The Calling of Zacchaeus: Luke 19.1–10
They went into Jericho and passed through. 2There was a man named Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector, who was very rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a small man, he couldn’t, because of the crowd. 4So he ran on ahead, along the route Jesus was going to take, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up
‘Zacchaeus,’ he said to him, ‘hurry up and come down. I have to stay at your house today.’ So he hurried up, came down, and welcomed him with joy.
Everybody began to murmur when they saw it. ‘He’s gone in to spend time with a proper old sinner!’ they were saying.
But Zacchaeus stood there and addressed the master.
‘Look, Master,’ he said, ‘I’m giving half my property to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I’m giving it back to them four times over.’
‘Today,’ said Jesus, ‘salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10You see, the son of man came to seek and to save the lost.’
Sunday schools love Zacchaeus. At least, they love to act out his story and sing about him. The little man who climbs up a tree to see Jesus provides one of the most vivid short stories in the whole Bible. Children can identify with Zacchaeus; they often find themselves at the back of a crowd and can’t see what’s going on. Many adults, too, can identify with him; they might like to get closer to Jesus, but find it embarrassing to do so, and potentially costly.
Luke, of course, makes Zacchaeus one of his minor heroes. Luke’s is the only gospel that tells of him and his sudden moment of glory, and the hardened old tax-collector fits in to three of Luke’s regular themes: the problem of riches and what to do about it, the identification of Jesus with ‘sinners’, and the faith which recognizes Jesus as Lord and discovers new life as a result. This kind of healing, this kind of new life, he seems to be saying, is what Jesus has come to bring. If only people in Jerusalem could see the point and make a similar response!
Nobody in Jericho liked Zacchaeus. They would have been horrified to think that, of all the inhabitants of the town, he would be the one known by name to millions of people 2,000 years later. He was exactly the kind of man everybody despised. Not only a tax-collector but a chief tax-collector; that is, not only did he make money on the side, in addition to his legitimate collections, but he almost certainly made more money from the tax-collectors work- ing under him. Wherever money changes hands, whether across a grubby table in a tin shack in a dusty small town or across a sparkling computer screen in a shiny office on the ninety-ninth floor of a Wall Street skyscraper, the hands all too easily get dirty. Whenever money starts to talk, it shouts louder than the claims of honesty, respect and human dignity. One can only imagine the reaction of neighbours, and even of friends and relatives, as Zacchaeus’s house became more lavishly decorated, as more slaves ran about at his bidding, as his clothes became finer and his food richer. Everyone knew that this was their money and that he had no right to it; everyone knew that there was nothing they could do about it.
Until Jesus came through the town. The moment when the eyes of the two men met is worthy of an operatic aria. Inquisitiveness had got the better of the little rich man, an unspoken question emerging from behind his hard, crafty look. Jesus saw straight through the layers of graft and greed, of callous contempt for his fellow citizens. He had met enough tax-collectors already to know exactly what life was like for them, and how, even though they couldn’t resist the chance to make more for themselves than they should, there was a sickness at the heart for which he had the remedy.
So once again Jesus finds himself relaxing in the company of the wrong sort of people. And once again the crowd outside grumble. But this time, instead of Jesus tell- ing a parable, the tax-collector himself speaks to Jesus in public, and gives evidence of his extravagant repentance. Repentance here isn’t just a change of heart; as in Judaism in general, repentance involves restoration and renewal, making amends. Zacchaeus is determined to do so lavishly. He doesn’t offer to sell all his property, nor does Jesus demand it. But by the time he’d given half of it away, and made fourfold restitution where necessary, we can imagine that he would find himself in seriously reduced circumstances.
He doesn’t care. He has found something more valuable. ‘Today I have to stay at your house’ becomes ‘Today salvation has come to this house’; where Jesus is, there salvation is to be found, for those who accept him as master and reorder their lives accordingly. Once more Jesus links a former outcast back into the true family of Abraham (compare 13.16). Zacchaeus isn’t going to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, escaping the puzzled and probably still angry looks of the neighbours. He is going to live out his new life and re-establish himself as part of the renewed Israel right where he is.
Why does genuine and lasting renewal depend on repentance, restoration and tangible changes to the way some- one thinks and lives?