The story of Zacchaeus is most fascinating because of its placement. Jesus has been “wrestling” with people of wealth: The unjust judge who wouldn’t do his job, the rich young ruler who wouldn’t part with his bank accounts, and the Pharisee standing in the temple so pleased as punch that he was such a godly guy. Jesus has said things like “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven,” and that the Pharisee (the “good guy”) didn’t get justified. He has railed about justice and wealth. We even saw that a blind man could see better than the religious leaders. Is it really true that the rich are cursed, and there is no chance for them? Is money the problem? But Jesus has also said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Into this soup walks Zacchaeus. He is a rich ruler. He is a tax collector. Oh boy, you can just see it coming. Jesus enters Jericho. Oh, you should know that Jericho was a wealthy town. Filthy rich. Herod the Great had a winter palace there, so it was filled with the political elite. There was also a small fortress there, so it was filled with the military elite. Trade passed through its gates like water. It was one of the wealthiest cities in Palestine, and sitting on top of the heap was the chief tax collector. Can you imagine what he collected legitimately, and add to that what what he was able to skim off the top. You should also know that Jericho was a city of priests. Oh boy, let’s talk about corruption, and the vortex of politics, business, religion, and military might. This city is a paragon of profiteering.
We are told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and wealthy. It’s probably an understatement. The writer is implying that he was a cheater, and most likely an unpopular guy. But he cried all the way to the bank, if you catch my drift—the Ebenezer Scrooge of his day.
It’s interesting: he wanted to see who Jesus was. It’s sort of the essential quest of all mankind: Who is this Jesus guy? But he couldn’t “see” Jesus (like the blind beggar of chapter 18. He can’t see him, but his desire drives him to make a way). Nobody would make way for him, so he makes his own way.
He climbed a sycamore tree. Ha—a sycamore tree, because people so often tried to smuggle its fruit, was also known as the tree of thieves. Interesting. But because the figs it bore were of lesser quality, it was also known as a poor man’s tree. Isn’t it literarily ironic to find our man Zack up in a sycamore tree?
When Jesus reaches the tree, he takes on the role of a prophet: “Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house today.” But Zacchaeus was rich! It’s not the money that matters, but the heart of the man. Anyone truly seeking God will be found.
Zacchaeus scrambled down the tree. His reaction is one of gladness, a sharp contrast to the rich young ruler and the Pharisees. Here we have true excitement to be included and welcomed, and to welcome Jesus in return. The seeker of Jesus was found by the one seeking him. The most lost becomes the most found.
The people just HATE it. “Jesus is befriending a big thief.” The city of priests would gladly condemn the man; but the High Priest of heaven will gladly forgive him.
But then Zacchaeus shows why he gets in, despite his wealth, when the others don’t. He repents of his wrong, he commits himself to a new way of life, and he does his part to create a society of justice and morality. Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Frederick Beuchner puts it this way: Zacchaeus is a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway. In that way he is like Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, Jael driving a tent peg through the head of her overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the Red-Hot Mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar, with his taste for roasting the opposition, and Paul, holding the lynch-mob’s coats as they murder Stephen. There’s Saul the Paranoid, David the Stud, and the mealy-mouthed friends of Job. And there are even the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom, poor old Peter, and even Judas. Like Zacchaeus, they’re all peculiar and deserving of hell, and they’re all treasured by the Lord too. ‘All the earth is Mine, and all who live in it,’ says the Lord (Ps. 24). Thankfully, that goes for you and me too.”
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
I just love it.