The Beautiful Toll Collector: Reflection on Zacchaeus

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then 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 came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Introduction 

As we begin our explorative journey into the narrative of Luke’s gospel, let us commence with a prayer to orient our beings to hear the Lord as he speaks to us afresh through the Scriptures: Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I find Luke 19:1-10 to be quite interesting from the outset of the narrative. In the beginning of the narrative the reader hears these words: He (Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich (vv. 1-2).

Presuming from the many encounters that Jesus has had with “strange and questionable” people the text appears to read in a rhythmic fashion heralding the point that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was rich. For example, if the writer did not think Zacchaeus’s profession was important why then is his occupation mentioned? Could not the writer have written: “He entered Jericho and passing through the town a man was there who went by the name of Zacchaeus?” Even more why would the writer even select this story to tell? Consequently, the reader is confronted with a question: “What is a tax collector and why is the writer deliberate in mentioning that Zacchaeus is a rich tax collector?”

Gleaning from the overall narrative of Luke, being a tax collector may not have been a noble profession. For example in Luke 5, Jesus calls one of his disciples to follow him – Levi a tax collector – but the religious leaders respond indignantly. In Luke 15, again Jesus makes company with tax collectors and sinners, but the religious leaders comment: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Lastly in Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable concerning a tax collector and a Pharisee. In this parable the Pharisee is accused of being self-righteous while the tax collector is represented as one of humble stature. Profoundly interesting to this parable is the fact that the Pharisee praying to God lists the tax collector as one of the sinners who he despises. The Pharisee in his prayer comments: “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’” (18:11). Therefore, gleaning from these texts Jesus’s interaction with this type of person would not have been socially acceptable. This understanding of the tax collector has huge implications upon the narrative in Luke.

Not only does the understanding of tax collectors have huge implications for a person’s reading of the narrative in Luke, but this narrative cannot be extrapolated from its immediate context in Luke 18. Zacchaeus is like others on comparable quests who are faced with obstacles (18:3-4, 15, 39); Zacchaeus, like a widow, a toll collector, children, and a blind beggar, is a person of low social status (ch.18); and so on.”

In a very interesting manner, the Zacchaeus narrative relates and contrast to the story of the rich ruler (18:18-30) for both persons – the rich Ruler and Zacchaeus – are rich rulers. “According to the self–evaluation of the rich ruler, he keeps the commandments, while Zacchaeus is by definition a sinner. The ruler is counseled to sell all that he has and give to the poor; Zacchaeus on the other hand gives half of his proceeds to the poor. In the interaction with the rich ruler the ruler fails to respond to Jesus’s invitation while Jesus concludes by saying that Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham.”

The writer also mentions that upon hearing of Jesus’s entrance into Jericho: “He (Zacchaeus) was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way” (vv. 3-4). This text becomes quite ironic and gets even more satirical in the following verses when Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree and tells him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” In response to Jesus’s request Zacchaeus sells half of his possessions and gives them to the poor and those whom he has defrauded paying them back “four times as much” (v.8). Even more, Jesus interprets this act of faith as a characteristic of Zacchaeus’s true status as a “son of Abraham” (v.9). In commenting on the Zacchaeus narrative, Joel Green explains how the Lukan narrative can be understood in terms of its key motifs: seeking, seeing, and shortness.

Firstly, the writer places Zacchaeus upon a quest to find out who is this Jesus (vv. 3-4). However, as the reader continues to read the quest what she encounters is that Jesus is on a quest to Zacchaeus in order to bring him salvation (vv. 5-9). Secondly, locating this narrative within its immediate context (18:35-43), we find that the act of seeing plays a huge role in this story.

The blind beggar who cried out to Jesus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” found his sight recovered – both physically and spiritually – because of his faith and now Zacchaeus the short tax collector has the eyes of his heart – the entirety of his being – opened because of his trust/faith in Jesus. In his remarkable statement of transformation Zacchaeus says to 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).  Thirdly, Zacchaeus’s shortness has a profound implication to this narrative. The vertical imagery of Zacchaeus’s climb into the sycamore tree and his decline to Jesus’s call is representative to “Zacchaeus’s devotion to his quest and serves also as a metaphor associated with matters of status and honor.” In saying more, Zacchaeus’s climb into the tree and his decline to the call of Jesus is reminiscent of the open invitation given by Jesus throughout the Lukan gospel. However, in reading the text we find that Jesus’s call to Zacchaeus becomes our call to follow after him.

