Many have explored the Zacchaeus story (Luke 19:1–10) from the perspective of its relation to other passages in Luke. Some have related it to the stories about the rich ruler (18:18–24), the healing of the blind man (18:35–43), the daughter of Abraham (13:16), and the paralytic (5:18–26).1 Others relate it not only with the rich ruler and the healing of the blind man but also with the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (18:9–14).2 Meanwhile, a few scholars suggest that the story of Zacchaeus relates to the story of the persistent widow (18:1–5) and that of the children coming to Jesus (18:15–17).3 They suggest that Zacchaeus had a low social status as had the poor widow, tax collector, little children, and blind man,4 or that Zacchaeus was offered salvation just as they were.5
This article explores the components and significance of these connections and the fact that Jesus met Zacchaeus after the events described above and before His entry into Jerusalem.
Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem
Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem begins on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Elijah, Moses, and Jesus Himself talked about “His [Jesus’] departure which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (9:31).6 They may have talked about the death of Jesus in Jerusalem and even His ascension and the redemption all this would accomplish.7 8
After the Transfiguration, Jesus came down from the mountain (9:37) and, continuing His travel to Jerusalem (9:51, 52; 13:22, 33; 17:11), finally said to His disciples, “ ‘We are going up to Jerusalem’ ” (18:31). Jesus met Zacchaeus (19:1–10) before He arrived there (19:28–44). Zacchaeus, therefore, is the last named individual Jesus met before entering Jerusalem.
Characteristics of Zacchaeus
Luke 19, verses 2 and 3, present, straightforwardly, facts about Zacchaeus: (1) he is a chief tax collector, (2) he is rich, (3) he is not able to see Jesus, and (4) he is short. Zacchaeus, as chief tax collector, connects with the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (18:9–14). In his prayer, the Pharisee not only describes what he is not but what he is. With seven self-descriptions, the Pharisee seems to be saying that “I am perfect”;9 in contrast, the tax collector humbly says: “ ‘ “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” ’ ” (v. 13). It is as if the tax collector is saying, “I am the sinner described by the Pharisee.”
The word telÅnÄ“s, “tax collector,” occurs 24 times in the New Testament (NT) and is found only in the Gospels. Luke uses it the most—11.10 The Pharisees and Jews classify tax collectors as sinners (5:30; 7:34; 15:1).
In Luke, the term “tax collector” occurs first in chapter 3, verse 12, where only one evil practice (of many) of the tax collectors is mentioned: collecting more than what is required. The term appears, for the last time, in chapter 18, verse 13, where the tax collector identifies himself as “the sinner” described by the Pharisee (vv. 11, 12). In chapter 19, verse 1, the word telÅnÄ“s actually appears once more but only as part of the word architelÅnÄ“s, “chief tax collector”—the only occurrence in the NT.
Zacchaeus is also rich. The adjective plousios, “rich,” appears 16 times in the four Gospels, most often in Luke (6:24; 12:16; 14:12; 16:1, 19, 21–23; 18:25; 19:2; 21:1). There are accounts or sayings in Luke where the word plousios appears but is not found in Matthew and Mark: the woe for the rich (Luke 6:24), the parable of the foolish rich man (12:16–21), Jesus’ saying about who should and should not be invited to a dinner (14:12–14), the parable of a rich man with his dishonest treasurer (16:1–9), the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (19:31), and the story of Zacchaeus (19:1–10). In Luke, rich men are described as having received their reward, disqualified for the kingdom of heaven (6:20, 24; cf. 16:25), selfish, and foolish (12:16–21). Jesus says: “ ‘For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ ” (18:25).
Zacchaeus is as rich as the rich ruler (19:2; cf. 18:23), and both are somehow related to distributing to the poor (18:22; cf. 19:8). The use of the verb sÅzÅ, “to save” (18:26), and sÅtÄ“ria, “salvation” (19:9), suggests that both stories are concerned with salvation. In addition to these parallels, there are also contrasts between Zacchaeus and the rich ruler. The rich ruler, in responding to the words of Jesus, became very sad (18:22); Zacchaeus, in responding to the invitation of Jesus, received Him joyfully (19:6). The Greek word archÅn, “ruler, official, chief” (18:18), does not occur in the story of Zacchaeus. However, that word implicitly coexists with the word telÅnÄ“s, “tax collector,” and both form a compound word architelÅnÄ“s, “chief tax collector.” This compound word tightens not only the connection of Zacchaeus to the characteristics of the rich ruler but also to those of the tax collector in chapter 18, verses 10 through 13. Regardless of the obedience of the rich ruler to God’s commandments (vv. 20, 21), Jesus says that one thing is lacking: “ ‘sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor’ ” (v. 22). Jesus’ instruction to this ruler contains two imperatives: “sell” and “distribute.” To sell everything the ruler has would not be a problem for him; to distribute it to the poor would be, however, a different case. About this rich ruler, Jesus said, “ ‘How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!’ ” (v. 24). If it is hard for the rich ruler, it might be also hard for Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but couldn’t “because of the crowd, for he was small in stature” (19:3).11 This situation is similar to that of the little children who were brought to Jesus (18:15–17) and the blind man crying for healing (18:35–43). The disciples rebuked those who brought their little ones to Jesus. Luke uses epetimÅn, “they rebuked” in this passage, and he also uses epetimÅn to describe the crowd that rebuked the blind man crying for Jesus’ mercy (18:39). There is also a hindrance for Zacchaeus to see Jesus: “because of the crowd” (19:3). Based on the context, it might be the same crowd that rebuked the blind man. The desire of Zacchaeus to see Jesus—“he was seeking to see Jesus”—echoes that of the blind beggar.
