Jesus specially attended the poor, the sick, the demoniacs, and the outcasts of Jews like tax-collectors, public sinners, and Samaritans. He came with the mission of seeking the lost sheep and saving them. All humans come under the fallen category because of the original sin. So, the redeemer came down from heaven to save all humanity. Jesus is the rescuer and relief for all who are downhearted because of sin, poverty, sickness, and exploitation. The call of Zacchaeus and his instant reconciliation with his firm resolve to share half of his assets to the poor and the rest for a fourfold restitution to his victims is an inspiring role model Jesus could present to his critics in Jordan. The conversion of Zacchaeus is a lesson for us also for the renewal of our lives. Like Jesus, who despite social criticism, sought and helped Zacchaeus, let us also seek and save those who need our service.
BIBLE TEXT (LUKE 19:1-10 )
The Temptation of Jesus
(Lk 19:1) Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the city. (2) And a man was there named Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector and a wealthy man. (3) He wanted to see what Jesus was like, but he was a short man and could not see him because of the crowd. (4) So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree. From there he would be able to see Jesus who had to pass that way. (5) When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for I must stay at your house today.” (6) So Zacchaeus hurried down and received him joyfully. (7) All the people who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to the house of a sinner as a guest.” (8) But Zacchaeus spoke to Jesus, “The half of my goods, Lord, I give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I pay him back four times (9) Looking at him Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house today, for this man is also a true son of Abraham. (10) The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”
Luke prepared his gospel and Acts of the Apostles for Theophilus after investigating everything accurately and wrote it down in an orderly sequence (Lk 1:3). So, the actions and doctrines of Jesus that Luke present before this gospel passage would help us better understand their connection to Zacchaeus’s call and conversion.
Only Luke reports the conversion of Zacchaeus, a publican. Luke was a Greek Gentile who wrote the gospel and Acts addressing to a Gentile Roman official Theophilus. He presented Jesus as a Gentile-friendly Saviour of the world. Hence, Luke emphasized Jesus’ interest in the salvation of the excluded like Gentiles, Samaritans, women, tax-collectors, and the poor along with the Jews. He presents Jesus as the savior searching for the lost and abandoned in the society. Luke illustrates how Jesus valued them, forgave their sins, and welcomed them into his kingdom using the parables of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37), the lost sheep (Lk 15:4-7), the lost coin (Lk 15:8-10), reception to the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), the Pharisee and the publican praying in the Temple (Lk 18:9-14), and the call and conversion of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10).
(Lk 19:1) Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the city.
Jericho is historically renowned because the Israelites captured Canaan by first conquering that city under the leadership of Joshua and with the miraculous intervention of God (Josh cha. 6). Joshua had allotted that area to the tribe of Benjamin (Josh 18:21). It was around eight miles west of Jordan and 18 miles east of Jerusalem. Since Jericho was a cursed city (Josh 6:26; 1 Kgs 16:34), its spring water was foul and land sterile. At the request of its inhabitants, Elisha threw salt into the spring there, and God purified the water in the springs (2 Kgs 2:19-22). Since then, the city turned out to be fertile and became famous for palm forests, balsam groves, rose gardens (Sir 24:14), and dates. Jericho was known as the “City of Palms” (Deut 34:3; Judg 1:16), and later as the “City of Perfumes.” Being the richest city in Palestine, Jericho remained a great taxation center. So, Zacchaeus, an overseer of tax-collectors here, became immensely wealthy.
The Jews from Galilee, while going to Jerusalem, avoided straight journey through Samaria because of their enmity with the Samaritans. So, they traveled east, crossing River Jordan, and heading south. Again, they crossed back the River Jordan and passed through Jericho on the west to reach Jerusalem. Though Jesus also had traveled through Samaria, most often he took the Jericho route. While passing through the city on his way to Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus healed the blind beggar and then met Zacchaeus.
(2) And a man was there named Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector and a wealthy man.
Zacchaeus or Zacchai is a Hebrew name (Ezr 2:9; Neh 7:14) and so he was a Jew. He was rich because of his profession and had reached the top position as a chief tax collector. However, he was socially and ethically poor among the Jews because of his allegiance to Rome as a tax collector and his excessive and forceful taxation.
(3) He wanted to see what Jesus was like, but he was a short man and could not see him because of the crowd.
