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Zaccheus, the publican

Nov 08, 2014

Luke pairs the account of the blind man with that of Zaccheus, the rich tax-collector (publican). The first story shows Jesus’ compassion toward the oppressed; the second shows the same compassion for an oppressor.

The reaction of the crowd was the next great lesson that Luke intended to set forth. When the blind man first shouted to Jesus, people in the crowd told him to shut up. They did not want anyone to interrupt their procession, for they had come from Jericho to escort this famous Rabbi into their town, where, presumably, they were to set out a feast and give Jesus lodging for the night. Such was the usual hospitality shown in that culture.

In this case, there is a touch of irony, which Luke certainly did not miss, because the very people who had told Bar-Timaeus to shut up were instructed to bring the man to Jesus. Even more striking was the fact that Jesus was not yet led to accept their hospitality and stop in Jericho for the night. Luke 19:1 says,

1 And He entered and was passing through Jericho.

One can only imagine the crowd’s disappointment that He would reject the lavish hospitality that they were offering. But the Spirit of God pressed Jesus to continue His journey, and He was obedient. It was probably when He saw Zaccheus hiding in the tree that He understood the reason for passing through Jericho. It was to change the life of an oppressor.

The story of Zaccheus was carefully structured in a chiasm, the usual style of the day.

Jesus passes through Jericho

Zacchaeus (wealth taken)

The crowd (hostile)

Up the tree (hidden)

UNEXPECTED AND COSTLY LOVE

Down the tree (exposed)

The crowd (angry)

Zacchaeus (wealth dispersed)

Jesus’ final word

The structure always positions the most important feature in the center, supported by the context. In this case, it is the unexpected love of Jesus. First the story builds step by step toward the climax and then backs away step by step.

Luke 19:2 begins the story,

2 And behold, there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; and he was a chief tax-gatherer, and he was rich.

In those days the tax system was known as “tax farming,” where the Roman government hired a local person to collect a set amount of tax each year from a community. The exact amount was usually kept secret, and the system naturally produced much graft. The tax-collectors normally became rich by taxing the people more than the amount they had to give to the Roman government. This is implied by Luke’s statement, “and he was rich.”

Zaccheus was not only a tax-collector, he was the boss, the chief tax-collector in Jericho. All tax-collectors were considered unclean, all were hated, and lying to them was not considered to be a sin. And so, for Jesus to show love to this chief publican cost Him much goodwill from the crowd that had sought to honor Him.

Luke 19:3, 4 says,

3 And he was trying to see who Jesus was, and he was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. 4 And he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way.

Zaccheus was not only short but also hated. Normally, the people made way for the rich and powerful, but this crowd was hostile to him. It is likely that he did not dare to push through the crowd to see or talk to Jesus. So he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree by the roadside on the other side of town.

Adults in the Middle East do not run in public, for that is considered shameful. But Zaccheus “ran on ahead,” perhaps using the back streets to avoid attention. He then climbed a sycamore tree, because these had large leaves and low branches. Not only was it an easy tree to climb, but it also had dense foliage in which to hide.

In that time, trees were not allowed in town, so the nearest tree was some distance outside of Jericho. Kenneth E. Bailey tells us,

Also important for this subject is the Mishnah reference to sycamore trees that reads, “A tree may not be grown within a distance of twenty-five cubits from the town, or fifty cubits if it is a carob or a sycamore tree.” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 178)

We may assume, then, that this sycamore tree was at least fifty cubits outside of Jericho, or about 75-80 feet (or 25 meters).

Perhaps Zaccheus assumed that the crowd would be dispersed by the time Jesus reached that spot on the road. Prominent men simply did not climb trees in the Middle East, so it is obvious that he did not want to be seen, for then would the crowd have ridiculed him mercilessly.

We do not know who saw him first, but Jesus immediately understood the embarrassing position that Zaccheus found himself, and He decided to intervene. Luke 19:5, 6 says,

5 And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 And he hurried and came down, and received Him gladly.

The crowd would have expected Jesus to condemn this tax-collector. After all, he had been excommunicated and was forbidden to enter the temple courts. He was considered unclean, and no one could touch him or have fellowship with him. In fact, he had not even expressed any remorse or repentance.