All the difficulties (or hindrances)— chief tax collector, chief sinner, and stature—that prevented these individuals from having access to Jesus are found in one person, Zacchaeus.
Is there hope for Zacchaeus?
Zacchaeus in the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem
On His journey to Jerusalem Jesus met Zacchaeus, the last named person before entering Jerusalem.12 When Jesus expressed His intention to stay in Zacchaeus’ house, the crowd murmured saying, “ ‘He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner’ ” (19:7). The complaint was addressed to Jesus, but the response came from Zacchaeus. This is unusual. In chapter 5, verses 30 and 31, when the Pharisees and teachers of the law protested Jesus eating together with tax collectors and sinners, the response came directly from Jesus (cf. Matt. 9:10, 11; Mark 2:15, 16). But now it was Zacchaeus who responded. However, his response was not to the crowd but to Jesus: “ ‘Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold’ ” (Luke 19:8, NKJV).
A. J. Kerr suggests that the idea of fourfold restoration comes not from Jewish law but from Roman law. If Exodus 22, verse 1, is considered as the Old Testament background, Zacchaeus should have pledged to restore fivefold, not only fourfold, for what he had stolen could have been much more than the value of an ox.13 However, Bruce W. Grindlay comments, “If David makes a fourfold restitution, could not one [Zacchaeus] who had also ‘cheated’ as David had done make a fourfold restitution in the presence of the ‘Son of David’? ”14 This study supports Grindlay’s observation. If Zacchaeus was familiar with the story of David’s confession (2 Sam. 12:16), then he would probably be acquainted with the confessional prayer of David in Psalm 51.15
Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus can be seen in the context of His responses in previous passages. Jesus says about the tax collector, “ ‘This man went down to his house justified rather than the other’ ” (Luke 18:14; emphasis added). About the little children, Jesus states, “ ‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it ‘ ” (v. 17, NKJV). In responding to the wonderment of His disciples about the difficulty of a rich man to be saved, Jesus replies, “ ‘The things which are impossible with men are possible with God’ ” (v. 27). To the blind beggar, who asks to receive his sight again, Jesus says, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you” (v. 42, author’s translation). Jesus’ answer to Zacchaeus also confirms his salvation: “ ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham’ ” (19:9).
The story of Zacchaeus ends with Jesus’ famous statement: “ ‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’ ” (19:10). The use of the verb apollumi, which occurs in the expression to apolÅlos, “that which was lost” in chapter 19, verse 10, appears six times in Luke 15: the parable of the lost sheep (15:4–7), the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8–10), and the parable of the lost son (vv. 11–32). The situational setting introducing the three parables was just the same with what happened when Jesus went to Zacchaeus’ house. People complained: “This Man receives sinners and eats with them” (see 15:1; cf. 19:7). Although all the three parables end with a joyful feast celebrating the finding/returning of the lost, it is not explicitly clear who is represented by the shepherd (15:4), the woman (v. 7), and the father (v. 20). Jesus gives the identity of the one seeking the lost: the Son of Man, Jesus Himself (19:10). In this sense, Zacchaeus had once been lost but was found by the Seeker of the lost.
The characteristics of Zacchaeus— a rich tax collector who is short and cannot see Jesus—reflect the descriptions about the tax collector, rich ruler, little children, and blind beggar. If it was difficult for these four characters to be saved or to have access to Jesus, then it would have been much more difficult for Zacchaeus himself, who personified them all.
Is there hope for Zacchaeus?
As pastors, we may find some members with multiple problems or hindrances like Zacchaeus. We should not lose hope to reach them. Jesus found Zacchaeus and salvation became his. God will guide us in reaching people like Zacchaeus.
With the Cross as our focus and source of motivation, we can overcome any obstacle in reaching even the most difficult members. This spirit of ministry is demonstrated by Jesus. He shows that reaching troublesome people is not impossible. The fact that Zacchaeus was the last named individual Jesus encountered before entering Jerusalem highlights the truth that, through the Cross, salvation is made possible for everyone, even Zacchaeus and those among us who are like him.