Who was Zacchaeus? His Story from the Bible
Zacchaeus was a tax collector of the city Jericho and learned that Jesus the prophet was passing through the city. Since Zacchaeus was "short in stature," he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up into a sycamore tree to have a better view of Jesus. When Jesus arrived, he noticed Zacchaeus in the tree and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." This made Zacchaeus very joyful but the crowd "grumbled," or murmured in a complaint that Jesus "has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner."
Most of us who grew up in church know this little song, and any mention of Zacchaeus starts it playing in our brains. The story of Zacchaeus climbing a tree is fun to share with young children; especially because they are also ‘wee little’ people. Yet there is so much to learn about him beyond the fact that he was a short guy who hung out in trees, and Zacchaeus is someone that we adults can relate to as well.
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Just Like Zacchaeus, We Are Also Sinful and Greedy
“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11).
Besides his small stature, the thing that defined Zacchaeus was his career as the chief tax collector in Jericho. Those who collect taxes are not popular in any time period, but the dislike was even deeper in 1st century Jewish culture. Not only was Zacchaeus the IRS agent of his time, but he was also a traitor to his nation.
Even Jesus acknowledges the hatred people had for tax collectors: “If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
Excessive Roman taxes were a hot topic in Jesus’ day, and tax collectors were working directly for the Roman occupation. There were no laws protecting the hard-working taxpayers either. People were required to pay large amounts to a cruel, foreign government, and the tax collectors openly added extra for themselves.
Zacchaeus became rich by using his position to take as much as he wanted. This left the people overtaxed and resentful of this man who was stealing from them. And since he had the full support of the Roman authorities, the people were powerless to stop him.
Whether we realize it or not, just like Zacchaeus, our natural tendency is to ‘look out’ for ourselves and take whatever we can get away with. It can be difficult for us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others. Yet, as we will see, Zacchaeus had that potential and eventually embraced it.
We Don’t Have to Climb a Tree to See the Truth
We all want to see things that are going on around us. We check social media regularly to see what we’ve missed. We slow down and investigate when we see a crowd. Our nature is to wonder what people are looking at and talking about and to get involved ourselves.
This is the setting as Jesus walked through Jericho. People were flocking around Jesus, and, like any of us, Zacchaeus wanted a look at what was going on.
How shocking it must have been when Jesus spoke directly to Zacchaeus in the midst of this large crowd.
Zacchaeus was not a tall man and had to climb a tree to see Jesus. Yet, in a certain respect, Zacchaeus already knew who Jesus was and that he was worth seeing. We too, through the word of God, have full access to the complete truth of who God is.
We tend to look high and low for every secret to life we may be afraid of missing out on. We search through self-help books, look for hidden messages, and seek out purpose and meaning in all the wrong places.
We can figuratively spend our days in trees.
But there is no need for us to go to extraordinary measures to find the truth that is written down for us on every page of Scripture. Jesus was the full human representation of truth, and we need look no further than him.
Jesus Comes to Our House Anyway
It is likely that people were jeering at Zacchaeus as he was climbing that tree. They surely didn’t want this type of man interrupting their chance to see Jesus and were likely frustrated he was even there. After all, Jesus had come to save them from people like Zacchaeus. Hadn’t he?
Yet, Jesus spots Zacchaeus up in that tree, and, “when Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly” (Luke 19:5-6).
Jesus shocks the crowd by addressing Zacchaeus and then saying that he must stay at his house.
Really? Jesus is going to stay with him?
It is as if Jesus had this in mind before he even got to Jericho. He does not plan to stay with the local pastor, the mayor, or anyone else respectable we might expect Jesus to stay with. He has a plan to stay with the guy that no one likes. In fact, he must stay there.
We Can Be Made Pure - The Meaning of Zacchaus" Name
“Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them” (Luke 3:12-13).
The name Zacchaeus means ‘pure’ or ‘innocent’. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus didn’t live up to his name. It was no secret that his wealth was gained on the backs of his neighbors and countrymen.
Yet, John the Baptist says that these tax collectors can make things right by simply being honest in their business. Zacchaeus does this after encountering Jesus: “And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:8).
After Jesus reached out to him, Zacchaeus changed his ways and went above and beyond to make things right. He finally overcame his past and lived up to his name.
Our Meaning Is Found in Christ
Just like Zacchaeus, Jesus must visit our house today. He has no requirements for us before he comes to visit. We don’t have to make all things right with all our dealings before letting him in. He already knows who we are and what shape our house is in. He wants to be there anyway.
His presence alone and his love for us will lead us to do things we never thought we could do: even admitting where we have been wrong and making things right. We can easily assume that Zacchaeus lived a different, fuller life after this encounter with Jesus. And we can have the same experience.
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