But Jesus understood that Zaccheus had actually climbed a tree just to see Him. That act alone spoke volumes. He discerned faith in this “lost sheep” and immediately responded by inviting Himself to dinner! This was no presumptive act on Jesus’ part. This “saved face” for Zaccheus. It ended all taunts abruptly. Jesus knew then why the Spirit had led Him to pass through Jericho. He was not to stay the night in the best house that the crowd could find for such an honored guest. Instead, He was to honor this despised tax-collector.

Recall from Luke 15:1, 2 how the scribes and Pharisees grumbled at Jesus’ fellowship with tax-collectors and sinners. Jesus then told five parables justifying His fellowship with sinners, using prophecies given to the lost House of Israel. Zaccheus must, then, be included when we apply those parables to the local situation. He was an example of the lost sheep and the lost coin. He was the prodigal son returning to his father. He was to become a type of Lazarus as well.

On the other hand, the crowd had drunk long at the fountain of Pharisee teaching, and so they had a difficult time understanding Jesus’ call to search for those lost sheep, as Ezekiel 34:11 had prophesied,

11 For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.”

So Luke tells us in Luke 19:7,

7 And when they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

It is amazing how men grumble when love and grace is shown to one who does not deserve it. No doubt also, they were jealous, because Jesus already had bypassed them and had rejected their offer of hospitality. Were they not the “clean” ones? Why would Jesus choose to render Himself “unclean” (so they thought) by entering the house of a known sinner?

But Jesus did not see him as a sinner, but as a prodigal returning to his heavenly Father. Just as the father in the parable ran to meet his lost son and did not reprimand him, but honored him with a robe, ring, shoes, and even a feast, so also did Jesus welcome Zaccheus, whose act of faith and repentance was evident in that he climbed a tree.

We then see how Zaccheus repented, for Luke 19:8 says,

8 And Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”

Half of his possessions were to be given to charity, and he resolved to pay restitution to those that he had defrauded. This was in accordance with the law in Exodus 22:1,

1 If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.

It is interesting that he would resolve to pay fourfold restitution, when, in fact, the law only required him to pay back what he had stolen, plus one-fifth of its value. Zaccheus had not been prosecuted for past crimes, because there was no proof of his guilt. The law says that if a man repents and confesses to his theft, there being no lawful evidence to convict him, he did not have to pay fourfold restitution. Leviticus 6:2-5 says, “he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by extortion… he shall make restitution for it in full, and add to it one-fifth more.”

The penalty is much less when a sinner repents than when he is convicted by evidence in a court of law. But Zaccheus resolved to pay fourfold restitution and also to give half his wealth to charity. The people of Jericho were the immediate beneficiaries of Jesus’ love. By being willing to give up personal reputation and prestige in the eyes of the people, He brought relief to the poor. Luke 19:9, 10 ends the story by saying,

9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

The word salvation in Hebrew is yeshua, which was Jesus’ name. Hence, there is a double meaning in Jesus’ words. Today Jesus has come to this house. Today salvation has come to this house. Zaccheus too was “a son of Abraham,” not on account of his genealogy, as some may say, but on account of his faith. This is a reference to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, for Zaccheus had begun as a rich man and ended as Lazarus.

The story shows that Jesus was not interested in condemning the sinners, the lost sheep, the lost coins, the prodigals, or even the oppressors. He was interested in finding them and bringing them to Abraham’s bosom.

Zaccheus became a devout follower of Jesus and later became the bishop of Caesarea, according to the early document known as the Recognitions of Clement. Later, he went to Gaul (now France), where he traveled from Marseilles northwest to Rocamadour, where he built a church. There he became known by his disciples as Saint Amadour on account of his great love for the people.

Because of Jesus' love for this former oppressor when Jesus saw him looking foolish in the sycamore, Zaccheus became a fruitful tree and found his place of honor in the early church.


This is the one hundredth part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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