In Luke 19, we come across an interesting story—that of Zacchaeus, the tax collector. He had heard of what Jesus had been teaching and doing, and his curiosity was piqued. When he heard that Jesus was going to be coming through his hometown, he was excited to see this person who was causing so much of an uproar in the area.
At this point, I need to make a few comments about tax collectors in this time period. Tax collectors were locals who were hired by Rome to collect the taxes from their neighbors and fellow countrymen. They were reviled by the local populace for a few reasons. First, they were seen to be traitors to the people of Israel. They were collaborating with the Roman oppressors and taking money out of the pockets of their fellow countrymen. Second, they were considered to be particularly greedy. They made their wealth by charging more than the tax Rome had levied them to collect and pocketing the difference. Rome did not seem to be too concerned with this. As long as the shekels kept coming in to the governor and to their empire, all was well. Third, tax collectors were seen as even worse than people who were known to be habitual “sinners.” I have often found it amusing that they were their own category when people complained about Jesus—“You know he eats with sinners and tax collectors.”
Now Zacchaeus was not just any run-of-the-mill tax collector, he was the chief tax collector in his area—the head honcho if you will—and thus would have been somebody the Jewish establishment particularly disliked.
As the story goes, Zacchaeus was too short to see over the crowd, and given the general impression people had of him and his profession, was unlikely to be allowed to move through the crowd to get to the front. So, he climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a glimpse of Jesus passing by. When Jesus did pass by, he stopped, looked up in the tree, and told Zacchaeus to climb down out of that tree because He was going to Zacchaeus’ house to visit him.
To say that the crowd was astonished would probably be a massive understatement. In fact, the crowd complained that Jesus had gone in to be the guest of a man who “was a sinner.” Remember, Jesus was somewhat of a celebrity at this point. Those who were faithful and considered to be the most upstanding people of the community would have expected him to stay with them. Therefore, they were upset when Jesus entered the house of a tax collector instead of one of the leaders of the community.
Zacchaeus, on the other hand, was overjoyed and received Jesus into his house. In fact, Zacchaeus was so overcome by Jesus’ visit, that he pledged to give away half of all he owned to the poor and to repay anything that he had cheated anyone out of fourfold—quite a large sum of money. Jesus proclaimed that today “salvation has come to this house.”
Understanding Zacchaeus’ Story
I want to make a few points about this story. First of all, it seems obvious to me that God was already working in Zacchaeus before Jesus came to town. He had an overwhelming desire to see Jesus—so much so that he climbed a tree to get a better look.
Second, this story is not about how much money Zacchaeus was going to give away. He was not buying his way into anything. It is about Zacchaeus getting rid of the hold that money, possessions, and position had on his life. It is about Zacchaeus changing the way he looked at the world. He went from being a dyed-in-the-wool materialist, to somebody who was willing to help the poor and right any wrongs he had previously done.
Third, none of this would have happened if Jesus did not have the habit of hanging out with all the “wrong” people. It was Jesus inviting himself over—something that we would see as being odd even today—that was the impetus for this change. It was the willingness of Jesus to put up with the grumblings of those who were the “right” people and visit the one that was on the fringes of society.
And that is the main thing that hits me when I read this story. When we say that we would like to see God moving more powerfully in the world around us, perhaps we need to rethink where we are looking. God is already moving in the world around us, and it is in the lives of those on the fringes, like Zacchaeus, that I think he is frequently moving most powerfully.