1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:1-10 ESV
At the close of chapter 18, Luke seemed to indicate that Jesus was “drawing near” or, better yet, passing by Jericho. But with the opening of chapter 19, he describes Jesus as entering the city of Jericho. Is this a case of biblical contradiction or of Luke confusing the details of his story? The simple answer is that there were actually two sites known as Jericho in Jesus’ day. There was the original site of the city that Joshua and the forces of Israel destroyed when they first entered the land of Canaan (Joshua 6). Then there was the “new” Jericho, built by Herod the Great. In the 1st-Century, the Old Testament Jericho was nothing more than a small village that lie among the ruins of the former city that the Israelites had destroyed. Joshua had placed a curse on anyone who attempted to rebuild the city.
Joshua laid an oath on them at that time, saying, “Cursed before the Lord be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho.
“At the cost of his firstborn shall he
lay its foundation,
and at the cost of his youngest son
shall he set up its gates.” – Joshua 6:28 ESV
Years later, one man would ignore that curse and rebuild the city, but at a great cost.
It was during his reign that Hiel, a man from Bethel, rebuilt Jericho. When he laid its foundations, it cost him the life of his oldest son, Abiram. And when he completed it and set up its gates, it cost him the life of his youngest son, Segub. This all happened according to the message from the Lord concerning Jericho spoken by Joshua son of Nun. – 1 Kings 16:34 NLT
So, it would appear that Jesus was entering the newer and more recent Jericho as he traveled west toward Jerusalem. As he passed through the city, He encountered a man named Zacchaeus, who happened to be a notorious and despised tax collector. As Luke has already established, men like Zacchaeus were despised by the Jews and considered the chief of all sinners by the Pharisees and scribes. They were viewed as sellouts by their own people, because they were little more than pawns of the Roman government, collecting their exorbitant taxes and fleecing their fellow Jews in the process. Like the disciple, Matthew, Zacchaeus would have grown relatively wealthy by charging his customers a collection fee on top of the already staggering tax the Romans demanded. And because Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in the region, he had probably received a portion of all the extra revenue any of his employees managed to fleece from their customers. Luke indicates that he was “very rich” (Luke 19:2 NLT). And this fact would have made him especially despised by the people of Jericho.
But as Jesus made His way through the city, Zacchaeus became just another curious onlooker eager to see this miracle worker from Nazareth for himself. Jesus’ presence in Jericho had stirred up quite a commotion. It’s likely that news of His healing of the blind man had made its way through the city. And Jesus’ reputation as a healer and controversial teacher had spread throughout the land. So, when Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was nearby, he shut down business long enough to get an up-close and personal look at this 1st-Century celebrity.
It may be that Zacchaeus’ curiosity about Jesus stemmed from the fact that a former tax collector was among His 12 disciples. Or perhaps Zacchaeus had heard about the rumors of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. When Matthew had been called by Jesus to be one of His disciples, he had invited his new master to dine with him in his home.
Levi [Matthew] held a banquet in his home with Jesus as the guest of honor. Many of Levi’s fellow tax collectors and other guests also ate with them. But the Pharisees and their teachers of religious law complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” – Luke 5:29-30 NLT
To Zacchaeus, Jesus was an anomaly. There were no other religious leaders in Israel who would have given him the time of day, yet here was a man who had a reputation for associating with the despised and rejected of Israel. Zacchaeus had heard the rumors concerning Jesus.
“He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!” – Luke 7:34 NLT
And this made Jesus all the more intriguing to a man like Zacchaeus. He could not pass up the chance to see this one-of-a-kind Rabbi from Nazareth. But as Luke indicates, because of his diminutive size, Zacchaeus had a difficult time getting a clear view of Jesus. So, he climbed a nearby tree. And much to the shock and surprise of everyone in the crowd, when Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ location, He stopped and directed His attention to the tax collector perched in the top of the sycamore tree.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” – Luke 19:5 ESV
It was true. This man really did eat with tax collectors and sinners. And Luke indicates that Zacchaeus wasted no time, but “quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy” (Luke 19:6 NLT). This would have been an unexpected boon for this much-maligned and despised tax collector. Everyone in the crowd must have looked on in amazement at this exchange between the two men. But the most offended segment of the audience would have been the ever-present Jewish religious leaders. They were the very ones who had reacted so vociferously when Jesus had dined in the home of Matthew.
“Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” – Luke 5:30 NLT
But even on that occasion, Jesus had responded with slightly veiled sarcasm to their self-righteous indignation.
“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Luke 5:31-32 NLT
And, even in the case of Zacchaeus, the people disclosed their disappointment with Jesus’ actions, stating, “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner” (Luke 19:7 NLT). They were appalled by Jesus’ seeming lack of discernment. How could a great Rabbi and teacher lower Himself by associating with the likes of Zacchaeus? This most certainly not what they expected from someone who had claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. By dining with Zacchaeus, Jesus would not only soil His reputation, but He would also render Himself ceremonially impure and equally as sinful as the men with whom He dined.
But upon receiving the unexpected invitation from Jesus and hearing the unsurprising response of the crowd, Zacchaeus spoke up.
“I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” – Luke 19:8 NLT
At that point, Zacchaeus knew he had a choice to make. He could no longer continue living his life according to his old, self-established standards. He somehow knew that changes needed to be made. His encounter with Jesus had made him painfully aware of his sinfulness and his need for repentance. Zacchaeus suffered from no illusions of self-righteousness. He knew he was a sinner and the crowd had only confirmed it. But he was willing to change.
Zacchaues’ humble response brings to mind an encounter that John the Baptist had with a group of religious leaders who appeared in the Judean wilderness expressing their desire to be baptized by him.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” – Matthew 3:7-8 NLT
Zacchaeus was ready to prove by the way he lived that he had repented of his sins and had turned back to God. It’s interesting to note that Zacchaeus’ name is an abbreviated form of Zechariah, which means “the righteous one.” This notorious sinner was willing to make the sacrifices necessary to restore his broken relationship with God. But his justification before God would not be a result of his financial remunerations. It would be as a result of His faith in the Son of God, a point that Jesus makes perfectly clear.
“Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” – Luke 19:9-10 NLT
This statement from Jesus reflects the words John the Baptist spoke to those very same Pharisees and Sadducees.
“Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:9-10 NLT
A man like Zacchaeus would have been the last person the Pharisees expected to be part of the Kingdom of God. Yet, Jesus had declared that salvation had come to the home of Zacchaeus. According to Jesus, this tax collector was a true son of Abraham. It was not about birthright or ethnic heritage. It was all about faith in the Son of God. Zacchaeus had proven that the call of Jesus was more important to him than anything else. He was willing to give up everything in order to follow Jesus.
Don’t forget Jesus’ earlier encounter with the rich, young ruler. This man had come to Jesus asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18 ESV). And Jesus had shocked him by stating, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22 ESV). But rather than do as Jesus said, the man walked away “for he was extremely rich” (Luke 18:23 ESV). Unlike Zacchaeus, this man had been unwilling to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And he walked away rich but still living in spiritual poverty.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.