Luke 19: 1-10
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich.
He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
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.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’
Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
Zacchaeus is a remarkable man – for some of us he is the very little man from the children’s song, which makes him rather endearing. For some of us, we know he was a tax-collector, so a “baddie” yet he finds salvation in Jesus – which is lovely and heart-warming. But what if we were to be closer to the people of the time? Zacchaeus is not just a “baddie” but more like a Russian collaborator in occupied Ukraine, a truly abhorrent man, who “we know” is beyond goodness because he has shown it again and again in ripping us off.
There is an element of humour in Zacchaeus up the tree trying to hide but failing so badly. There is a real element of shock- first that Jesus invites himself to such a house – he must have put himself at risk in doing so, and second that Zacchaeus makes the most radical change of life instantly and enthusiastically.
Rich men have been quite prevalent in the previous chapters, there was a rich young ruler who would not let go his possessions – Zacchaeus is the opposite in his response! There have been parables about rich men who want more, who have dodgy business practices, who ignore the poor. None come out well. But Zacchaeus is the exception. The apparently religious young ruler could not let go, but this horrible man does – that is not how it is meant to be!!
So what does this mean for us?
I think we have mostly (well, I know I have!) been brought up to smooth out the edginess in our Scriptures, to make the stories easier, less demanding, more comforting. But when we read the accounts of Jesus interactions with people carefully, we see that it was a much noisier, more public, oppositional world he navigated. His actions caused people to take sides, to respond; his words and teaching were often at odds with the status quo. Can we remove the layer of “story” to get nearer the historic encounters?
We would almost certainly not be too sure about Zacchaeus and his change of heart. We may find the stories of the conversion of hardened criminals exciting, but what if it was our family who had suffered. The crowd in Jericho had been taxed by Zacchaeus and his cronies!
The examples provided in the gospels both support the great themes of Jesus teaching and remind us that even they are not absolutes. As mentioned the rich generally are challenged by Jesus but without obvious change, but lest we write them off, here is Zacchaeus to show it can happen.
If we read on this amazing change in Zacchaeus leads people to say – “Ahh, finally, is the Kingdom at last appearing?” but sadly, no, the oppressive regime will continue, even without this key figure. We should neither make too little of Zacchaeus’ conversion, nor too much. The story is clear but it is not simple!
Revd Peter Reiss