Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the town when a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance; he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd; so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him: ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.’ And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house’ they said. But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’
Unique to Luke’s Gospel the story of Zacchaeus is one of the most popular and well known within the Christian Scriptures, revealing the transformative and healing power of God’s love.
An outcast by virtue of his occupation as a tax collector, Zacchaeus is embraced by Jesus and thus his relationship with the community is restored. Positioning himself high in a sycamore tree Zacchaeus seeks a safe vantage point in which he can catch a glimpse of Jesus. Ironically, it is Jesus who seeks out Zacchaeus.
Once again we see an example of Jesus’ inclusiveness, embracing someone rejected and reviled by Jewish society in befriending a tax collector, let alone visiting the home of one, would have been considered scandalous. Tax collectors were a reviled lot, considered traitors for collaborating with the Romans. But Zacchaeus was deserving of double scorn, for he not only collected taxes for the empire of occupation but also, as the chief tax collector, defrauded people by extorting more than the scheduled tax, keeping the excess for himself.
By visiting Zacchaeus, Jesus shows that no-one is beyond redemption. Even the greatest sinner is capable of responding to Christ’s invitation to repent and hence become eligible to ‘eat at the table of forgiveness.’
Zacchaeus’ repentance is comprehensive for he not only promises to refrain from exploitation in the future but he sincerely offers to return more than the amount that he has defrauded. Zacchaeus complies with the fourfold restitution referred to in the Old Testament (Exod. 22:1). This promise to restore illustrates the nature of penance, which, inter alia (among others), is aimed at repairing the damage caused by sin and targeting our personal vices; in the case of Zacchaeus, greed.
The story of Zacchaeus illuminates our own relationship with Christ. Although we may at times want a relationship that is at a safe distance, he wants something more profound and more intimate. Jesus seeks us out so that we may be restored into right relationship with him and that we might have life to the full.
Director, Religious Education and Evangelisation