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The Life of Jesus - Series 10: Episode 11

Jesus and Zacchaeus

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 19:1-10

After the healing of Bartimaeus, Jesus continues into Jericho amidst the crowds. He calls Zaccheus by name and this chief tax collector's life is transformed and he gives away much of his wealth.

After the healing of Bartimaeus, Jesus continues into Jericho amidst the crowds. He calls Zaccheus by name and this chief tax collector's life is transformed and he gives away much of his wealth.


Hello, welcome to Series 10 and Episode 11 when 'Jesus meets a tax collector called Zacchaeus'. We're going to be studying in Luke's Gospel, which is the only place this story appears, Luke 19: 1 - 10.

Introduction and Recap

If you've been listening in on recent episodes, and particularly the last episode, you'll be aware that the situation that's being described here is in the city of Jericho. In this city a great miracle has just happened, which we saw in the last episode and these two events are very closely linked together. We'll quickly remind ourselves of some of the key points of the last episode. First of all, we're now in the situation where Jesus is very close to entering the city of Jerusalem, the long-awaited, public entry into the capital city that's been anticipated in the Gospels and spoken of very clearly by the Gospel writers, particularly Luke, who pointed out that Jesus' decision to go to Jerusalem for one final time was made around the time of the transfiguration, as described in Luke 9, and from then onwards he travelled south. We're now at the very end of that long process during which he's travelled all the way through the central and southern parts of the country. He's sent out 70 preachers in pairs all over the country and he's made his message well-known, performed some remarkable miracles, gave some remarkable teaching, particularly in the form of parables. He's said a lot about discipleship and he's called the people in Samaria and in Judea to repentance and faith, to receive him at this particular time, and not to miss the opportunities. It's been a pretty dramatic story and that phase of the story is gradually coming to an end. We've just got two more episodes before we actually come to the point where Jesus enters into the city of Jerusalem in triumph, with a huge crowd waving him on and proclaiming him to be the Messiah. We've got this episode today, first of all, and then our next episode will be an important parable that follows on straight afterwards.

Let's think now about the city of Jericho, and going back to the last episode, put in context this remarkable meeting between Jesus and the tax collector called Zacchaeus. As mentioned in the last episode, Jericho is a city that's quite near Jerusalem. It's much lower down in the Jordan Valley by the River Jordan, in the eastern part of the country, but it has a road that links it directly with Jerusalem and it's a place of transit for trade, and for travellers who are going particularly up to Jerusalem from the north of the country, Galilee, and from other places as well. There's always a big, human population moving through the city of Jericho. It's a centre of trade which means it's also a centre of the customs taxation system that the Romans enforced. We're in the province of Judea so we're directly under Roman rule in this area, and the character of our story is in fact a chief tax collector. We'll hear a bit more about that in a moment.

As Jesus comes to the city, as described in the last episode, he's got a big crowd following him of his own supporters, which obviously includes the twelve disciples, many immediate supporters from Galilee, and other people who've been gathered up on the journey since he left Galilee. There's a lot of people travelling with Jesus and a lot of other people on the road. One particular reason why there's so many people on the road, at this particular time, is it's very close to the Jewish Passover festival, the festival that Jesus is actually going to go to as well. A lot of people are coming from the north to the south, travelling through Jericho, heading to Jerusalem. It's a crowded, busy, bustling city. We saw in the last episode that as Jesus approached the city with a crowd on the road, a blind man called Bartimaeus and his friend, called out to Jesus and asked Jesus, as Son of David, to have mercy on them. They were both remarkably healed.

The Crowds in Jericho

The story continues here as Jesus comes into the main part of the city. People have gathered to see him because he's well-known, and the message has got out that he's coming along the road at that particular time, and so lots of people are on the streets. There's a crowd waiting, rather like you might get in the modern world - crowds on the streets waiting for a celebrity or a football team to go past in their coach, or whatever it might be, and the police are cordoning off the road to enable the famous people to go past. We can imagine that situation in the modern world. Here's an ancient version of it - a bit more chaotic, but people were literally lining the streets because they heard that Jesus was coming. We can imagine that virtually the whole population of Jericho would be out on the streets, because of the fame of Jesus by this time. This situation was made more intense by the fact that Bartimaeus, one of the two blind men who'd been healed, according to Luke, followed Jesus, praising God. So, on the street is a man that many people would recognise as a beggar, if they live locally, praising God and proclaiming that he's just had his sight restored, just a few moments ago, further down the street at the entrance of the city, where the beggars generally sat. He's proclaiming the power and the miraculous authority of Jesus, proclaiming that he's the Son of David, that is the Messiah to come, and we discussed exactly what that means from the Old Testament Scriptures in the last episode.