He wanted to see what Jesus was like
The wealth of Zacchaeus gave him only temporary happiness with a spiritual emptiness. Some tax-collectors like him had already received John’s baptism of repentance with a resolution not to collect more than what was prescribed (Lk 3:12-13). John did not prevent them from collecting taxes for Rome. But he asked them to do justice to their taxpayers. Zacchaeus declined to approach John because of his greed. Some of his friends who enjoyed peace after their baptism from John might have shared their experience with Zacchaeus. An afterthought from his part was worthless because King Herod beheaded John.
Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus performing miracles and forgiving sins to relieve the physical and mental miseries of the people who were short of basic needs. He might have heard of Levi, the tax collector whom Jesus selected as his apostle. Levi, also known as Matthew, left everything he had and became a follower of Jesus (Lk 5:27-28). The change of Matthew’s life and the joy he felt despite his worldly loss might have been a talk among the tax collectors. Fed up with the emptiness Zacchaeus felt and the animosity from others, he might have thought of following the model of Matthew. He had heard the parable of the Pharisee and tax-collector that Jesus taught where he acknowledged the publican and not the Pharisee (Lk 18:9-14). The tax-collectors were wondering how a popular Jewish Rabbi could favor them while other Jews despised them. Thus, Jesus became a talk among the publicans. The news about Jesus’ curing of the blind beggar in Zacchaeus’ hometown was the latest flash news. That facilitated Zacchaeus’ fervent longing to see Jesus while he was crossing Jericho heading to Jerusalem. He wished to see Jesus, though not in person but as an observer, to find out how was this man of God in his appearance and dealings with the people.
but he was a short man
Besides physical shortness, Zacchaeus felt socially and spiritually dwarf. He felt isolation from his Jewish community because of their hate towards him as a greedy tax collector for Rome.
could not see him because of the crowd.
Jesus was on his last trip to Jerusalem for the Passover, followed by his crucifixion. By that time, he was popular, and a large crowd was around him, including his disciples and many in Jericho who heard of Jesus’ miraculous healing of a blind beggar in their hometown. The Jews from far and near were traveling to Jerusalem through Jericho for the Passover. Some of them also joined Jesus’ band. Because of the enormous crowd around Jesus, Zacchaeus had difficulty to go closer to him. Besides Zacchaeus’ short stature that would block his view of Jesus, his social alienation and people’s hatred prevented him from entering the crowd. He might have feared an attack from his enemies if they find him among them.
(4) So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree. From there he would be able to see Jesus who had to pass that way.
By the time Zacchaeus reached where Jesus was, he had left Jericho town heading towards Jerusalem. So, Zacchaeus could not climb any rooftop to see Jesus. The only way he could view Jesus was to climb on a roadside tree where Jesus was about to pass. Zacchaeus might have noticed people climbing trees to peek at Jesus. So, Zacchaeus ran ahead of Jesus and climbed on a sycamore tree.
The Greek word sūkomoros means fig-mulberry because, by nature, it is a blend of fig-tree and mulberry tree. It resembles the fig in its fruit, and the mulberry in its leaves. The name sycamore has been used for several types of trees with similar leaves. Fig, mulberry, and sycamore are often mentioned in the Bible.
As an ancient tree, sycamore gained various symbolisms like strength, protection, reliability, and clarity in different religions and cultures. Sycamore had low spreading, long, and strong branches making it convenient for people to climb and look down on the road. Thus, Zacchaeus could get a full view of Jesus. Because of Zacchaeus’ story, the sycamore tree became a symbol of ‘clear vision of Jesus’ in Christianity.
Trees have special significance in the Bible. Among the many trees in the Garden of Eden, “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” were special and in the middle of the garden (Gen 2:9). God prohibited Adam eating from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” and warned him, “when you eat from it you shall die” (Gen 2:17). Satan, sin, sickness, and death came into the lives of humans from this tree. Salvation came from another tree, the cross through the death of Jesus on it (1 Pet 2:24). God reveled through John in the island of Patmos, “To the victor I will give the right to eat from the tree of life that is in the garden of God” (Rev 2:7).
