Luke 19: 1 — 10
Those who meditate on the Gospel readings as ordered in the international three-year lectionary, have for about 18 weeks, been studying the so-called "travel narrative of Jesus". His meandering course led him from his ministry in Galilee (the North) to Jerusalem in the South. The early Church, from the time of St Luke, saw this as a "spiritual journey: Luke focussed first on the qualities Jesus demands of his followers, and then on the obstacles they must be prepared to face.
This story about Zacchaeus concludes our current theme of the travel narrative. It is an unusual story with some unexpected lessons and outcomes.
Some Notes On The Text
Verses 1 and 2
Jesus entered Jericho which was situated on the main route from Trans-Jordon to Jerusalem. The place was a hive of activity and there were many officials appointed to collect various taxes. One of the senior collectors, or chief tax collectors as they were called, was a man known by the name of Zakkai or Zacchaeus. Evidently he was very wealthy, which usually meant he must have been extraordinarily effective at extracting money and passing on to the Romans what they wanted.
We should note that in the original written text of Luke, verse 2 opens with the words, "And behold there was a man named Zacchaeus…" We are told this denotes that the appearance of Zacchaeus on the scene was rather surprising. The expression is frequently found in the New Testament when something wonderful is about to be narrated. We are, in fact, about to see that the conversion of Zaccaeus is being highlighted as an especially marvellous thing. In other words, the first Christians considered this account a very treasured memory and recounted it with much awe and respect.
Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. He had heard a lot about him but had never met him. Hearing the commotion, and realising from the comments of people that it was Jesus who was entering the city on the main road, he decided to make the most of his opportunity. But there was a problem. A lot of people were clustered around Jesus, and Zaccaeus was too short to get a proper view of him.
Many a writer has confessed to having harboured a somewhat slanted view of Zacchaeus as a pathetic, snivelling, whining, inadequate creature; and that their stereotyped image was further reinforced by the fact that, being short, he climbed a sycamore fig tree like an inquisitive little boy to improve his chances of seeing Jesus. Our in-bred perceptions of how people in authority and senior positions should act forbid that a person should climb a tree, even to see our Lord!
Zacchaeus, despite his status and dignity, was determined "to see who Jesus was." He would not be satisfied with just a quick glance to see what he looked like — anyone, even small children, could manage that. Zacchaeus wanted to watch Jesus; he wanted this so much he forgot who he was, his image, his self-importance, his reputation: everything took second place to a single goal — to be able to look at Jesus without interruption and distraction. Interestingly, Zacchaeus was not fully conscious of this himself.
So Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowds and climbed a tree on the side of the road, confident Jesus would soon walk past.
Some writers talk of the curiosity of Zacchaeus. But his action is not just for the purpose of catching a glimpse. He is not curious about appearance, but rather who Jesus is.
Within moments Jesus arrives on the scene. Just as Zacchaeus was not too proud to climb the tree overhanging the road, so our Lord has no hesitation in stopping under it and looking up at Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus face to face, and he is granted his wish: and more!
Our Lord addresses him by name:
The Greek construction of the sentence implies that our Lord considered his staying at the home of Zacchaeus as part of his mission.
The Gospels show our Lord accepting many invitations, but this is the only case in which we find him offering himself (uninvited) to share his hospitality.
The early Church made a link between this event and the Book of Revelation: "Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him" (Rev 3: 20)
Later St Augustine wrote: "He who thought it a great blessing to behold Jesus passing by, hath, of a sudden, merited to receive him into his house."
Zacchaeus, in obedience to Jesus, came down from the branch immediately, and welcomed him with overflowing joy. From this very moment, Zacchaeus became a different person. Not fully understanding why he had wanted to look at Jesus, he now realises he had been looking for Jesus.
Such is his excitement that Zacchaeus does not notice the murmurings of some among the crowd: "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner'."
Zacchaeus, now unafraid to speak truthfully, came forward and stood in front of everyone. This is indeed a moment of truth, unlike any other recorded in the Gospels.
He begins his public statement with the word "Behold", or "Look", which was a common way to make an emphatic introduction to what follows. "Here and now", he declares, "I am giving half of my possessions to the poor. If I have defrauded or cheated anyone of anything whatsoever, I will pay them back four times the amount from the half of my estate which I retain."
Zacchaeus was not waiting till the next day - he responded with great haste - without losing a moment. What is even more staggering is his means of calculation. He could have quoted Scripture very conveniently (Ex 22: 1 and 4; Numb. 5: 7) and got away with adding one fifth to the value of the fraud since he was owning up to dishonest business. At worst, it might have cost him double. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, chooses to have all his dishonesty classified as breakings of the eighth commandment. He does not capture his audience with grandiose posturing. He simply states, "If I have cheated I will repay four times the value". In doing so he imposed himself the most severe judgment in plain language and without trying to offer any excuses.
Our Lord is just as brief and to the point. "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham."
Although we cannot be certain, it is generally taken that Zacchaeus was a Jew. Whatever he was, he had betrayed himself as well as his people. The words of Jesus clearly convey that his sins have been forgiven. Our Lord is obviously delighted to pronounce his total restoration to his own heritage and culture. His open honesty and magnanimity are in keeping with that of Abraham, father of the Jewish race. He can therefore take pride in now being fully accepted by a people he formerly abused. And this holds good for all of his family as well: salvation came to his house, not just to him.
For the sake of the on lookers, some of whom are not so sure about all this, Jesus adds a powerful concluding verse:
The meaning was perfectly clear to all present. The word "lost" refers to people who had gone astray. The word "save" means to lift them out of their predicament and to restore their relationship with God and their community.
Zacchaeus was a new person after this and early Church documents suggest he lived an intensely devout life as a Christian leader in a community beyond Palestine.
Sadler has an interesting and appropriate comment with which to close our meditation:
"We learn from this, that though Zacchaeus seemed to seek the Lord to see him, yet the Lord was secretly seeking Zacchaeus, both assisting and fostering the better thoughts which were taking possession of his soul, and also exciting his innocent desire so as to bring about His sojourn in his house, which was, of course, the occasion of much closer intercourse than Zacchaeus would otherwise have enjoyed."
Thus Zacchaeus remains for Christians one of the greatest models of repentance and restoration., His example remains a challenge for us, and a tough one at that.
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