immediately left his toll booth, perhaps near the Sea of Galilee, and followed Jesus. Soon afterward, Levi hosted a banquet for Jesus and invited his tax collector friends. Perhaps Zacchaeus attended. Jesus’s critics, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, chastised him for his association with such folk. Replying with the analogy that the healthy have no need of a doctor but the sick do, Jesus then stated his mission: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5:32); he expanded this rationale subsequently with Zacchaeus (19:10).
What about Zacchaeus’s promise to give half his possessions to the poor—an unexpected, amazing, absurdly generous, and voluntary gesture? Such action was not mandated—nor even suggested—by the Torah. Exodus 22:1 states, “If an ox is stolen, the thief must pay back five oxen; if a sheep, the payback is four.” Restitution plus a fine summarized the Jewish view. Zacchaeus vowed to more than meet that standard.
However, he does not say when this four-fold payback and division of his possessions will start, but I think it began early the next morning. By being more than fair, Zacchaeus sought not only to do the right thing but also to restore his status in the community. After all, his name is related to the Hebrew word for “pure.” Perhaps his neighbors’ shunning extended to all in his household—both family and servants.
In ancient Israel, tradition required travelers to go to a central part of a town, wait, and be invited to a home. However, with Zacchaeus, Jesus not only reversed this by inviting himself but also added urgency. He told Zacchaeus to “hurry and come down” and then gave this reason: “for I must stay at your house today” (v. 5) (italics added). Earlier in his ministry, there was a similar urgency to go through Samaria (John 4:4). Arguably, the reason for both encounters was Jesus had to meet a woman at a well and had to stay with Zacchaeus.
Quite likely in the humor, surprise, and confusion of the sycamore encounter, the gathered crowd missed the thrust of Jesus’s words. His double mention of house (Luke 19: 5, 9) emphasized household salvation, a theme of Luke-Acts, the two books credited to the apostle. While a guest in Zacchaeus’s home, Jesus no doubt mingled with the family and servants; they also would share in the joy of Zacchaeus’s decisions and restitutions.
The story of Zacchaeus builds on Luke’s portrayal of Jesus as one who sought those marginalized by age, gender, illness, occupation, or political affiliation. He welcomed both the materially and spiritually poor. Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard Jesus’s parables of the lost—the lost sheep, coin, and sons (Luke 15)—and knew he was lost spiritually. Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25–37) and identified with a traveler on the road to Jericho. Perhaps Zacchaeus responded in hope when hearing the parable comparing the prayers of the self-righteous, self-exulting Pharisee and the penitent tax collector who asked for mercy; of the two, the latter went away justified (18:9–14).
The story of Zacchaeus builds on Luke’s themes. One is the concept of sight and seeing. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus (19:3). A blind man had received his sight shortly before Jesus entered Jericho (18:18–43).
Luke skillfully balances a story about a man with one about a woman. Zacchaeus, the repentant tax collector, was called a “son of Abraham,” and an unnamed woman bent double for 18 years and healed was called a “daughter of Abraham” (19:9; 13:10–17). Both faced criticism and ostracism. Jesus reminded their grumblers—Jericho’s residents and the leader of a synagogue—that these two marginalized people belonged—as did they!—to the covenant.
Jesus and his entourage stayed the night (or maybe more) in Zacchaeus’s home. Luke remains silent on the conversations, festivities, and accommodations. Perhaps as the honored guest, Jesus taught the parable of the ten pounds, another allegory on God’s present and future kingdom (19:11–27).
After sunrise, the guests, household, and host parted. Zacchaeus, account ledger at hand, probably stationed himself at his gate, ready to make good on his repayment plan. An eager line probably formed. Meanwhile, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem; he had told his disciples of his upcoming death (18:31–33). The sycamore sparkled with dew. Perhaps while stopping under its leafy canopy, he looked for ripe figs.
Robin Gallaher Branch, a frequent Bible History Daily contributor, serves as an adjunct professor at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, and in a research capacity at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, where she did her Fulbright Fellowship in 2002–2003. She holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of numerous academic articles and two books, Six Biblical Plays for Contemporary Audiences (Cascade 2016) and Jeroboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Wipf & Stock 2018).
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