In contrast to the openness of Zacchaeus, there is a constant tension between Jesus and the grumbling religious leaders who throughout the gospel always seem to be the subject of Jesus’s critique. In retrospect when the religious leaders grumble and say: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” because Jesus has requested to stay at Zacchaeus’s home, I am reminded of the grumblings of the Israelites in the wilderness against Moses and Aaron – ultimately God. The people of Israel reject God by wanting to return to their oppressor and God angrily responds to the people and says,

And say to the people: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of the Lord, saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.’ Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat.  You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?

In conclusion, I chose to study this passage because of the fact that it appears that Jesus crossed social boundaries – throughout all of the gospels. In this passage specifically, Jesus, appears to include someone who was not included. He appears not solely to include the not included but he brings the not included intimately within his fellowship – he tells Zacchaeus that he too is a “son of Abraham”.

Luke 19:1-10 – Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

Luke 19:1-2 – Setting the Stage

At the beginning of the narrative we come across these words: “He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich” (vv.1-2). After reading these first two verses, the reader is placed in connection with preceding narrative concerning the blind beggar in Jericho (18:40-45) – Jericho is located about 20 kilometers away from Jerusalem. One can notice this indication from the connector word “Jericho” that surfaces in v. 19. This connector word suggests that the writer is continuing his thought into Chapter 19 where he introduces Zacchaeus the rich tax collector. Also, in examining the texts further the allusions to Mark’s gospel cannot be missed. In his gospel, we encounter a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus (10:46). This blind beggar is also found near Jericho and he is also given sight. What then does this mean? Could it be possible that there were two blind beggars near Jericho? Rather than suggesting that there were two blind beggars, one can simply conclude that the same blind beggar in Mark is the same blind beggar in Luke. There would be no reason to conclude otherwise. Hence, one begins to notice that Luke in putting forth his account of the blind beggar is paraphrasing the markan tradition.

Verse 2 begins by mentioning the name of one of the narratives protagonist. However, not only is the name of the protagonist mentioned, but also the occupational title of the character, that is, Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector who was rich (v. 2). Some may be tempted to suggest that Zacchaeus’s name may add to the interpretation of the story, yet though the name in “Hebrew means Righteous One; nothing is made of the meaning of the name.”

The name Zacchaeus may be a pre-Lukan name, for with the same spelling the name Zacchaeus is found in Macc. 10:19. However, though the name Zacchaeus is found in Macc. 10:9 it is not found in Luke-Acts.  As a chief tax collector – a kind of district manager – Zacchaeus would have enjoyed “relative power and privilege” among his fellow tax collector’s, yet outside his group of fellow tax collectors Zacchaeus would have been almost universally despised in the Greco – Roman world. Perhaps Zacchaeus was despised so much because he extorted the people when he took their goods? For Jews, tax collectors – certainly chief tax collectors – were seen as traitors and crooks. Whatever be the case, Zacchaeus probably would have enriched himself by lawful and unlawful means. This attitude of extreme dislike from the religious leaders against the tax collectors can be seen all throughout the narrative (Luk. 5, 15, 18). Apparently, the tax collector was numbered among the “sinners” of society – he was one of the outcasts. As one writer comments: “Zacchaeus was a chief, rich tax collector, the sinner supreme.”

So here we have it, a certain man named Zacchaeus “a chief tax collector” by profession, yet at the same time an absolute sinner. Here we are introduced to yet another one of “those” despised by society, yet as we shall see one who is welcomed by Jesus.

Luke 19:3-6

Entering Jericho, Zacchaeus – the rich tax collector – would have probably been profoundly curious to see Jesus. “Undoubtedly he had already previously heard of this exceptional Man who performed so many miracles and did not scruple to have contact with and to minister to persons like himself who were so despised, especially by the Jewish religious leaders.”

