Luke 19:1-10: Luke 19:1–10 (NKJV): 1Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. 2Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. 3And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. 5And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. 7But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”
8Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
9And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; 10for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
It would also be useful for you to read Luke 18:18-25, which is the story of a rich man wanting to know how to achieve eternal life and Jesus' response telling him to sell everything he owned. Other background references are: Ezekiel 34:16, Exodus 22:1, Leviticus 6:5
This story or pericope is so famous that perhaps we miss how radical Jesus' actions were. Also, I am aware that it is probably one of the most well-known stories and so, I aim to offer you a new reflection, which will cast light upon the reading as well as help us in our daily living.
The scene is set in Jericho, which is twelve miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was the scene of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the place a blind beggar was healed (Matthew 20:29). It is located in the Jordan Valley and is believed to be the oldest inhabited city in the world, founded in 9600 BCE. It has one of the oldest protective walls and is the lowest city in the world at 846 feet below sea level. It is on the main trading route and the area has a flourishing agricultural industry, as well as being the main producer of balsam.
Jericho has had a chequered history; with the first permanent settlement in 9600 BCE, it was continually occupied throughout the Bronze Age but was later destroyed. It flourished once again and by 7th century BCE, Jericho had become a big town, but this was also destroyed following the Babylonian conquest of Judah in around 586 BCE. Whilst the Persians rebuilt the city, it came under the rule of Alexander the Great between 336 and 323 BCE and was subsequently controlled by Syria who strengthened the defensive walls. Mark Antony gave the royal estate at Jericho to Cleopatra in around 25 BCE and, following the Roman oppression, granted Herod absolute rule over Jericho. Herod built a royal palace, hippodrome and theatre, thus establishing Jericho as a major city. The roads were treelined with sycamore-fig trees, which had sprawling, low-level branches offering shade and a food resource.
This is the setting for one of the most famous stories in the Bible. When the Roman empire expanded it began to tax the population to help pay for the very army that was oppressing them together with sending money back to Rome. The Roman authorities knew how much money they wanted to receive from each area but allowed tax collectors to bid for how much they were willing to raise for the taxes and take a margin for their benefit. The taxes were hated by the populous and the collectors were even more hated because they were squeezing as much money as possible for their own gain. Zacchaeus was a Jew and he was seen as a betrayer of his people by being a tax collector and was hated accordingly. He would have been barred from the synagogue and would not have had many friends.
There is a song I learnt at Sunday School that went something like this:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see
And when the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree
And said, 'Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I'm going to your house for tea!
For I'm going to your house for tea!'
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
But a happy man was he
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he
My suggestion is that because he was short he probably, throughout his schooling and young adulthood, would have been teased incessantly. I wonder if becoming a tax collector was his way of seeking revenge on his tormentors. I believe the name Zacchaeus is the Hebrew for pure/innocent. No doubt when he was born, given such a lovely name, he was probably well-loved but because of society's incessant need to label people and to bully, Zacchaeus became the product of all that nastiness. So motivated was he for revenge that he became not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector. He no doubt enjoyed the "respect" of the citizens but he was not happy.
There must have been a time when he realised he was lost; it is only when you realise you lost that you seek to find a different direction. He was fortunate a window of opportunity was to come when Jesus walked through Jericho. Being a "wee little man" he would have had trouble seeing Jesus through the crowds, so was willing to put dignity to one side and climb the sycamore-fig tree, one presumes not wishing to be seen as he did have a position to uphold. There is an element of risk-reward: is the risk of being spotted and looking silly overshadowed by the reward of hearing what Jesus was saying?
Yet, Jesus stops and calls him by name. An unanswered question is how did Jesus know Zacchaeus' name? How did Jesus know he was up a tree? In the only recorded account, Jesus invites himself for a meal and Zacchaeus takes this window of opportunity. He has a personal encounter with Jesus and, as with all personal encounters, the effect is life-transforming. Here we have a man who wanted to change and not just repented in words but repented in action, giving half his possessions to the poor as well as recompensing anyone with whom he had defrauded, paying them four times as much. Jesus offers him salvation, he needed no longer to be separated from God and his status as a Son of Abraham is reinforced. There is a tradition that suggests Zacchaeus went on following Christ and became the first Bishop of Caesarea.
So, what can we learn from this amazing story? Are we lost? Do we need a new direction? Are there habits and routines that we have fallen into and feel so comfortable with that are stopping us from being close to God? What windows of opportunities are there that we can take?
Always consider the risk-reward ratio. People can change and, therefore, by labelling, we sometimes stunt their growth into their potential being. Never tease or bully because you never know the hurt you are causing or the revenge that may follow.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon