The physician Luke is the only gospel writer to include the account of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector from Jericho who climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a view of Jesus.
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way. And 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 and came down and received Him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Ironically, the name Zacchaeus comes from the Hebrew root word meaning ‘pure’ or ‘righteous’, but as a chief tax collector, this man would’ve been seen as anything but pure or righteous. Tax collectors, also known as ‘publicans’, were independent contractors commissioned by the Roman government in order to collect the various taxes, which included: income, land, property, commerce, etc. Rome would auction up these tax franchises, which would then be bought by a wealthy native of the province. Anything the purchaser might have collected above the cost of the franchise would be kept as personal profit. As you can imagine, this was a system ripe for injustice and corruption.
The collection agent would line their own pockets by charging an additional percentage on top of the taxes already owed. In the cases with merchants for example, the tax collector would arbitrarily assess the value of the goods being sold, and then charge an inflated payment for that amount. They were also known for accepting bribes and hush money from the wealthy upper class, who would typically be expected to pay more in taxes. So, in order to make up the difference for these underhanded tax breaks, the collector would then charge the common people even more. There was no recourse or method of appeal since these individuals were authorized by the Roman government. Basically, it was legalized extortion.
Not hard to imagine then, why these tax collectors were often socially despised and rejected by their fellow countrymen. They were seen as being in collusion with Rome, and therefore were viewed as traitors to their nation. An ever-present reminder of the foreign oppression.
Because of their close working association with Gentiles, tax collectors were thought of as ‘unclean,’ and were regarded along with the lowest class of sinners. They were excommunicated from all Jewish synagogues, and were not even permitted to testify in a Jewish legal court, since they were well known for being liars and cheats.
Earlier in chapter 3, Luke records that even tax collectors were among those coming out to John in the wilderness in order to be baptized.
Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he answered them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to.” (Luke 3:12-13)
When they ask John, “What shall we do?” He instructs them to no longer collect more than what is due.
In verse 2, we’re told that Zacchaeus was a ‘chief tax collector.’ So he was the head contractor of this franchise, the top of the tax pyramid, and therefore he would’ve had other collection agents working under him. It wouldn’t be surprising if he were receiving an additional percentage from each of their commissions as well. We’re also told from the text that he was rich.
The city of Jericho was considered as the tax capitol for Palestine. Located in the Jordan valley about 17 miles east from Jerusalem, it was a wealthy center of commerce and travel. Just as we see Jesus and His disciples passing through here, thousands of other travelers would’ve passed through this area, making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover feast.
Jericho, which literally means “fragrant place,” was also referred to as the ‘City of Palms’ (see Deuteronomy 34:3), being known for its many date-palm trees. A lush oasis with plenty of vegetation and therefore a high agricultural area, even to this day. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote of it as “a divine region, the fattest in Palestine.”
Interestingly, Jericho is considered to be one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world, with archaeological discoveries dating back to 9,000 B.C. Located on the northern end of the Dead Sea, it is also the world’s lowest geographical city at about 780 feet below sea level. Because of its warmer climate, Herod the great actually had a winter palace built there for himself, which brought even more wealth to the area.
So Jericho was a choice location for a man of Zacchaeus’ profession, and we see that he had indeed been financially successful up to this point.
In verse 3 we read, ‘He was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, for he was small in stature.’
Why does he want to get a look at Jesus? To see who this man was?
A mild curiosity perhaps, to see this Rabbi from Galilee that everyone was talking about. Or rather, and this is the direction I lean, perhaps there was something deeper at work below the surface. An undefined drawing within him to this compelling source of goodness that was radiated from Christ. Maybe he has heard of the compassion that Jesus displayed even for men like Him. After all, He had accepted a former tax collector named Matthew to become one of His disciples.
Even if it were on some subconscious level, I believe there was this feeling of discontentedness, a knowledge that all was not right between himself and the Lord God.
Despite all of his acquired riches, there is something missing in Zacchaeus’ life.
There’s an emptiness.
It’s not uncommon to hear of testimonials from celebrities, who, despite all the wealth and the fame, still claim to have a pervasive feeling of discontentment, unhappiness, and unfulfillment.
So often we tend to fix our gaze on material possessions, not realizing that these temporal things can never truly satisfy.
Jesus Himself specifically warns against this in Luke chapter 12 verse 15:
“Take care, and be on your guard against all forms of greed, for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
It reminds me of the superficial slogan: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
What a sad sentiment. The truth is, he who dies with the most toys still dies, and cannot take any of those so-called toys along with him. You will never see a u-haul being pulled behind a hearse.
