At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem, and in the immediate preceding text in Luke [not included in the Sunday selections] Jesus is approaching Jericho where he heals a blind man. Of note in this healing miracle is the blind man’s extraordinary show of energy in his faith that Jesus can save him; the blind man is forcibly restrained by a skeptical crowd until his cries to Jesus can no longer be ignored and Jesus demands that the blind man get his meeting, which of course ends very well for him.
From the outskirts of Jericho Jesus continues into the heart of the city, where he encounters another tax collector. I believe this is the only time in the liturgical cycle where back to back Sundays feature a tax collector. Last Sunday’s Gospel treated of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple. Joel Green notes that these are two different men—Luke’s depiction of the tax collector of last week does not record any sins committed by the man. By contrast, today’s tax collector Zacchaeus has a bundle to confess, including “extortion,” which conjures images of loan sharking with the mob. Interestingly, Luke 3:13 quotes John the Baptist exhorting tax collectors not to extort and to be happy with their base pay. What both tax collectors bear in common from the Gospel texts is their social identity—both are held in common disgust in Jewish society, lumped together with the unclean, lepers, the poor, prostitutes, Samaritans. Salvation, it would seem, has something to do with self-respect and a conferral of God’s wealth. As Green puts it, “Luke pulls the rug out from under every cliché.” (p. 667)
Green comments that in Sunday’s passage Jesus and Zacchaeus are on a search for each other. Like the blind man mentioned before, Zacchaeus has physical hurdles to cross. The crowd is large, and judging from their later reaction (“When they all saw this….”) it was a hostile crowd overall. The English texts indicates that Zacchaeus was “small in stature.” The Greek here is a bit ambivalent, and the clause “for he was short in stature” can, grammatically, apply to either Zacchaeus or Jesus. However, John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Volume One, (1991) describes carpenters as framers for new housing construction, and many scholars of my acquaintance follow Meier’s lead that if Jesus was a working carpenter, he was probably not a slight man. (On the other hand, Zacchaeus’s profession was known for extortion, and episodes of physical strength in his line of work can hardly be ruled out, either.) Incidentally, a physical description of the human Jesus is recorded nowhere in the Scriptures.
In any event Zacchaeus’ only strategy to see Jesus turns out to be a sycamore tree probably overhanging the street. From the text, we can infer that Zacchaeus had given great thought to a meeting with Jesus, to the point of having his “examination of conscience” and his “penance” at the tip of his tongue. But it is Jesus who ‘looked up” (searching?) and immediately begins his own well-prepared message first. The choice of words is instructive. Luke uses the word “today” throughout his Gospel as a sign that the Kingdom of God has arrived for those who manifest the necessary faith to enter the kingdom. Early in his public life Jesus proclaims the Messianic message of the Prophet Isaiah to his hometown synagogue. Rolling up the scroll, he announces, “Today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” On the cross before his death, Jesus tells the “good thief” that “today you will be with me in paradise.” Thus, in our text here Zacchaeus is getting some very good news, even before his “confession.”
“Staying at your house” is an incredible statement for an observant Jew—particularly one with the high profile of Jesus. Zacchaeus, as a social and religious outcast, would have been considered “unclean,” and anyone who touched him or shared his food and hospitality would likewise be rendered unclean. Jesus, as we have seen, was deeply suspicious of the “unclean” label and those who applied it so widely and judgmentally. In Jesus’ view, the urgent matter here with Zacchaeus is not ritual purity but the reign of the Kingdom of God and the forgiveness it brings to earnest seekers and believers. This salvation proclaimed by Jesus will come personally and with the breaking of the bread. Salvation enfolds unity.
Luke records that Jesus’ self-invitation to Zacchaeus’s “unclean” home provoked a not-unexpectedly disapproval from the crowd (which apparently includes the disciples, since Luke does not mention them nor do they rush to Jesus’ defense, perhaps out of fear, perhaps an indication of their abandonment of Jesus after the Last Supper.) The surprise rebuttal comes from none other than Zacchaeus himself. “With joy” our tax collector slides down the trunk to address Jesus. The word “joy” in Luke’s Gospel appears as a response to a divine visitation. When the pregnant Mary visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth in Luke 1, Elizabeth cries out that the infant within her (the future John the Baptist) “leaped for joy.”
Zacchaeus is filled with joy, and confesses to Jesus his regimen to bring the justice of the Kingdom. His plan is both specific and universal: he will restore any ill-gotten gains at 400% of value to people he may have defrauded. Then he commits to give half of his possessions to the poor. The word “poor” is collective—no group is singled out or, more importantly, excluded. Zacchaeus has come to understand the universal nature of Jesus’s call and the Kingdom he proclaims. He does not have to say more; his joy and his concrete plan of action are more than proof of his faith.
Jesus makes two critical points in the final sentences. First, salvation has come to this house (Zacchaeus’s) because, whatever his faults, Zacchaeus is a true son of Abraham, contrary to the artificial barriers and castes that have developed over the years. Again, we see the word “today” in its full sense. And secondly, the mission of Jesus is precisely to save those who have been lost—by their own devices, and equally by the cursed status applied to them by the self-righteous. Little wonder Jesus’ upcoming battle in Jerusalem, almost in view now, will be intense and decisive.