“A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. ” Luke 19:2
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 says: a leading man among them in times when tax collectors were every bit as ingenious at finding sources 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. When Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house, people say, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
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 tellings 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 it’s necessary to think in terms of how people would see someone running a protection racket today—pay them what they ask or they wreck your property. Zacchaeus had to be paid whatever he demanded, or he could destroy someone’s livelihood.
The change that comes over Zacchaeus is extraordinary. In Saint Luke Chapter 19 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’.” How many people could say an encounter with Jesus brought that much change in their lives?
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.
Do those hearing the story 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 it was possible to be. Take the story seriously, and it asks questions of those who hear it: if Zacchaeus can change this much, then what about people now?
If Jesus can bring such a difference to the life of someone as tough as Zacchaeus, then what difference does he make now? 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 Christians today make? If Zacchaeus can give half of what he has to the poor in his response to Jesus, then what are people now 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 questions about people’s own faith in Jesus.