Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, Behold, Lord,
half of my goods I give to the poor;
And if have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it fourfold.
And Jesus said to him, today salvation has come to this house,
Since he also is a son of Abraham.
Zacchaeus was rich, but he was also was short, so when the renowned prophet Jesus came to Jericho, Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree in order to see the famous teacher. Zacchaeus was rich because he was a chief tax collector for Jericho. He was not an employee of the Roman fiscus, the treasury, but a successful tax farmer. When the local roman authority, then Pontius Pilate, had taken bids for the privilege of collecting taxes, Zacchaeus had won. He had won because his offer had been the best above the minimum the authorities could accept, thus meeting their standards and providing more income for the regime of Pilate than his competitors.
Zacchaeus’ wealth would be the difference between what the authorities would accept as satisfying his contract and what he could collect, a situation that presented Zacchaeus with not only the ordinary temptations caused by great wealth but with the temptation to extort where he could. The Romans had their system too. Failure to pay taxes might result in confiscation of one’s property—note “fiscus” buried in the word–-, so whatever Zacchaeus demanded from the taxpayers of Jericho, however exorbitant, it might be better just to pay up. Thus a very wealthy man sat in a tree watching Jesus go by, a rich Jew who knew the law, at the corner of whose conscience lay the awareness that he had become covetous and extortionate.
Why Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus is part of the mystery of God’s election of the saints—may He choose us all. What we know about Zacchaeus other than his profession was that at some level he was searching. So when Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house,” Zacchaeus received him into his house with joy.
In keeping with the facts of fallen human nature, that ever-present band whose members who can unerringly identify sinners, grumbled. And with some reason. Zacchaeus was a sinner. Not only did he represent the repressive authority of an alien occupying power, but for a Jew his behavior was, perhaps especially to those who had paid what was levied without argument, traitorous; it would be easy to think Zacchaeus was not a Jew at all. But were the gainsayers right that it was a sign of prophetic authenticity not to eat with sinners. There is something to the Pauline saying that “bad company ruins good morals” (I Corinthians 15:33), but more was at stake. Here the question is not about the Lord’s Table, to which the unprepared are for their own souls’ health not invited (I Corinthians 11:29), but concerns rather exclusion from the converting conversation. Can this be the best witness to sinners? Or is it not the case that the apostolic mission is sent not to call the righteous but sinners?
Jesus did visit Zacchaeus, and our Lord said, “This day salvation has come to this house.” This betrayer of the interests of his own people and servant of the casual tyranny of the Roman authority, even this Zacchaeus whom his contemporaries detested, is still a descendent of Abraham, a representative in Israel of those lost sheep whom Jesus has come to find and lead home.
Exactly what Jesus said to Zacchaeus at his house is unknown; one is reminded of the day Andrew followed Jesus to the place He was staying, remained that day and came away convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, so that he went at once to tell his brother Peter the Good News. Exactly what was said to Andrew at Bethany and to Zacchaeus at Jericho will remain a mystery. But Jesus’ words converted the rich tax collector, so that Jesus could say: “This day salvation has come to this house.”
And we know that his heart was changed because it is the first impulse of the converted to make restitution if such is possible. Zacchaeus certainly knew the rule of Leviticus which taught that money taken unlawfully was to be repaid plus one fifth (6:5). Zacchaeus was intent on repaying money extorted fourfold, and promised as well to give half his goods to the poor. An evident sign of a new heart is the desire to make right the wrong that has been done, but there is more, for the wellspring of Christian charity is the charity that overflows from a heart that knows it has been translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light by the gratuitous gift of the love of Christ.
There is a common expression of repentance: “Lord, I am heartily sorry that I have offended against you, not only because I fear hell but because you deserve all my love.” The grateful heart of one who knows that he belongs by nature to a race of rebels, who knows what he has done and thought and who knows what he deserves, this Spirit-renewed heart is the center of the grateful life, devoid of anger and despair, knowing that he moves through a world populated by those to whom Jesus has spoken words of truth and forgiveness and those, who like Zacchaeus are willing to climb the sycamore tree in anticipation of Good News, to whom He may yet speak.
The greatest mercy of the Gospel is that as it proclaims sight to the blind and freedom to the enslaved, to men and women who want what is good but who refuse to come to the One who can give us true goodness, the same Gospel also on a certain day fixes our characters as God now finds them, deserving the titles Scripture gives: persecutors of the prophets (Matthew 2:37), a brood of vipers (Matthew 3:7), drawn by our fallen natures into alliance with the serpent, children of wrath (Romans 2:5–8). And having thus named us rebels, that same Gospel, with mercy indescribable, forgives the past that binds and calls us to become sons and daughters of God, new creatures capable of fulfilling the high destiny to which we are called in Christ.