“A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. ” Luke 19:2
Thinking about some of those whom Jesus met along the way, we are reaching the point in Saint Luke’s telling of the story where the opportunities to meet with Jesus are becoming fewer. Saint Luke Chapter 19 Verse 1 tells us, “He entered Jericho and was passing through it.” This is the last time Jesus will pass this way, it is the last opportunity many people will have to speak with him. Later in Chapter 19, Saint Luke tells of Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem. If people do not take their chance now, it will not come again.
Is there a lesson for us in the story about taking the opportunities that God gives us when they come along? Have there been times when we have looked back on life and wished we had taken the chances we were offered? In our lives as Christians, have we failed to do the things we could have done if we had been prepared to be just a little more brave.
Verse 2 tells us about brave enough to risk his name and his reputation to see Jesus, “A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich.” Zacchaeus has become a Sunday School character; the sort of person one might meet in Bible story picture books. He has become a comical figure. “Come down Zacchaeus, down from the tree, come down Zacchaeus give the Lord his tea,” went the word of the children’s chorus. It is a picture of Zacchaeus that does not take account of the sort of person Zacchaeus was, nor of the change that Jesus brought into his life.
Zacchaeus is “a chief tax collector,” Saint Luke tells us, in times when they were every bit as ingenious at finding sources of tax revenue as authorities are today. Tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews, partly because of corrupt practices and partly because they were seen as collaborators with the occupying Roman imperial power.
Taxes at the time included a poll tax on every male over fourteen and every female over twelve; an early form of vehicle taxation on carts according to their wheels and axles; taxes on the use of roads; and taxes on goods being taken to market. Scripture is not against taxation—Romans Chapter 13 says clearly that taxes must be paid to whom they are due—but Scripture is against corruption and racketeering, and is quite clear that the tax collectors were guilty of such practices. In Luke Chapter 3 Verse 13, in the account of John the Baptist baptizing people in the Jordan, we are told, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized.
‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’
‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.”
Tax collecting was a racket, tax collectors are seen as crooks. People like Zacchaeus would decide themselves how much they would charge, passing on the official amounts to the authorities and putting the balance into their own pockets. Zacchaeus would have been a prosperous man, and a capable man—he would not have been the comic figure he has become in some telling of the story. In order to carry out his duties he would also have been fluent in Aramaic (the everyday language of the Jewish people) and Greek (the common language around the Mediterranean and the language in which the New Testament was written). He would also have known Hebrew from attending the synagogue and perhaps some Latin through dealing with the Romans. He was no simple soul who would have been easily persuaded.
To understand how much Zacchaeus was despised we need to think in terms of how we would see someone running a protection racket today—pay them what they ask or they wreck our property. Zacchaeus had to be paid whatever he demanded, or he could destroy someone’s livelihood.
Zacchaeus is a racketeer, a hard man, which makes what we read in Verses 3-4 all the more extraordinary, “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.” Zacchaeus does not worry about his dignity or what people might think about him, he must see Jesus.
Have we ever been so passionate in our faith that we do not worry what people might think? Zacchaeus gives no thought to what people might afterwards think of him.
Jesus knows who Zacchaeus is. Verses 5-6 say, “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.” Jesus perhaps smiled to himself about the behaviour of Zacchaeus and probably shrugged at the muttering from the crowd in Verse 7, “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.'” The change that comes over Zacchaeus is extraordinary. In Verse 8, we read, “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’’.”
Zacchaeus turns from his old life, the literal meaning of repentance, he leaves his life of corruption and the wealth he has accumulated. It was a new life that demanded a change of thinking far more dramatic than that asked of the fishermen, or even of Saint Paul. Zacchaeus has an easy and a comfortable life. Money opens many doors and Zacchaeus would have used it to make sure he had the right friends in the right places.
Did we ever think about what sort of person Zacchaeus must have been? You could not have lived as Zacchaeus did and have been a kind or a fair person; he was a hard hearted man, he was a hard man. He was a man used to curses and threats, and he was probably also a man who lived in fear that those threats might one day be carried out. It’s not hard to imagine the sort of company Zaccahaeus would have kept—men as hard as himself.
Zacchaeus simply leaves all of this behind and commits his life to Jesus.
It is much easier to think of Zacchaeus as a story book character, as someone from a children’s song, than it is to think about Zacchaeus as he was—someone as hard headed as any of us. Take the story seriously, and it asks questions of us: if Zacchaeus can change this much, then what about ourselves? If Jesus can bring such a difference to the life of someone as tough as Zacchaeus, then what difference does he make to us? If Zacchaeus can make such a commitment to Jesus, a commitment that would endanger all of his friendships, that would demand everything he had, then what commitment do we make? If Zacchaeus can give half of what he has to the poor in his response to Jesus, then what are we prepared to give?
Read Zacchaeus as a grown up story, and it is troubling. He is much easier in a picture book than as a real man whose meeting with Jesus asks us questions about our own faith in Jesus. In Verse 9-10, Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “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 to save the lost.” What might Jesus be saying to us?