Saving the Lost: Zacchaeus (19:1-10)

Luke has consistently shown how Jesus cared for those in need and for those rejected by society. In the Zacchaeus account these themes are summed up in beautiful detail. The account is unique to Luke's Gospel, just as the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the compassionate father are. Luke always portrays tax collectors favorably (3:12; 7:29; 15:1; 18:10). In return to Jesus' openness to him, Zacchaeus makes the proper response. Having accepted Jesus' initiative, Zacchaeus becomes generous with his resources, even seeking to make restitution for past wrongs. He is a rich man who gets through the eye of the needle.

Jesus proceeds into Jericho. His visit has attracted a large crowd. Zacchaeus, a rich chief tax collector, also is interested in Jesus. In Luke's literary context, the introduction of Zacchaeus sends both positive and negative signals. Tax collectors have been portrayed with favor, but rich men with disfavor. We often confront such ambiguities of connection. Stereotypes are often just that. However, in his culture Zacchaeus would be regarded totally negatively because his wealth was "extorted" from fellow Jews on behalf of occupying Rome. This explains the public reaction to Jesus' invitation later in the story. Luke will seek to reverse that perception.

The tax collector is too short to see over the crowd, but his desire is so great that he exercises creativity in attaining his goal. A sycamore-fig tree is like a short oak tree, with a squatty trunk and wide branches. So Zacchaeus has a high camera angle on the event.

Jesus takes the initiative, calling for Zacchaeus. The text does not discuss how Jesus knows his name, but Jesus announces that it "is necessary" (dei) for him to stay with this eager spectator. In the ancient culture, the request revealed Jesus' acceptance of Zacchaeus; thus it stuns the crowd (v. 7). Luke underlines the request by using the frequent Lukan term today, even placing it in an emphatic position (semeron: 2:49; 4:43; 9:22; 13:16, 33; 15:32; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44). The request meets with public skepticism, which allows Jesus to make a point about the nature of his mission. Zacchaeus's attempt to glimpse Jesus has become much more.

Zacchaeus responds by coming down the tree and receiving Jesus with joy (NIV: welcomed him gladly). The theme of joy, coming as it does after a story about the Son of David, may suggest messianic joy. What is clear is that joy is an appropriate response to God's initiative on our behalf (1:14; 2:10; 10:20; 13:17; 15:5, 32; 19:37; 24:41, 52: Danker 1988:305). Here joy is the response of a man who has fulfilled God's will despite the protests of many who surround him. The crowd's grumbling recalls earlier grumbling about Jesus' associations (5:30).

Zacchaeus's response to the crowd's charges raises the passage's major interpretive issues. The remark's exact timing is not clear. Does it come immediately after Jesus' request, as the grumbling becomes audible? Or does it come afterward? What is clear is that the statements are made in a public setting. Zacchaeus makes a defense. But does he state that he recently has been faithful in being generous, with the verbs of this verse as progressive present tenses (Fitzmyer 1985:1220, 1225)? Or is he vowing to make generous restitution in the future, the verbs being futuristic presents (Stein 1992:466-67)?

The latter reading is much more likely. Numerous reasons suggest its superiority, but a few are decisive (Stein lists seven reasons for this view). A present tense would portray Zacchaeus as a boaster, which is unlikely in this context. Second, it would be harder to understand the crowd's hostility, if Zacchaeus has already mended his ways. Statements about salvation coming to Zacchaeus's house this very day and about the lost being saved have less power if the salvation is not connected to this current event. The context is full of events where salvation has just been offered (18:9-14, 15-17, 18-30, 35-43). Though faith is not explicitly mentioned in this context as it is in the previous account of the blind man, Zacchaeus's actions represent a concrete expression of faith's presence—a theme that goes back to John the Baptist's call (3:8-14).

So Zacchaeus responds: "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." Two actions substantiate Zacchaeus's new approach. A new generosity means that half of his assets are going to those in need (contrast 12:13-21; 16:19-31; see 1 Tim 6:6-10, 16-18). In addition, anyone who was robbed will be paid back with the highest penalty the law allows, a fourfold rate (Ex 22:1; 2 Sam 12:6). Normal restitution added only 20 percent (Lev 5:16; Num 5:7). The Mishna tended rarely to apply a more severe 40 percent penalty (m. Ketubot 3:9; m. Baba Qamma 7:1-5). This rich man, touched by Jesus and responding with faith, exemplifies the restoration of a "lost one" and opens up his resources to be shared with others. He does not have to sell everything to receive Jesus' commendation. His heart is in the right place when it comes to possessions. So Zacchaeus becomes an exemplary rich disciple.

Jesus announces, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham." He speaks of the tax collector's spiritual heritage here. Now this one has been joined to the great patriarch of faith (Rom 4:11-18; Gal 3:9, 29). Zacchaeus's access to God's blessing has been gained through faith. Not only that, but Jesus' mission has been fulfilled (note the explanatory use of the Greek term gar ["for"] that begins v. 10). "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." Jesus does what the nation had failed to do in the past, become a shepherd to lost sheep (Ezek 34:2, 4, 16, 22-23—the hope of the Davidic king restored to the nation may be alluded to here and in Jn 10). Jesus' initiative is a requirement of his mission. In order to find the lost, he must seek the lost. In such cases even the rich and rejected can be a part of the flock. Faith brings Jesus home to stay in Zacchaeus's heart and the lost sheep back to the Shepherd.

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