Once again a tax collector—this time named Zacchaeus—features prominently in this week’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10). It echoes elements of last week’s gospel (Luke 18:9-14) which featured a parable about an arrogant Pharisee and a self-abasing tax collector who was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The two episodes occur in successive chapters of Luke’s gospel.
However, rather than a parable, this week’s gospel tells of an actual encounter.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
Tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire on commission; they kept a portion of what they levied. Many charged more than they were entitled to, which earned them a bad reputation. The fact that Zacchaeus was wealthy suggests that he had earned his fortune by overcharging. While he was rich, he was socially marginalized. He would have been regarded with suspicion, disgust or even hated by many of his contemporaries.
But not Jesus.
Throughout Luke (and the other gospels) Jesus was notorious for associating with tax collectors and sinners. In fact, one of his own disciples, Matthew, was a tax collector (Matt 9:9). In Luke 5:30, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law …complained … “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In Luke 7:34 Jesus noted that the Pharisees had accused him of being “…a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ And in Luke 15:1 the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. The frequent pairing of tax collectors with sinners implies that they were versions of each other.
Luke’s detail that Zacchaeus was short suggests that his stature limited him, not just in seeing Jesus but in daily life. One conjecture is that Zacchaeus exhibited the “small man syndrome”: a condition where a man feels inadequate because of his short height and may try to overcompensate with overly aggressive behaviour. As a tax collector Zacchaeus likely encountered people who did not want to pay and he may have developed a forceful style to support his work.
We don’t know how nimble or athletic Zacchaeus was but it may have taken some years to become the chief tax collector, which suggests that he was slightly older. Moreover, his wealth meant that he could eat well and may even have been stout. So climbing a tree may have involved effort and made him subject to ridicule. Despite this, in his eagerness to see Jesus he disregarded the appearance of awkwardness.
Jesus said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. At this moment Jesus appeared to have changed his mind about ‘passing through’ Jericho. Something about Zacchaeus made him want to stay at his house.
Whatever Zacchaeus had hoped for when he climbed the tree, this was probably beyond his wildest dream. The fact that Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus gladly suggests that this was a gift ‘greater that he could have asked or imagined’. He had not invited Jesus, but Jesus had recognized a yearning in his heart and spoke to it.
For his part, Jesus modelled his instructions to his disciples when he had sent them out on a training mission, “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you…(Luke 10:5-7)
We get another sense of how the community regarded Zacchaeus in the next comment: All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Note that a “tax collector” and “sinner” are synonyms for one another.
The comment was also an indirect judgement on Jesus. It reflected the aphorism, ‘tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are’. In other words, people tend to hang around those that they have something in common with.
In what appears to be a spontaneous response to Jesus’ presence, Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus’ reputation must have preceded him. First, Zacchaeus wanted to see him. More significantly he understood that Jesus favoured the poor and encouraged restitution for cheating. His offer to give half of my possessions to the poor and pay back four times the amount seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that he had overcharged people. It was a rapid repentance…and a recognition of Jesus' words and way of life.
Jesus accepted his commitment. He said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
This last comment tells us that Jesus saw his audience as the lost, and his mission was to save them. He saw the Father’s love at the centre of Zacchaeus. Whatever wrongs he had committed in his role as tax collector, God had created Zacchaeus to be so much more: one who spread God’s love and story of salvation.
‘Recognize the inextinguishable goodness at the heart of each person’ is the message of the gospel. Each person comes with a God-given purpose. Misguided actions and attachments may have dimmed that purpose and obscured the goodness but it cannot be put out. Jesus recognized it in people and reached out to tax-collectors, adulterers (John 8:3-11), a thief (Luke 23:32-43) and occupying soldiers (Luke 7:7-9) to bring them alongside him in his mission.
The story about Zacchaeus also calls us to look up to the marginalized, to treat them with respect and honor their efforts to accommodate their shortcomings…and to recognize that each person has a role to play in building up a part of God's kingdom.