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Zacchaeus - The Tax Collector

INTRODUCTION: The story of Zacchaeus is found only in the gospel of Luke. As I read accounts of variable length about the great variety of real people whose lives were changed by a relationship with Jesus, the Christ, I find new insights into ways the Lord can minister in and through my own life. May this study serve a similar purpose for others who read it.

A - The account from the gospel of Luke

"1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a `sinner'." 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." 9 Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."" (Luke 19:1-10 NIV).

OPENING COMMENTS: This is a very brief passage, 188 words in the NIV text, and it can be read in less than two minutes. There are points of directly revealed information, but others are implied or can be inferred from the wording, or from comparison with similar passages of scripture. Scripture is always consistent in truth, and there is no extraneous text, but rather all can be profitable through closer examination. Conversely, with most passages, value is greatly diminished if other scripture does not validate what we derive from a given text, either BY applying surrounding context, or THROUGH application of sound, RELEVANT Biblical principals.

B - Jericho and "passing through"

We should not miss the statement that Jesus was passing through Jericho. This was as he was on his way to Jerusalem for the final events in his ministry on earth. Matthew and Mark record the healing of a blind man outside of Jericho as does Luke, though there are some differences in those accounts. Zacchaeus is not mentioned in any of the other three gospels: in fact the name of Zacchaeus appears no where in the New Testament except in this passage in Luke. However, the Greek name Zakcaiov is of Hebrew origin from Zakkay, and that name appears twice in Ezra and once in Nehemiah as part of the genealogical record. A literal meaning of the name is "pure" and the root word can also have the meaning of bright or shining. Even though Jesus was passing through, he made time for a stop over, and therefore perhaps we should pause here as well, to examine the ways we might benefit from the story of Zacchaeus.

C - Zacchaeus was determined to at least see Jesus for himself

Zacchaeus did not want to miss the opportunity even just to see this man who was attracting so much attention wherever he went, but it seems apparent he was not expecting to entertain Jesus as a guest. Knowing the outcome, we can say the Holy Spirit was drawing Zacchaeus for himself, and for the impact this would make on others who witnessed what was to happen, even for the impact on those who would read the story as recorded in scripture. Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore-fig tree so he could see clearly from a higher vantage point, SINCE his SHORT STATURE WOULD HAVE MADE IT DIFFICULT FOR HIM TO HAVE A GOOD view PAST the crowd that had already formed along the way.

We are not told of the reaction of the disciples traveling with Jesus, but he looked directly at Zacchaeus and said "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." Zacchaeus was delighted by this and lost no time in coming down from the tree to gladly host Jesus at his house.

D - Tax collectors, or publicans, as described in scripture

Most of the New Testament record of comments from Jews about these officials identifies them with sinners, and the mention that Zachaeus was rich may have made him even more despised than were most publicans. The Greek term translated as "chief tax collector" appears only here in all of the New Testament, and it may be that Zacchaeus was over other tax collectors, or that he was simply more prosperous than most. The Jews who were subjected to foreign rule in their homeland, would generally not look favorably on one of their own countrymen who became wealthy from serving the foreign government that exacted taxes. The text tells us of the reaction of the crowd of people. "All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a `sinner'." It may clarify some confusion that may arise between translations that the KJV uses publican exclusively for tax collectors, and the NIV uses tax collector exclusively rather than publican, though the Greek term in scripture is the same.

An earlier passage from the gospel of Luke tells us of how one publican was called by Jesus to be a disciple, and then this man (named Levi, or Matthew) made a great feast for Jesus, which was attended by many other publicans. "And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. And he left all, rose up, and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?" (Luke 5:27-30 AV). This passage also tells us that Matthew "left all," and we know from more detail in the gospels, that he became one of the twelve who traveled with Jesus for some three years of itinerant ministry.

