June/July 2013 - Vol. 68

Zacchaeus being called down from the tree - by James Tissot

Zacchaeus' Life-changing Encounter with Jesus

by Jeanne Kun

When he awoke that morning, Zacchaeus could not have expected that he would entertain such an unusual guest in his home and relinquish half of his wealth — happily, at that —before the day was over! His encounter with Jesus was a surprising and life-changing one, and for years afterward, Zacchaeus — and all of Jericho with him — must have often recalled that memorable time when Jesus came to town. 

Jesus, accompanied by his followers, was in Jericho on his way from Galilee to the Passover festival (and his death) in Jerusalem. Messianic fever ran high among the excited crowds who greeted him as he traveled to the holy city, attracted by his preaching and miracles. Could this be the Messiah, they wondered, come to deliver them from their Roman oppressors?

A prosperous commercial and agricultural town in Jesus’ day, Jericho is located near the end of the Jordan Valley, not far from the Dead Sea. From Jericho, the road begins its steep climb to Jerusalem. As Jesus entered the town, Zacchaeus, one of the district tax collectors, was eager to catch a glimpse of him. However, since he wasn't a tall man, he couldn't see over the heads of the crowd. So, quick-thinking and resourceful — qualities that had likely served him well in his lucrative profession — Zacchaeus ran ahead along Jesus' route and climbed a tree so he could get a good view of the teacher with a reputation for such amazing deeds. 

Zacchaeus didn’t worry that day about how undignified he looked nor did he care about what anyone else thought of him. Clearly his sole concern was to see Jesus, but we wonder what, in particular, motivated that desire. Was it idle curiosity to get a look at a miracle worker? Or was Zacchaeus moved by a longing for something worth far more than anything his money could buy?

Called a chief tax collector by Luke, Zacchaeus may have been Rome’s “Internal Revenue Service supervisor” for the whole district, with other tax agents under him (Luke 19:2). Rights to collect public revenues within the provinces of the Roman Empire were auctioned off in Rome to financial companies. Frequently the bidder who won a contract then sold rights to collect taxes in various regions to smaller speculators, who often abused their positions by charging exorbitantly high rates. Consequently, tax collectors were unpopular. The Jews of Jericho would have especially despised Zacchaeus (Luke 19:7) because his job brought him into contact with “unclean” Gentiles and probably also required that he work on the sabbath. Moreover, he not only collected the taxes demanded by the Roman occupiers but defrauded his fellow townsmen to pad his own pocket (19:8).

Zacchaeus had shrewdly accumulated his wealth and enjoyed the material comforts it brought him. Was he, nonetheless, dissatisfied with his life? If he didn’t care how foolish he appeared by climbing a tree to see Jesus, perhaps he was actually hoping for a personal encounter with this preacher whose words were known to cut to the heart.

I must stay at your house today!
Jesus’ timing is perfect: He knows just the right hour to reach a heart that is longing for him. So he took the initiative, calling out: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). When Jesus found this strange little man sitting up in a tree, he was like a shepherd searching for his wayward sheep. Just a short time before, Jesus had told this parable to the Pharisees who objected to his association with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 151.2):

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which 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 which was lost.” (Luke 15:3-6)
In seeking out Zacchaeus, Jesus was also fulfilling God’s own description of himself as Israel’s “shepherd”:
Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice. (Ezekiel 34:ll-12,16)
Jesus called out to Zacchaeus by name, just as a shepherd “calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3). Had he heard the crowds shouting at the little man, mocking him as he sat so oddly perched in the sycamore? Or did Jesus know Zacchaeus and his name by divine insight, just as he had “known” Natharuel sitting under the fig tree (1:47-48)? And Zacchaeus, like the sheep, recognized the voice of the shepherd (10:4).

It was Jesus who sought out Zaccaheus
Zacchaeus had climbed the tree and risked his reputation to see Jesus but, paradoxically, it was Jesus who sought out Zacchaeus. Jesus’ desire to be a guest in the tax collector's home — “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5) — reminds us of his invitation to all: “I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

Jesus didn’t confront Zacchaeus about his sins or ask him for an account of his shady business practices. Instead, he honoured Zacchaeus with request to be his guest. Touched by Jesus’ graciousness, the little tax collector acted quickly and decisively: He “made haste and came down” — no holding back on his part or wasting time! — “and received him joyfully” (Luke 19:6). Recognizing some special quality about this itinerant rabbi, Zacchaeus immediately brought him home. And with that spontaneous, eager response to Jesus, his life was radically transformed.

When the crowds grumbled that Jesus was entering the house of a sinner, was Zacchaeus embarrassed for the Lord’s sake? Perhaps he was ashamed and convicted that he was unworthy to receive this thoroughly good man who offered him his friendship. In any case, Zaccaheus was deeply moved by the Lord’s presence in his home and reformed his ways.

Zacchaeus not only publicly admitted his wrongdoing to his unexpected guest but also made his repentance concrete: He spontaneously announced that he would share half of his possessions with the poor and generously repay all those whom he had defrauded (Luke 19:8). In making fourfold restitution, Zacchaeus went far beyond the requirements of the Mosaic law regarding compensation for stolen goods (Leviticus 6:l-5; Numbers 5:5-7).

Affirming Zacchaeus’ repentance, Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9), Was there a surprised Mrs. Zacchaeus on the scene, and some startled children and house servants, too? Surely all the members of the household would have shared in the grace and blessings of Zacchaeus’ transformation, just as Cornelius’ entire household received salvation at his conversion (Acts 10:2; 11:14).

As Jesus carried out his mission “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), tax collectors and sinners were certainly among those whom he welcomed into his kingdom (Matthew 9:l0-13; 21:31-32).

Questions for reflection
Are there any obstacles that stand in the way of your seeing Jesus clearly? What can you do to remove these obstacles and gain a better view and understanding of him?

How has your relationship with Jesus affected  your “household” — your family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors? Does it give you hope that your own life can be tansformed by a deeper personal encounter with the Lord?

> See also Zacchaeus’ Tall Tale, a poem by Jeanne Kun

Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. This article is excerpted from My Lord and My God: A Scriptural Journey with the Followers of Jesus by Jeanne Kun (Copyright © 2004 by The Word Among Us Press). Used with permission. This book can be purchased from The Word Among Us Press.
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