Due to his being short in stature, and because of the large crowd of people, Zacchaeus was unable to get a visual of Jesus. So In verse 4 we’re told that he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass by that way. This type of sycamore fig actually makes for an easy tree to climb because of their shorter trunks, which are closer to the ground, and for the way their limbs branch out in a crown-like fashion.
Surely this would’ve been an amusing sight to see. Consider for a moment, this well-known rich man, a chief publican, arrayed in his fine apparel no doubt, shimmying up into the leaves and branches of this tree. While this certainly sounds like fun to us, understand that in the culture at the time, this would’ve been seen as undignified behavior for a grown man. Think about it, who climbs trees? Children. Zacchaeus was unknowingly fulfilling Jesus’ teaching about becoming childlike in Matthew chapter 18,
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to Him a child, He placed him in the midst of them and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4)
I like what Matthew Henry writes about this in his commentary, “Children, when they are young, do not desire authority, do not regard outward distinctions, are free from malice, are teachable and dependent upon their parents. Children for the most part, are destitute of ambition, pride, and haughtiness.”
Onlookers would’ve undoubtedly been snickering and jesting, but Zacchaeus wasn’t concerned about any humiliation this action might’ve warranted against him. All he cared about in that moment was finding a way to get a better look at Jesus.
See, we display how valuable or important a particular thing is to us by the tenacity in which we are willing to seek after it.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)
May all who seek You rejoice and be glad in You; may those who love Your Salvation say continually, “The LORD be magnified!” (Psalm 40:16)
Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near.
We see that this is exactly what Zacchaeus is doing here, seeking the LORD while He is near. In fact, this would be the very last time that Jesus would ever pass through this way. He is making His way into Jerusalem for what is now known as the ‘Triumphal Entry.’ Within about a week’s time, He will be scourged and crucified.
In verse 5, whenever Jesus had made His way over to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”
This is actually quite humorous to consider. Here is short little Zacchaeus perched up in this tree, and for all he’s thinking, is that now he has achieved a way to at least catch a glimpse of Jesus as He and the crowd make their way past. The last thing that was on his mind is that Jesus would somehow turn His attention towards him. He wanted to see Jesus, not to be seen by Him. Imagine though, instead of this large procession simply passing on by, they all come to a halt right here beneath this tree. And there He is, there’s Jesus. And Jesus looks up and sees Zacchaeus amongst the branches, and He calls to him by name, and tells him to hurry down, because He’s coming home with him.
The searching sinner meets the seeking Savior.
This is the first and only time we read that Jesus invites Himself to someone’s home.
Another indication that this was far more than merely a superficial curiosity on the part of Zacchaeus. There was something else at work in the soil of his heart, which our Lord fosters into life by His self-invitation.
Notice too, how Jesus uses language that seems to speak of necessity. “For today I must stay at your house.” Is this an accidental encounter?
Jesus chooses to momentarily pause His steadfast path towards the cross, in order to have fellowship in this man’s home.
And how does Zacchaeus respond?
Verse 6 says, ‘So he hurried and came down and received Him joyfully.’
Although it is Christ who initiates the interaction, and extends His own invitation, Zacchaeus received Him joyfully.
This is a perfect illustration of Jesus’ words in Revelation chapter 3 verse 20,
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Revelation 3:20)
Jesus takes the initiative. He approaches, He stands at the door and knocks. But He in turn must be received, welcomed into the home, and into the heart.
Zacchaeus received Him joyfully, or with gladness. There is a delight in truly receiving the Lord. You cannot twist a person’s arm to bring about a profession of faith. No one can be argued into the kingdom of heaven. But when the Holy Spirit is at work in a person’s heart, and Christ extends His salvation, that person does not come reluctantly, but joyfully.
Notice then, the reaction of the people in verse 7, ‘And when they saw it, they all grumbled, saying, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
Even more surprised than Zacchaeus, are these onlookers who question,
“How can You possibly have fellowship with this wretched sinner? This traitor?”
“Don’t You realize what kind of man this is? How he’s acquired all his wealth? What he’s done to us?”
I always appreciated the scene in the old movie Jesus of Nazareth, where Jesus is invited into Matthew the tax collector’s home. We see a similar situation in which the people are grumbling, and someone asks Him, “You would enter the house of a sinner?” And Jesus responds, “I would enter any house where I am welcomed.” He goes on to say, “For I’ve not come to call the virtuous to repentance but the sinners.”
This scenario can be found scripturally in Luke chapter 5 verses 29-32,
Then Levi hosted a great banquet for Jesus at his house. A large crowd of tax collectors was there, along with others who were eating with them. But the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled to His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:29-32)
In this same situation recorded in Matthew chapter 9 verse 13, Jesus makes reference to the book of Hosea chapter 6 verse 6 when He says,
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)
Why did the eternal Son take on fleshly humanity and dwell among us?