There is Zacchaeus, wanting to see Jesus whilst all this commotion is going on in the street, and Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, is jumping up and down, praising God, and pointing people towards Jesus. I'm giving you the kind of atmosphere as an introduction to the story. The problem with the Bible sometimes, is the chapter divisions mean that we don't link together what is essentially a continuous story. We've got one of those chapter divisions here. Chapter 19 is starting, but it's completely integrated with what has happened in the preceding section from 18: 35 - 43.

The Story of Zacchaeus

Let's read chapter 19: 1 - 10.

‘Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 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. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He's gone to be a guest of a sinner.” 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've cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”’

Luke 19:1-10, NIV

Zacchaeus - The Chief Tax Collector

What a surprising story, and lots of things to think about in terms of trying to understand what's going on in the story. Let's think first of all about Zacchaeus. He's described as a chief tax collector. I've already stated that Jericho was a centre for customs taxation and so this was a good place to work if you're a tax collector. I've also said on previous occasions, but let's repeat it for clarity here, tax collectors worked for the Roman authorities, so they were unpopular with their fellow Jews. They had a set amount of money, generally speaking, which they had to hand over to the Romans, which they had collected in various forms of taxation. Very often this was customs duties of goods travelling along the roads. No one checked very closely how much they actually took off different people. There could be a big difference between what they handed over to the Romans and what they took off people. The difference between those two would go into their own pocket, and would become their own income. It meant that tax collectors, generally speaking, made a great deal of money and were amongst the most wealthy people in that society. With that wealth came unpopularity, and very often social exclusion. People did not like collaborators with the Romans; they did not like people who were taking excess money off the citizens of the area; and they considered tax collectors to be godless and irreligious. He's not just a tax collector, he's a chief tax collector, that means he coordinates other tax collectors, which means he'll get some income off them as well, which makes him even more wealthy. He would be a notorious and well-known person in Jericho, but not a popular person. Jericho, in fact, was a wealthy area which would also have raised the taxation level.

Zacchaeus' Spiritual Quest

The thing about Zacchaeus is that despite all this wealth, he's clearly seeking something else. He's uneasy with his personal situation at a kind of spiritual level because when he hears that Jesus is coming to town and going along the road, rather than completely ignoring him, like an irreligious person might do, he wants to go and catch sight of Jesus as he's passing by. Then comes the funny side of the story - he's a little man; he hasn't got the height to see over the crowd on the side of the street, which is already several people deep by now, probably because the whole city was out, because they knew Jesus was coming. A commotion had already started because of Bartimaeus just further up the road so people were on the street and poor old Zacchaeus couldn't see a thing. Being an enterprising man, he climbed up a sycamore tree. (By the way, sycamore trees are very strong.) He's able from the vantage point of the sycamore tree, just a few metres up from behind the rest of the crowd, to look down and to see Jesus.

As we think about him, we think this isn't the first time we've come across a tax collector with a spiritual quest. It's interesting to note that Jesus told the parable, recorded in Luke 18: 9 - 14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We studied this in an earlier episode and you'll probably remember the story. I want to repeat a couple of details now just to help us contextualise the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee - a very godly, devout, religious man - and a nameless tax collector who was ungodly, selfish, rich, socially excluded. They went up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray at the same time. The Pharisee was praying very proudly, looking around, comparing himself to people, and saying to God, ‘I'm just grateful God that I'm not like these other people, because I'm very religious, I do all my religious duties, I give my money away, and I fast twice a week.’ The tax collector meanwhile ‘stood at a distance’, ‘would not even look up to heaven’, ‘beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”’ In this parable there's lots of surprises. But one of the surprises is, why is the tax collector in this Temple in the first place? He's an irreligious man. The second surprise is when he's in the Temple, he's overwhelmed with a sense of guilt and remorse and spiritual failure and need and vulnerability, even though he's very rich and secure in a material sense. He asked God to help him.

