Zacchaeus wasn’t the kind of person most folks would go out of their way to save. He was a tax collector, which meant that his job was to take money from his Jewish neighbors and give it to the Roman government that had them under its heel. Imagine how fond you would be of someone who was a combination of traitor, mugger, and telemarketer, and you’ll have an idea of Zacchaeus’ approval ratings in his hometown of Jericho. Tax collectors were lucky if their moms and their dogs still loved them. And Luke tells us he was a “chief” tax collector, which meant he was even higher in the pyramid scheme than the typical scummy tax collector. Luke also tells us he was wealthy; that means he had been taking even more from his neighbors than Rome required and keeping the extra to buy himself high def TV screens and gourmet coffee beans.
Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing through town, and he wanted to see him. Luke doesn’t tell us why; perhaps Zacchaeus had heard that Jesus was not like other rabbis and that one of his closest disciples was actually a tax collector. But crowds were gathered around Jesus, and Zacchaeus had two things working against him: his height and his unpopularity. Zacchaeus was short (If the song is stuck in your head like it is in mine, you no doubt recall that he was a “wee little man” – I prefer the term “vertically challenged.”) And his neighbors weren’t exactly itching to give the little thief a boost or let him slide up to the front row. But he REALLY wanted to see Jesus, so he did two things that would have been very undignified for a man in the ancient near east – he ran, and he climbed a tree.
When Jesus and the crowd arrived at the base of Zacchaeus’ perch, we can only imagine the laughing, pointing, and name-calling that must have taken place. No doubt the crowd was ready for Jesus to blast their notorious neighbor, expecting Jesus to lecture him for betraying his country and his God, and certain that Jesus would call him to repent and take early retirement from his despicable career. Instead, here’s what Jesus said:
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” – Luke 19:5
That statement required some serious audacity. First, it was incredibly impolite for Jesus to invite himself to someone’s house. Such an action would be considered rude in our modern western world; it would have been completely unthinkable in first century Palestine. Second, it was scandalous that Jesus invited himself to THAT house. Jericho had hundreds of homes with nicer, holier people – couldn’t he have found a more appropriate spot to crash? Why would he choose to eat Zacchaeus’ polluted food and sleep in his defiled guest bed?
I’m sure nobody was more shocked by Jesus’ choice of lodging than Zacchaeus. He didn’t even have time to worry about whether his house was presentable or if he had left dirty socks on the floor – he was too busy being amazed that someone like Jesus would want to spend time with someone like him. And Jesus didn’t even say, “If you’ll clean up your life, I’ll come to your house.” He insisted on befriending the tax collector before he became respectable.
The people of Jericho were also shocked by Jesus’ actions, and as soon as he entered the home of that despised collaborator, tongues started wagging:
“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’” – Luke 19:7
Notice what Jesus did: he shifted the hostility of the crowd from Zacchaeus to himself. The town’s venom toward the tax collector became venom toward the teacher who would dare to associate with him. Jesus stepped in front of the arrows that were aimed at Zacchaeus. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering… By his wounds, we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
Zacchaeus received selfless, sacrificial love from Jesus. And he responded by making a pledge to love selflessly and sacrificially. He vowed to give away half of his money to the poor, and to use the rest to make generous amends with the people he had cheated. Then Jesus declared:
“Salvation has come to this house.” – Luke 19:9
Salvation had come because Jesus, salvation personified, had come. And it had come to THIS HOUSE – the house of a despised traitor and thief.
Jesus’ love for the oppressed is well known. He regularly uplifted widows, the poor, women, children, the disabled, and others who were accustomed to being stepped on by society. But the encounter with Zacchaeus shows us that Jesus also loved the oppressor. He loved those being squashed by the system; he also had the audacity to love those who were cogs in the system that was doing the squashing. Instead of offering brimstone to the tax collector, he offered salvation. That love for the oppressor showed up in another scene in which Jesus encountered a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13). The centurion was Caesar’s fist, the commanding officer of a goon squad sent from Rome to keep oppressed people in line. Centurions enforced the will of Rome with beatings and crucifixions. But when Jesus met the centurion, he didn’t condemn him or lecture him – he healed the centurion’s servant and bragged on the centurion’s faith. The two most visible symbols of the tyranny of Rome were the tax collector and the centurion, and Jesus offered grace to both. He apparently really meant that stuff he said about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.
Jesus wrapped up his time with Zacchaeus by declaring his personal mission statement:
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:10
To seek. To save. Those were his twin objectives. He came looking for messed up folks like Zacchaeus and you and me. And he stepped in front of the arrows aimed at us so that we could be saved.
Want to explore further?
1. Read Matthew 8:5-13 and notice the surprisingly positive tone of Jesus’ interaction with the Roman centurion.
2. Examine Jesus’ interaction with Matthew and other tax collectors in Matthew 9:9-13. Notice the reaction of the religious leaders to his scandalous acceptance of them.
3. In today’s world, who might be the equivalent of a tax collector? How might Jesus respond to them?