A rich tax collector
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. 2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” 6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”
Thoughts on the passage:
Let’s take a moment to talk about taxes. When looking at the scriptures we have to remember that the way we think about taxes and the way that taxes were thought about two-thousand years ago are very different. Back then taxes were really unpopular whereas today … okay so that is not one of the differences. Today however, taxes are collected in two ways, one is through your paycheck and the other is basically through the honor system (with the potential for a fine if you cheat).
Two-thousand years ago taxes were done very differential for lots of reasons. Certainly, modern technology that makes recording transactions easy did not exist back then and so tracking things like sales receipts to collect a sales tax would have not been possible. What Rome did to collect taxes was to simply make it someone else’s problem. Rather than go to all the work of collecting taxes across the empire themselves, the Roman officials farmed out the work of collecting taxes to entrepreneurial individuals who wanted to make some money. Rome would sell the rights to collect taxes to a chief tax collector for a large sum of money. That person would then use the power given them to collect money from other people. If they collected more than they paid Rome, they made a profit. Since Rome was not really concerned with how they collected the funds or from whom the money came, it obviously lent itself to abuse.
This method of taxation obviously lead to a strong mistrust in tax collectors. It was hard not to think that they were lining their own pockets with your hard-earned wages. Abuse was one reason people did not trust the tax collectors but it was not the only one. While all of us get a nice patriotic feeling as we lick our stamps and send our checks off to Uncle Sam, taxes in Israel were not going to their own government, but to an occupying force. Tax collectors not only were cheating people, but they were betraying their country by working with the Roman occupiers. Imagine how it might feel to suddenly start paying taxes to France.
So this is the world that our story takes place in today. Zacchaeus, as a chief tax collector, was one of those individuals who had paid Rome for the right to collect taxes. His investment had clearly paid off because he was now rich. Still, all that money had not done him any favors with his community. When Jesus comes to Jericho, rather than being given a place of honor to see this amazing man, Zacchaeus is shunted to the back of the crowd. Still, desperate to see Jesus, Zacchaeus goes out on a limb to find out more. In doing so he is recognized by Christ and given the chance to dine with him.
The outcome of that meal is familiar to us, Jesus dines with Zacchaeus and through their conversation, Zacchaeus gives his life to God. He repents of any wrong doing, pledges to help people in need, and tries to rectify past wrongs. Jesus then proclaims him saved.
There are two parts of his proclamation that we should focus on. First, in Luke the phrase “today” is used emphatically at critical points. Jesus uses it on the cross when he promises salvation. The angels use it when they declare Christ’s birth. It is meant to highlight good news. Can we think of better news than when a person gives their life to Christ and is saved?
The second thing we need to note is how Jesus talks about Zacchaeus, “He too is a son of Abraham.” We are good at thinking about people as being different and even less than us. The crowds were acting the same way, asking themselves how Jesus could eat with a sinner. In reminding them of Zacchaeus’ lineage Jesus is gently chiding them for their judgement. While they had come to think of him as an enemy, Jesus is reminding them that he is just like them. While we do not use the language of Abraham anymore we have a different phrase, “child of God.” When we see people who are different than us, we need to remember that they too are children of God.
So who are we in this story? All of us at some point were probably Zacchaeus. We all had the moment where we first believed in God, which is the language I tend to use, or we gave our life to Christ. Think back to that moment of excitement and joy. Think also about what risks you might have taken to get there. Zacchaeus literal went out on a limb for Christ. Each of us probably took some sort of risk too. We made ourselves vulnerable and open to God and God responded.
The problem is, once we have that moment it is easy to be like the rest of crowds, judging those sinners who want to see Jesus. We look at them and wonder why Jesus would want to eat with them and not us. That moment when we were sinners like them seems far away. Instead of helping them to see Christ, we block them out and force them away. We need to hear that gentle chiding from Christ that they too are children of Abraham, children of God.
Today can be that day. Today can be the day that salvation comes to someone in need. It is not going happen however if we keep blocking others from seeing Christ. It is not going to happen if we see people as unworthy of God’s grace and God’s love. We need to remember how God saved even a wretch like me. We need to remember that there was a time that we too did not believe. We need to remember that joy we felt on that first day we experienced God and we need to help make that happen for others. What can we do to get out of the way and let others come and give their lives to Christ as well.
Questions to Ponder:
What was it like the first time you knew that God was real or gave your life to Christ?
What are the ways you sometimes block others from coming to know God?
Who is someone you need to share your faith story with?
Gracious and loving God, we have all been at the point like Zacchaeus, desperate for something to believe in. We have heard your voice crying out, “today salvation has come to this house.” Help us to remember that joy we felt when we knew we were loved by you. Help us to share that joy with others that they too might know you and your love. Amen