Therefore, hearing that such a man like this has entered into Jericho – a Man that made company with people like himself – could have boosted the curiosity of Zacchaeus imploring him to passionately “see Jesus” and apparently nothing would stop him. Whether understood in terms relative to his youth or in terms concerning his stature, Zacchaeus an outcast and a little man disregards his littleness and his “outcastedness” – and the blocking crowds who tried to keep him on the outside – as a factor preventing himself from seeing Jesus.

Zacchaeus, even enduring probable shame despite his adult male status and position in the community as a wealthy “ruler,” however notorious climbs up a sycamore tree (v.4) only to find that the one in whom he sought to see was just as passionately seeking to see him as well. Jesus – the one who Zacchaeus sought to see – upon arriving to the place of the sycamore tree addresses the tax collector by name and says to him: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (v.5) having the option to reject such a statement, without delay Zacchaeus filled with joy and excitement hurries down from the sycamore tree and welcomes the teacher happily into his home (v.6). Zacchaeus – who only wishes a glimpse of the famous teacher – gets much more: he will host the teacher in his home.

Luke 19:7-10

The religious leaders were deeply angered by such a ‘socially unrighteous” action of Jesus. These leaders were so disgruntled by the fact that Jesus went to eat with Zacchaeus that they began to grumble saying: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (v.7).  These religious leaders respond in anger not only labeling Zacchaeus a sinner but also calling into question the character of Jesus.

Among the Jews it was unheard of for a rabbi or any other religious leader to lower himself by staying at the house of a “tax collector”. So they were greatly offended at his allowing himself to be entertained in the house of Zacchaeus, a prominent member of the despised class.

Zacchaeus simultaneously overwhelmed by such an act of acceptance by Jesus and such an act of rejection by religious leaders resolves to follow Jesus (v.8). “Zacchaeus declares openly that he has decided (as a spontaneous act of repentance, love and gratitude) to give the half of his goods to the poor and in every case to restore fourfold whatever he had taken in the past by heartless extortions”

Though some may suggest that Zacchaeus’s giving to the poor was something he had already been doing turning the narrative away from a narrative of salvation to a narrative of vindication. I suggest that Zacchaeus’s giving to the poor was a response to Jesus’s actions towards him. Reading this story solely as a vindication narrative appears to undercut the intensity of Zacchaeus’s desire to see Jesus (vv. 3-4). Even more, “the whole tone of the story finally counts against this view, from the image of Zacchaeus that emerges in vv. 3-4, via the mission echoes of v.6 through the role of the other statements similar to v. 7 in the Gospel account, to the salvation of the lost emphasis.”

Now as we come to the climax of the narrative we can perceive how Jesus’s powerful response to Zacchaeus appears to fly in the face of his accusers. Jesus comments that the promised salvation has come to the house of Zacchaeus. Even more, Jesus calls the “unrighteous tax collector” who was despised by Greco-Roman world and even more by the Jewish community a “son of Abraham”. This title given to Zacchaeus by Jesus was not due to his racial pedigree – though he more than likely was Jewish due to his name  – but he was “son of Abraham” because “he brought forth fruit in keeping with repentance (3.8a) and having responded in faith and repentance to Jesus.”  In Jesus’s last statements he re-emphasizes the purpose of his mission, his mission that centers on seeking and saving the lost” (v.10). One cannot read this last verse without seeing the allusion to Ezekiel 34:26 where the writer comments: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” In these verses the God of Israel portrays himself as the True Shepard who will go into the earth to search out his lost sheep; he will bring them back into the fold and feed them with justice. In these last passages we learn a great deal about the mission of Jesus, that is, this whole incident is a pointer to the coming in the Son of Man. (Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham).

Conclusion

It is my prayer that we – whether disciples of Jesus or not disciples – can be like Zacchaeus in his passionate pursuit of Jesus. May our curiosities implore us to seek out Jesus as did Zacchaeus; may those obstacles to our seeing be overcame; may our quest for Jesus never be done but may we strive vigorously to see his face for maybe along the way we will be surprised by Jesus. Whether we walk into this journey searching for Jesus optimistically or skeptically, still, let us seek Jesus. Let’s allow our curiosities implore us to seek his face.

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