At first glance we might expect this to be another parable challenging the rich. The rich have not fared well in Luke’s gospel. Jesus pronounces woes upon the rich (6:24). God called the rich farmer a fool (12:16, 20) and required his soul of him. The rich man went to Hades while Lazarus went to the bosom of Abraham, and Jesus observed how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (18:23, 25). Zacchaeus is a “wealthy man” (19:2)
Yet, Zacchaeus is like the others in previous stories of Jesus – people faced with obstacles (18:3-4, 15, 39); he is of low social status and esteem as are the widow, the toll collector, children and a blind beggar. Yet, like the rich ruler (18:18-30), Zacchaeus is a person of power, privilege and position – people not easily ignored. Whereas the Rich Ruler’s self assessment is that he keeps all the commandments, Zacchaeus, according to popular opinion is a sinner. Zacchaeus is a “Son of Abraham” and yet serves the Roman Imperia to the detriment of this own people and to his financial benefit. In a way Zacchaeus is a pivotal character whose characteristics straddle the boundaries. Then who can be saved? (18:26). The story of Zacchaeus answer the question that has flowed in and out of the Jerusalem travel narrative (since 9:51) as Jesus asserts, Today salvation has come to this house (19:9) – all in the unmerited grace of Christ.
Green (Gospel of Luke, 667-8)
Employing categories fully developed in the prior narrative in incongruous, even oxymoronic juxtaposition – “ruler,” “tax collector,” “wealthy,” and “sinner” – Luke articulate a pivotal element of his narrative theology. Here, Luke dismisses the usual, stereotypical categories by which one’s status before God is predetermined, including even those surprising ones that might have been suggested in Luke’s narration. Following a close reading of chs. 1-18, Luke’s audience might assume that the wealthy and those who rule are out, sinners and toll collectors are in. What, then, are we to make of someone who is all these things? In his characterization of Zacchaeus, Luke pulls the rug from under every cliché, every formula by which people’s status before God might be calculated. After the dust settles, two complementary assertions remain: (1) the salvific agency of Jesus on behalf of those routinely excluded and (2) the determination of one’s inclusion in the family of God on the basis of the single query. Do you conduct yourself as a child of Abraham (cf. 3:8-14 )?
Seeing and Seeking Salvation. In light of the narrative parallels between the blind beggar and Zacchaeus we should not be surprised to note that again Luke has introduced the idea of “seeing.” Many of the times Luke uses the standard word ideín to indicated that seen with the eyes (e.g. v.3), however, at important junctures Luke opts to make a direct verbal linkage via the word anablepo. In the account of the blind beggar anablepo is translated “see again” or “regain sight” (18:41, 42, 43). In our text it is translated “looked up” (19:5). What is important to our story is that this word is used elsewhere in the NT and its use always is connected to an anticipation of salvation in the kingdom of heaven or as a sign/symbol of the in-breaking of the kingdom and the time of salvation:
- To look up to heaven as an act of hope in God. In the account of the multiplication of the loaves Jesus looks up to heaven (Matt 14:19; Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16). This sense also appears in connection with the healing of a deaf-mute (Mark 7:34).
- Recovery of sight as a sign of the dawn of salvation.
- This sense appears in Mark 8:24 (the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida); 10:51 (“Master, I want to see” 52; Matt 20:34; Luke 18:41, 42, 43 where the believing act of seeing is a consequence of the encounter with God’s offer of salvation in Jesus
- In John 9:11, 15, 18 (the healing at the pool of Siloam of one blind from birth) the ability to see leads to faith in the Son of Man
- when Jesus, the messianic bringer of salvation, restores sight, the OT eschatological promise of the healing of the blind (Isa 61:5–7; 35:5f.; 29:15ff.; also Matt 11:5; Luke 7:22) is fulfilled in the “today” of the encounter with Jesus.
In v.5 it is Jesus who “looks up” (anablepo) – thus not simply catching sight of Zacchaeus but “seeing” him all because salvation is being played out in front of all the descendant[s] of Abraham (v.9) who looked upon the scene. Jesus is the primary actor who “looks up” to heaven in an act of hope that Zacchaeus will again see the salvation first offered to the Jews via the patriarchs and the prophets and now offered in the person of Jesus.
On A Quest: Zacchaeus and Jesus – Today. Zacchaeus is introduced in v.2 and characterized four ways: Jew, a ruler, a chief tax collector [see Note on v.2 below], and wealthy. This last characteristic reminds one that Jesus has just remarked on the near impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom of heaven (18:24-25).
Yet Zacchaeus is a man on a quest. Either because of his stature or age [see Note on v.3 below], Zacchaeus goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his quest – even if it means enduring the probable shame to climbing a tree as though he were a child. The earnestness of his quests accounts for some of the exuberance, but also because of the crowd. In some way the other people have become an obstacle to him, rendering him as a member of the lowly along with the widow, the tax collector, children, and the blind beggar of chapter 18.
Jesus is on a quest and so the “seeker” Zacchaeus, becomes the “sought”. While he is trying to see Jesus, apparently Jesus had already seen him. The same word (zeteo) is used in v.3 where it is Zacchaeus “seeking to see.” In v.10 it is Jesus who seeks and resulting “seeing” is expressed in terms of salvation (to save): “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” Who is seeking whom? Each are on a quest – the terminus of salvation played out in the offer of salvation, without out cost or prerequisite, to one who was lost. With the offer accepted the banquet of the reign of God is proleptically seen in Jesus staying at Zacchaeus’ house: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” (v. 5).
“Today” (semeron) is an important word in Luke that is part of a recurring theme from start to finish of this gospel. Some of the significant verses:
- Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (2:11)
- Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (4:21)
- I must stay at your house today. (19:5)
- Today salvation has come to this house (19:9)
- I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. (23:43)
“Today” is the moment of salvation. That moment is created by Jesus’ presence and his word.
“Today” carries its own urgency, and so Jesus insists that the nature of his mission renders it imperative that he share Zacchaeus’ hospitality. This is a breach of decorum because Jesus does not wait to be invited to the tax collector’s house. He invites himself; the shepherd seeking the one lost sheep (v. 10; 15:4–7). Zacchaeus quickly descends from the tree and received him with joy (v.6).
Luke 19:1 Jericho: The city was located on an important trade-route from Jerusalem to the East / Trans Jordan area. Locally is a center of a good deal of wealth, not only from trade, but also from the balsam groves that abounded. In many ways Jericho would have been a desirable location for collecting taxes.
Luke 19:2 Zacchaeus…chief tax collector: His name in Hebrew means ‘pure’ or ‘righteous’. The man is unknown to us apart from this incident. He was not simply a tax collector like others we have met in this Gospel (see on 3:13; 5:27), but a chief tax collector (architelōnēs). This title is not found anywhere else, so its precise significance is not known, but it seems to point to the head of the local taxation department. Zacchaeus would employ others in the actual collecting of the taxes, while he passed on what the Romans required.
Luke 19:3 short in stature: hēlikia mikro – the expression literally means “small in age.” Most others places in the NT and OT, age is the primary meaning. The context of the account, especially the action of climbing the tree in order to see has lead to the reference to height. But even beyond his marginal social status as chief tax collector, Zacchaeus may in fact be young. In ancient near east culture the representatives of the communities were the older men, who acted as judges, wisdom figures, and leaders in the community. As the crowds gathered to greet this traveling wonder worker, his age may have caused him to be ushered to the back of the crowd and thus unable to see.
 Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:8-14)
- Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997) pp. 666-73
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.