Sycamore trees were abundant in the Jordan Valley and other parts of Palestine. But their fruits were low class and were poor people’s food. The sycamore produced fruit for living, shade for people during hot season, and durable wood for multiple usage (1 Kgs 10:27). Sycamore belongs to the family of fig trees. Fig tree shade was a spot for study and reflection on the Holy Scripture. Jesus found Nathaniel doing so under a fig tree (Jn 1:48). Zacchaeus received the fruit of salvation from a fig-like sycamore tree that usually yields inferior quality produce.
(5) When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for I must stay at your house today.”
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him,
Among the many people watching Jesus from the roadside trees, he selected Zacchaeus. Jesus knew by his divine power the condition of Zacchaeus as a rich man with a spiritual vacuum. It was like Jesus knowing Nathaniel when Philip introduced him to Jesus. Nathaniel was surprised when Jesus told of him at the first sight, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him” (Jn 1:47). Jesus had also found Nathaniel first under a fig tree that has resemblance to sycamore on which Zacchaeus climbed.
Zacchaeus, come down quickly
When Jesus called Zacchaeus by name, he was surprised because they did not know each other. Besides, Jesus was the popular prophet of the time and Zacchaeus was a hated publican. Probably, after becoming a tax collector that was the first time, he was hearing an affectionate call of his name. That softened his sturdy heart. Jesus’ call of Zacchaeus by name in public was a huge recognition and personal attention for him. Jesus, the good shepherd, taught, “the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. … he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice” (Jn 10:3-4).
Jesus used the term quickly to express his enthusiasm to meet with Zacchaeus for his salvation. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for his final Passover and crucifixion as the Lamb of God. Before that, he longed to help as many people as possible. That was Zacchaeus’ first and last chance for redemption from Jesus.
for I must stay at your house today.
During his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples were wandering around and had no residence of their own. People gave them accommodation and hospitality. However, this is the only recorded event of Jesus volunteering to stay in someone’s house. Jericho, being a rich city, was the center of elite Jews, especially priests and Pharisees. Jesus bypassed their residences and selected the house of a publican to stay. He found a double purpose for it. He, along with his disciples, could get accommodation and he could spiritually influence Zacchaeus and his friends. They were also publicans and Jesus came in search of sinners and not the righteous. For Zacchaeus, it was an unexpected and gracious offer from Jesus. A similar instance that Luke reports was the calling of Levi, another tax collector. There, Levi invited Jesus to his house for a grand banquet with his friends (Lk 5:27-32).
(6) So Zacchaeus hurried down and received him joyfully.
Just as Jesus asked Zacchaeus to come down quickly, he hurried down joyfully to meet Jesus. Thus, both the Savior and the penitent were eager to meet each other. Zacchaeus did not expect a personal pick of him by Jesus amid a large crowd. That public honor made him joyful to talk to the popular Jesus. Sycamore tree became a medium for his transformation. He climbed it with the curiosity to see what kind of a person Jesus was and came down quickly from it with the joy of meeting the divine person who was going to change his life and destiny.
(7) All the people who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to the house of a sinner as a guest.”
All the people who saw it began to grumble
The crowd that had been admirably following Jesus was stunned at the meeting of Jesus and Zacchaeus. They all knew who Zacchaeus was and doubted how Jesus would dare to start a dialogue in public with the notorious sinner. The sudden reaction arose from the Jews, who were going to Jerusalem for the upcoming Passover and the people in Jericho. So far, they had high esteem toward Jesus because of the miracles he performed, especially the healing of the blind beggar Jesus had done a short while ago. If Jesus was a prophet or the Messiah, why cannot he understand Zacchaeus, whom everyone knew as a publican? So, they grumbled against Jesus. By mentioning all the people, the evangelist does not restrict the reactors as Pharisees and priests, though they might have been instigating the criticism.
“He has gone to the house of a sinner as a guest.”
The crowd could not admit a Jewish Rabbi making friendship with sinners, especially receiving their hospitality and dining with them. That was against the acceptable norm of the time. Jesus ignored what the public thought about him. He wanted to teach them he hates only the sins and not the sinner. The same situation of criticism happened when Jesus dined at the house of Levi with other sinners (Lk 5:30). One accusation against Jesus was, as he himself expressed, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 7:34).