To seek and to save that which was lost.
Why did He offer to enter this publican’s home to be his guest, and at the sneers of the crowd, to associate Himself with the outcast?
For that very same reason.
Alexander MacLaren writes of this, “His example is our pattern. A Christian church which does not imitate its Master in its frank and continual willingness to associate itself with the degraded and the outcast has lost one of the truest signs of its being vitalized with the life of Christ.”
In verse 8, Zacchaeus stands up and says to the Lord, “Behold Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it fourfold.”
In receiving Jesus with gladness, and spending just a brief amount of time within His presence, Zacchaeus felt the holy conviction of his sin and therefore naturally knew that he must repent and make full restitution to the many persons he had undoubtedly wronged.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon writes, “Jesus Christ did not teach Zacchaeus by going to his house that character was of no consequence. On the contrary, Zacchaeus perceived at once that character was of the greatest consequence.”
At first glance, it may almost appear as if he’s casting some doubt to his own cheating conduct. But this phrase in Greek, ‘If I have defrauded anyone” does not imply doubt to the fact of guilt, but is better understood as “wherever I have defrauded anyone” or “In so far as I have defrauded anyone.”
The Law required that the wrongdoer was to make full restitution for whatever was taken, plus an additional 20% of the item’s value. (See Leviticus 6:5, Numbers 5:6-7)
Zacchaeus is willing to go above and beyond that which the law required. This is a man who previously, so desired money that he was willing to cheat and lie and to take advantage of his own people, and therefore to be alienated and despised by society. He had a love of money. His sole desire was to “get rich”, to “make that hustle.” And that is exactly what he was, a hustler. A swindler.
In Matthew chapter 6 verse 24 Jesus says,
“No one can serve two masters: Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
What are you serving?
We see here that there is a drastic change in Zacchaeus’ priorities. A shift in his focus. Now he says to Jesus, “Lord,” that is, ‘Master’, this denotes authority, ownership. “I no longer care about the money. I’ll give half of it away to help the poor, and with the rest I’ll make four times the restitution to those I’ve swindled. It’s no longer the money that I want to serve, Lord it’s you.”
One of the chief evidences of a true conversion is a reorientation when it comes to the material world. Lost individuals live as though the material world is all there is. Their focus is set on the treasures and the indulgences of this world. While saved individuals understand of heavenly realities, and therefore set their primary focus upon the spiritual rather than the natural.
Whenever Zacchaeus stands and gives this public declaration of his repentance, he is not seeking to be justified by his works, but by his good works he will now show the sincerity of his conversion. This is not the grounds or the means by which he is saved, but this is the natural evidence of that reality, the outward expression of that salvation.
Does your life demonstrate change? Does it reflect the grace and influence Christ has upon you? Do you live as though He has saved you? Are you being conformed into His image? Or are you still that same old crook?
We know that this is indeed a genuine conversion, because in verse 9, Jesus says to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.”
I’ve always enjoyed this play on words that the Lord uses here. His very name Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew, literally means ‘salvation.’ A combination of ‘Yah’ or the name of God, and ‘Yasha’ meaning ‘to save, rescue or deliver.’ This is why the angel of the Lord instructed this name to be given to Him.
“She will give birth to a Son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
So in one sense, salvation had indeed come to this home that day, the actual embodiment of salvation, the Savior Jesus Christ. And in another sense, salvation had come in that Zacchaeus had now received and entered into the source of that saving mercy and grace.
This is a beautiful revelation of the Lord Jesus. That whenever we come to Christ in salvation, He not only delivers us from the penalties of sin, but He also delivers us from its bondage, the ongoing habitual nature and power of that sin. He sets us free completely, and thereby changes our focus, our priorities, and our very nature.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Now, why does Jesus say, “because he also is a son of Abraham”?
Because although Zacchaeus was indeed a physical descendant of Abraham by birth- It was only according to the flesh, in the natural.
As the apostle Paul makes clear in Romans chapter 9 verses 7-8,
Not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants. So it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise who are
regarded as offspring. (Romans 9:7-8)
And again in Galatians chapter 3 verse 7,
Understand then, that it is those of faith who are the children of Abraham.
So it is here, as Zacchaeus professes his repentance and belief on the Lord, that Jesus now says he is truly a son of Abraham according to faith.
And lastly, the beautiful closing words of Christ in verse 10, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Jesus says of Himself, that He came on a search and rescue mission.
This reminds me of when Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep earlier in Luke
chapter 15 verses 1-7
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He told them this parable: “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ In the same way, I tell you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”