Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Zacchaeus the Tax Collector
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Back in ancient times, when I was a kid, each week in Sunday School we sang a song with hand motions about a “wee, little man” named Zacchaeus. I could probably even do the hand motions for you if you asked. But it wasn’t until I actually had to lead a Bible study class on the story that I really gave much thought to what it was supposed to mean to us.
Back in the day, they told us that Zacchaeus was a “wee little” man, but what they didn’t tell us was that he would have been regarded as a corrupt and sinful figure. Something not too far from what today we might call an ‘organized crime figure.’
Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. It’s probably true that tax collectors are always unpopular, but as you might remember, tax collectors were even more unpopular in ancient Israel than the IRS is now. Back in those times, tax collectors made a profit by getting more taxes out of people than the government required, and then pocketing the difference. And since Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was wealthy, we can assume that he was pretty good at his profession (and maybe ‘racket’ would be a better term than ‘profession’). To get wealthy, Zacchaeus would probably have to be downright ruthless about getting money out of people.
On top of all that, ancient Israel and Judea were ruled by the Roman Empire. So since most of the taxes went to them, tax collectors were perceived as traitors – as collaborators with a foreign oppressor. And if all that weren’t bad enough, doing business with gentiles as they did would make tax collectors ‘ritually unclean.’
So for all these reasons – financial, patriotic, religious, and just the general distaste for tax collectors – people would have wanted nothing to do with Zacchaeus. Luke even reports that “all the people” (Apparently not just the priests and Pharisees) start to mutter about Jesus being friendly to this really disreputable guy.
But when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, he calls him down out of the tree he’s climbed, and announces that he’s going to Zacchaeus’ house. And he says it in a very interesting way. Jesus says, “I must stay at your house today.”
I’ve always found it interesting that Jesus put it that way. Why do you think he said he must he go to Zacchaeus’s house?
Some scholars say Jesus had to go the tax collector’s house for the sake of Zacchaeus himself, and maybe for others like him – to help them come to grips with their own sinfulness. And if that’s what Jesus had in mind, it seems to have worked. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus stands up in the course of the dinner and repents of his corruption. He announces that he would give half his money to the poor and repay four times the amount he had cheated anyone out of.
But other Bible scholars say it wasn’t just for Zacchaeus’ sake that Jesus went to his house. These scholars say Jesus did it for the benefit of “all the people” – the ones who wanted nothing to do with sinners and tax collectors. By accepting the hospitality of this notorious sinner, Jesus was making an important point about God’s love. He was demonstrating that it extends to notorious sinners – to outcasts and rejects – as well as to religious types. In fact, maybe Jesus had in mind to teach another lesson, one that’s explicitly addressed in the last sentence of the passage – that coming to reach and transform sinners was the whole point of his mission on earth.
This passage, it seems to me, carries within it one of the most important lessons for followers of Jesus. If we are the body of Jesus in the world (as we say we are), then our mission is the same as his. And that mission is not just to pat ourselves and our friends at church on the back and tell ourselves how righteous we are. It’s really to “seek and save what was lost,” including people religious folks often have no use for. Crummy people. Sinful people. Outcasts and rejects. Our mission is to seek and save people we might have had no use for in the past.
Let’s pray. Lord, by your Holy Spirit, touch and change our hearts. Help us to see that you did not come into the world just for the sake of nice, religious church people, but even more for those who have wandered away from you in the wilderness of this world. And move us to join you in searching for them, so they can be restored to your way. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 132 and 134; Zechariah 12:1-10; and Ephesians 1:3-14. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted in Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)