This tax collector in Jesus' story is on a spiritual quest, despite having plenty of material wealth and security. There'll be some people listening to this video who'll identify with that. You'll be on that same spiritual quest. If Zacchaeus had heard that parable, he'd have identified himself in that parable because he, in real life, was on the same spiritual quest as the tax collector was in that parable that Jesus told, in order to illustrate how people become justified, and forgiven before God, not through works of righteousness, but through repentance and humility and faith and trust. Zacchaeus is going to live out in this story what the tax collector demonstrated in that parable. An interesting comparison. Here is a man on a spiritual quest.

Jesus Calls Him By Name

The other extraordinary thing about it is, not only is he on that quest, but when Jesus passes by, he stops, and he calls him by name. I wonder whether you noticed that. “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” How did he know his name? It must have been a supernatural insight and Jesus, of course, had that supernatural power to know things that there was no way he could have known humanly. A crowd was a crowd. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people in the crowd. He can't possibly have known Zacchaeus from previous occasions, and if he did, it would surely be stated in the text. He knew his name. That's interesting. We can say that God knows the name of people who are seeking after him. He knows their search before they've found him.

Jesus surprised Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus only expected a glimpse, he didn't expect to say anything to Jesus, and he certainly didn't expect Jesus to say anything to him but he said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately.” Zacchaeus was very happy to come down and it says he welcomed him gladly into his home. The crowd is very surprised. In fact, they're not that pleased, if we read the story carefully, because they expected Jesus to come, to pass through, and for everyone on the street to have an opportunity to wave at him as he goes past, to call out to him, to thank him for something he's done in the past, to wish him well on his way to Jerusalem, to proclaim he's the Messiah, to clap their hands, whatever. But suddenly this great procession through the city of Jericho comes to a grinding halt. Jesus disappears off the main road altogether, and he goes into a house and to the amazement of the crowd - it's the house of the chief tax collector, one of the most godless people, one of the most despised people in the city of Jericho because of his wealth and his collaboration with the Romans through the taxation system. “He has gone to be a guest of a sinner,” they say. We already know from many different parts of the Gospels, that the expression ‘tax collectors and sinners’ is widely used to describe social outcasts in Israel. The ‘tax collectors’, generally male and wealthy and corrupt, and ‘sinners’, frequently female, prostitutes and people like that. ‘Tax collectors and sinners’, the representation of the social outcasts of Israel, both male and female. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

The Sudden Transformation of Zacchaeus

We don't know exactly what Jesus said to Zacchaeus in his home. Presumably the disciples came in as well, that was the common pattern when Jesus visited someone at home, his disciples would come too. Some conversation went on between Jesus and Zacchaeus. The crowd would have probably melted away by now, lost interest, because they wanted to see Jesus and he wasn't available. He stayed there for some unknown period of time, but after conversation with Jesus something incredible happened to Zacchaeus. This really is an incredible transformation when we think about the social context. Verse 8,

‘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've cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”’

Luke 19:8, NIV

This is a sudden and decisive change that's come over Zacchaeus. He's giving half his possessions to the poor and he wants to do it quickly. Most people kept their wealth stored in their homes or sometimes underground in fields, and so they could gain access to gold and silver coins, jewellery, and other valuable commodities very easily because they're in their home. One can imagine that what Zacchaeus meant was that he opened up his own personal treasury, and he said that half of it was going to be given away. He would have had servants, almost certainly, so he could immediately have started instructing his servants to start giving some of his possessions away. It looks like that was his intention, although we don't have many details.

“and if I've cheated anybody out of anything, I'll pay back four times the amount.”

Luke 19:8, NIV

The tax collectors were known to cheat people out of money and he knew that he was guilty of that from time to time. When he offers to pay four times the amount, this is referenced in the Law of Moses in the situation of theft. Exodus 22: 1 says,

‘Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.’