Jesus’ goal was to seek the sinners and make them saints because he came in search of the lost and regain them the lost paradise. So, Jesus’ action of volunteering to go as a guest at the house of a publican was a lesson in action on how to deal with the sinners. Usually, a good person mingling with sinners would become a sinner. In Jesus’ case, his association with them made them saints, as in Levi and Zacchaeus. That should be the influential style of a Christian. Instead of the seeds of sin flow from the sinners to the saints, the sanctity should stream from the saints to sinners, making them holy. “Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (Jm 5:20).
It is natural that people of any nation would hate their community member working for their enemies. Zacchaeus was such a Jew collecting tax for the Roman emperor, the enslaver of the Jews. Zacchaeus’ collection method was unethical because there was no standard tariff for taxation during that period. His unjust plunder is clear from his resolution to recompense for the money he had gained by cheating others. He cared only for wealth and ignored Jewish patriotism, religious practices, sufferings of the people, or social approval. Hence, the Jewish public had branded Zacchaeus as a sinner and had detested him. He was ineligible for salvation according to their standards. So, Jesus’ involvement with such a publican arose doubts on the credibility of Jesus. The crowd was unaware of Jesus’ intention and considered him crossing the traditional Jewish boundaries. In fact, Jesus was making Zacchaeus pay all the unjust amounts he had levied from them. Often, God’s or his representatives’ actions might seem strange to us due to our limited knowledge. We should be patient for the outcome of their mysterious actions.
(8) But Zacchaeus spoke to Jesus, “The half of my goods, Lord, I give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I pay him back four times.”
But Zacchaeus spoke to Jesus,
Jesus demanded nothing from Zacchaeus. However, the publican felt that Jesus, while coming to his house, had entered his very heart. He examined his conscience first time and felt the powerful urge to renew his life to be a worthy host of Jesus. Like the centurion who approached Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant, Zacchaeus also felt, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof” (Mt 8:8). He was convinced that the happiness he felt in amassing wealth is worthless compared to the joy Jesus would offer by renouncing everything he had unworthily accumulated. So, he made his firm resolve and confession to the Son of God.
“The half of my goods, Lord, I give to the poor,
Zacchaeus was enormously rich because he was a high-ranking tax collector in an extremely resourceful city. Giving away half of his wealth was a huge amount. It was his many years of hard-earned wealth. In the past, he could not imagine of losing them instantly. However, when Jesus touched his heart, the material wealth became a burden for him. By following Jesus’ teaching, “Sell your belongings and give alms” (Lk 12:33), Zacchaeus disposed half of his property for the poor. So, his almsgiving was not a minimal amount or from the surplus savings he had.
Zacchaeus had never thought of the hardships of the poor. But he had noticed their lighthearted living, free from worries. God had been feeding them through the generosity of many others. Instead of remaining as a selfish person, Zacchaeus became altruistic and made a firm resolve to distribute half of his wealth to the poor while keeping the rest to restitute those whom he had exploited. Zacchaeus put into practice what the young rich man failed when Jesus said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). Zacchaeus wanted to be perfect and, by distributing half of his wealth to the needy, the spiritually poor Zacchaeus became rich in the heavenly realm.
and if I have cheated anyone, I pay him back four times.
Zacchaeus knew he had deceived many and made them suffer. He volunteered to spend the rest of his wealth to restitute for the damages he had done to others. Being a Jew, he was aware of God’s commandments, “When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft” (Ex 22:1). “If what he stole is found alive in his possession, be it an ox, a donkey or a sheep, he shall make twofold restitution” (Ex 22:3). God told Moses, “Tell the Israelites: If a man or a woman commits any offense against another person, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and thereby becomes guilty, that person shall confess the wrong that has been done, make restitution in full, and in addition give one fifth of its value to the one that has been wronged” (Num 5:6-7). When Prophet Nathan told to King David, the story of a rich man who “spared his own flocks and herds to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him: he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the one who had come to him,” David responded, “He shall make fourfold restitution for the lamb because he has done this and was unsparing” (2 Sam 12:4). Zacchaeus confessed to Jesus his sins and restituted what the law demanded or even more by paying back four times what he had cheated. Thus, Zacchaeus showed the people the method of a genuine conversation.
