When a wealthy man got through the needle’s eye – Tuesday, 33rd Week in ordinary time – Luke 19:1-10
Jesus enters Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. For many, Jericho was a pit stop, the last one before heading on to Jerusalem. But this is no ordinary city. Jericho which is below sea level was amongst the largest cities of ancient Israel. It was a centre of trade, commerce, business, industry and agriculture. It had been a very important city for many generations. In fact, well before the time of Christ, the Romans knew and valued the city of Jericho. Marc Antony once gave the city of Jericho to Cleopatra as a gift. King Herod built a summer palace there as well as a stadium for horse racing and chariot racing.
In this city lived Zacchaeus. The name “Zacchaeus” means the “righteous one,” but apparently Zacchaeus wasn’t living up to his namesake. Rather, he was known around town as a “notorious sinner.” Zacchaeus was a government contractor with the Roman Government in charge of all transported goods into Jericho, which gave him almost a license to extort money for big commissions. Tax collectors were greedy extortioners and most Jews would have considered Zacchaeus a traitor,
Into this town enters Jesus and Zacchaeus is curious to see who this man is. Zacchaeus not only climbs a tree he goes out on a limb, literally and metaphorically. Just the sight of Zacchaeus out in public without his Roman security could have put his life in danger. So why does he seek to see Jesus? Perhaps he had heard about a fellow tax collector who had been called by Jesus whose name was Levi, also known as Matthew. Perhaps he had heard about the healing of Bartimaeus.
In any case Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see the Lord only to be seen by the Lord. While the people of the city saw his as a traitor, in the eyes of Jesus he was a lost sinner in need of a Saviour. Jesus calls this chief tax collector by name. “Zacchaeus, come down; for I must stay at your house today.” There is both intentionality and urgency in Jesus’ summons
Conversion involves a new affection; how beautiful yet true this is and Zacchaeus found a friend in Jesus when no one would have him. It is the character of Jesus to seek the lost. (Luke 5:32). From the outset of Luke’s gospel and throughout its narrative, Jesus sides with those on the margin, those considered down and out, those not accounted as much in the eyes of the world.
Zacchaeus is short, not just in physical stature, but also in terms of his moral standing among his neighbours who, no doubt, despised him; hence their reaction when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. The onlookers make the stereotypical association between tax collectors and “sinners,” but Luke describes this specifically as “grumbling” (diagonguzo, verse 7; see also Luke 15:2) Significantly, it is the same term used to describe the Israelites complaining against Moses in the wilderness (see Exodus 15:24; Numbers 14:2; Deuteronomy 1:27).
Jesus is the preacher of God’s mercy. While in the previous narrative, Bartimaeus knew what he wanted from Jesus and cries for mercy, in Zacchaeus case Jesus knew what Zacchaeus wanted. By seeing Zacchaeus, by calling him by name, staying with him, and blessing him, Jesus imparts grace. Yet interestingly when Zacchaeus comes down from the tree and welcomes Jesus he walks in faith.
Zacchaeus resolves the issue of his wealth, introduced in verse two, by saying that he is giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back those he has defrauded four times what he has taken. The use of the Greek present tense in Zacchaeus’ statements means that this commitment is ongoing, not something he will do only once, and it may mean that he has already been doing these things. While his neighbours despised him and poked fun at how short he was, today because of his repentance, he was the tallest one.
Zacchaeus is raised to a model of salvation. Jesus says, “today salvation has come to this house” not just that salvation will come but that it has come to his house. Past-perfect tense! Why? “Because Jesus was there” and we understand that the salvation is in the very person of Jesus, who has come to seek out and save the lost.
But what we see here is not only Jesus’ perspective but his priority. In just a few verses Jesus will enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In other words, Jesus is about ten days from the end of his life. With the impending suffering that would come, he goes through a crowd and singles out Zacchaeus. He says, “I’m going to stay with you.” He has time for this man. Why? That’s who Jesus is; as he said, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
The narrative of Zacchaeus embodies the promise that anyone – anyone! -who desires to see Jesus will. More than that, anyone who desires to see Jesus will, in turn, be seen by Jesus and in this way have their joy made complete.