Exodus 22:1, NIV

So, four or five times was the ratio of repayment if you stole something off somebody. When he says ‘four times the amount’, it's probably significant - an indication of theft and cheating. Something profound has happened to Zacchaeus, quite suddenly. Jesus has spoken to him; he is convicted that he's got to change his life. His spiritual quest, which we sense in his decision to go up that tree and try and catch a glimpse of Jesus, that spiritual quest is being answered by Jesus in their private conversation.

Jesus concludes with these marvellous words. This is a really thrilling end to the story.

‘Jesus said to him,’ (verse 9) “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:9-10, NIV

Whatever people may have thought about Zacchaeus he was a son of Abraham, in other words, a Jew. He was of the same race as all the people in Jericho. That race needed redeeming through Christ. That day Zacchaeus found redemption. ‘Salvation’ is the word that Jesus uses, “today salvation has come to this house” - meaning faith in Jesus the Messiah and practical repentance. A really good sign of true faith, by the way, is that people are willing to change their lives and their behaviour quickly and decisively, and change from anything they know to be wrong. That's exactly what we see here. Zacchaeus' principal area of sin was to do with finance and materialism, and cheating and thieving, so that people lost huge amounts of money. He decided to change all that immediately; he was going to turn his life around, and he was going to have faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus probably explained to him that he was heading to Jerusalem, where he would die a substitutionary, sacrificial, atoning death on his behalf.

It's interesting how the socially excluded often receive Jesus very openly in the Gospels: prostitutes, as the prostitute described in Luke 7; tax collectors; the racially excluded second-class citizens - the Samaritans; the lepers, on the fringes of society. We've already noticed many times in the Gospels that wealth is an obstacle to living faith and discipleship, in many cases. There's a powerful contrast here between Zacchaeus and the rich, young ruler of Luke 18: 18 - 30, and parallel passages. We studied the story in Matthew's account, just a few episodes ago, where a man came to Jesus who was wealthy, like Zacchaeus, and he said ‘What good thing do I need to do to enter into eternal life?’ Jesus said, ‘Well, do you obey the commandments? The moral commandments?’ He said, ‘Yes I do.’ And Jesus said, ‘This one thing you need to do - sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and come and follow me.’ But that rich, young man - wealthy, influential - went away sad because he didn't want to part with his wealth. Here we have in Zacchaeus the completely opposite response of a man, who was probably equally wealthy, but he did the very thing that Jesus asked the other man to do: he sold his possessions; he gave to the poor; and he followed Jesus. On the previous occasion, Jesus had said, ‘It's very hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. It's like a camel going through the eye of a needle.’ a tiny little hole in the needle where you put your thread through when you're preparing to sew clothes together. It can't happen without a miracle, because riches and wealth put a huge obstacle in the hearts of people towards the things of God. But the wonderful thing is, in Zacchaeus' case, a miracle happened and money proved to be no obstacle to the coming of the Kingdom. He was willing to part with his possessions, to bring justice to the people he'd damaged through cheating and theft, and he was willing to follow Jesus.

And so, we conclude with this wonderful saying in verse 10,

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:10, NIV

On that day Jesus sought out Zacchaeus, he went to find him, he called him from up the tree, he called him down, called him to come and meet him together in Zacchaeus's house and he spoke to him, calling him to follow him, and he saved someone who was lost.


That's what Jesus' ministry was all about. The parables of Luke 15; the parable of The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Lost Son or The Prodigal Son, tell us that God is always seeking and saving lost people. That's the Church's responsibility too, and that's why this message is important. Some of you will feel, ‘Well, I'm that person who's lost. I'm controlled by materialism and wealth, and insecurity concerning my future.’ Can I speak to you? This message is coming to you because God, by his Spirit, is seeking you today. He wants you to change, like Zacchaeus; wants you to find a new and far better life where you put your trust in God, and in Jesus Christ, rather than in the material security that you've found yourself. If you're a member of the Church today, the message for us is clear, just as Jesus came to seek and save lost people, so the Church, following in his footsteps, must do the same thing. Thanks for listening.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. The rich Zaccheus was still seeking something more. Are you a seeker?
  • Discipleship
    1. What do you think happened next for Zaccheus?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to learn about tax collectors like Zaccheus in that society
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