A confession will be perfect only with restitution. If we damaged the reputation of another, we should correct that to the community where we spread the gossip. If the damage is of property, that should be restituted by returning it with interest. According to the Catholic Church, “Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance’” (CCC-1459). Zacchaeus has become a good example of making a true confession with restitution.
(9) Looking at him Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house today, for this man is also a true son of Abraham.’
Looking at him Jesus said
The look of Jesus at Zacchaeus was at first a glance into his sinful heart with compassion. After his confession and firm resolve for restitution, the look was of appreciation. Jesus could now show the priests and Pharisees, watching at him with disgust, why he mingled with the sinners. He showed Zacchaeus as a model for the public on the method of repentance, and the disciples the necessity of helping such sinners.
“Salvation has come to this house today
Because Zacchaeus attempted to see Jesus, despite the obstacle of the immense crowd and his physical stature, he found means to watch Jesus coming and gained his attention in public. When Jesus volunteered to be a guest at his house, he felt like Jesus mobilized his heart. Zacchaeus felt the need to cleanup his soul to receive Jesus. While he lost almost all of his wealth by voluntarily distributing half of his assets to the poor and the rest to restitute for his sins, he gained peace and joy. He regained public acceptance of the Jews and recognition of the Christians. Luke presented him in the gospel as a memorable role model for the conversion of sinners. All of these are more precious than the value of all the wealth he had accumulated.
When Jesus called the apostles, they left everything they had and followed him. Jesus told Peter, “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). During the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:19-21). Zacchaeus’ heart was in the wealth he had amassed through unjust means. When Jesus came to him, Zacchaeus converted his worldly possessions as his resources in heaven. Though the rich Zacchaeus became poor in this world, he became wealthy in heaven. That is why Jesus assured salvation for him and his family, who had gained from his sins and now spiritually benefitted from his conversion. Salvation comes to us and our families when we receive Jesus and respond like Zacchaeus did.
for this man is also a true son of Abraham.
God found favor with Abraham because he avoided idolatry and worshipped the only one and true God. Those who followed his faith, by renouncing false gods, were the descendants of Abraham. St. Paul wrote, “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Realize then that it is those who have faith who are children of Abraham” (Gal 3:6-7). The Jews were proud that they had Abraham as their father (Mt 3:9). “For not all who are of Israel are Israel, nor are they all children of Abraham because they are his descendants” (Rom 9:6-7), but only those who are faithful to their covenant with God like Nathanael who had no duplicity in him (Jn 1:47). When the prodigal son returned to his father with repentance saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son” (Lk 15:21). Like him, Zacchaeus, though a biological descendant of Abraham, had lost that true sonship because of his sinful life, forgetting God’s precepts, and exploiting people. He had recovered from it by his renewal of faith through his confession and restitution for corruption.
(10) The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.
The Son of Man stands for Jesus Christ. He used it for himself, emphasizing his humanity, while others used Son of God to emphasize his divinity. Both have the same reference to Jesus as the Messiah. Here, Jesus states his mission for his incarnation. He had been doing it throughout his public life and entrusted his disciples, including us in the modern world, to continue his mission through the church and our lives. There is no other ‘god’ who came into the world with such a mission. So, no other religion can offer us eternal salvation.
The lost does not mean those that are destroyed. They are the people who have drifted from the covenantal relationship with God. They still have the opportunity to reconcile with God like Zacchaeus and the lost son in the parable of the prodigal son. The first parents, and through them all humans, are lost in sin. God the Father did not abandon them. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). So, for us who are lost, Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life. No one can reach the Father except through him” (Jn 14:6).
To seek and to save
During the past, God came down seeking the chosen people of Israel suffering from Egyptian slavery. He saved them from that bondage by training and sending Moses as His representative. Jesus is a prototype of Moses who came down to seek all sinners and to save them.
Because of the fall of the first parents, all are born with original sin and so all need salvation through the Messiah. However, from the time of Adam, there were many who were righteous, starting with Abel and Seth. God specially selected Abraham and made a covenant with him. Many of the chosen people broke away from God. Even the self-righteous during Jesus’ public ministry were among the lost who were unwilling to accept and follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Through baptism, we have regained our lost sonship with God. However, like the elite Jews whom Jesus criticized, we might also fall into ritualistic practices and lip service without repentance and restitution for our sins. Let us keep reviewing our lives and renew our covenantal relationship with God.