E - Zacchaeus exhibits an exhuberant response to the presence of Jesus

Zacchaeus was delighted that Jesus came to his house, and he made a commitment directly to Jesus. Jesus responded to not only what Zacchaeus had said, but ALSO because he knew what was in this man's heart. Notice however, what Zacchaeus had said: 1) I give half of what I have to the poor, and 2) "IF" I have cheated anyone, I will pay them back four fold! It seems that Zacchaeus was touched by this truth that was spoken by Jesus at another time. "And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." (Luke 12:15 AV). How many Christians take this to heart so dramatically as did Zacchaeus? With his wealth cut in half by his first pledge, Zacchaeus further pledges to pay back four-fold anyone he has cheated. Some might think that all of his wealth was obtained by over charging taxes, but if that had been the case, the multiplied repayment from the remaining half of his wealth would surely have made him a pauper. The most important factor for Zacchaeus was that he became accepted in the eyes of the all-knowing Lord. Then he could more fully realize the meanings of his name, to be personally "pure," and to live more as a "shining" light because of the new life within.

Jesus used a parable in a passage in Matthew to illustrate apparent obedience versus true obedience through change of heart. Then he applied that parable to the chief priests and elders in a less than flattering manner. "Whether of them twain did the will of [his] father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen [it], repented not afterward, that ye might believe him." (Matthew 21:31-32 AV).

F - Salvation has come to this house

Jesus made two very interesting remarks after Zacchaeus had spoken. He first said, "Salvation has come to this house today," he then identified Zacchaeus as a son of Abraham. Too many Jews were prone to place their faith in their ancestry and traditions as the means to be accepted by God, and did not acknowledge that they needed the mercy of the Lord to be saved from their condition of sin they could not overcome in themselves. John the baptist had made a strong statement about depending only on ancestry, "Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to [our] father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." (Luke 3:7-8 AV).

John the baptist knew the Old Testament scripture, and it has a consistent message of God's salvation. Immediately after the LORD had destroyed the pursuing Egyptians by drowning them in the Red Sea without Israel fighting a single Egyptian, Moses and the people sang this song of praise, "The LORD [is] my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he [is] my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him." (Exodus 15:2 AV). They claimed Him as their salvation as they saw what he alone had done for them, and at the same time identified the LORD as the God of their father's.

Job knew that the LORD does not save the hypocrite, and was willing to maintain his faith even if the LORD chose not to preserve his physical life. "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him. He also [shall be] my salvation: for an hypocrite shall not come before him." (Job 13:15-16 AV). The psalmist spoke of the Lord's mercy and not his own merit, centuries before Christ appeared in the flesh. "But I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation." (Psalm 13:5 AV).

Finally, Paul gives us this perspective on those who are true sons of Abraham by faith. "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye [be] Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (Galatians 3:26-29 AV). Though some scriptures record salvation of physical life, the underlying message therein speaks to our very soles, regarding salvation to eternal life.

G - The son of man came to seek and to save the lost

It is crucial that we consider first how we have been lost to death, through sin, so we can accept that we are in need of a Savior to do for us what we could never accomplish for ourselves. Jesus made this declaration about the scripture and eternal life, "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me." (John 5:39 AV). Paul tells us what Christ Jesus provides, "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1Corinthians 15:22 AV). Paul is not talking about being made alive in our present physical bodies which exist as corrupted by sin, but our hope is in eternal life as incorruptible. "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal [must] put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where [is] thy sting? O grave, where [is] thy victory? The sting of death [is] sin; and the strength of sin [is] the law. But thanks [be] to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1Corinthians 15:52-57 AV). So all praise goes to our Lord Jesus Christ for as Peter said, "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 AV).

--- Reflections in prayer ---

Lord, how easy it is to look at others and see them as sinners, as I tend to forget my own past. Your Word continually makes me aware of my many sins that you have forgiven, and that any good works that I now do are only through your enablement. Without your grace and mercy none could stand before you, so I offer my heartfelt praise and thanksgiving for your gift of salvation to eternal life for me. Thank you for the great diversity in the lives you have chosen to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Zacchaeus showed his sacrifice of praise while still in his position of public service to the ruling government of his time, while Matthew left the same vocation at your calling to become one of your apostles. In Christ alone is my hope, and I desire to make choices in my life that demonstrate a "pure" faith lived only in the power of your Holy Spirit. Thank you Lord for giving me a long and successful career of public service, followed by years now when I can devote much more of my time to building up the body of Christ, and spreading the gospel through whatever means you provide. Much of the electronic media mechanisms of our day are well suited to access by me as a blind person whose eyes have been opened to the truth of your salvation. Glory to God in the highest!

Published 28 February 2009