A Whimsical Dictionary: Z is for Zacchaeus

A Whimsical Dictionary: Z is for Zacchaeus

A Whimsical Dictionary of Surprising Influences.

Z is for Zacchaeus –

The main character in a brief story in Luke 19. He was a rich embezzler with good climbing skills. Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Roman IRS, a Jewish man with no conscience who got wealthy by collaborating with the hated Roman occupiers. He would collect Roman taxes and then pocket some extra cash by stealing extra taxes from the Jews. Zacchaeus was a turncoat, a traitor to his own people. In fact, he was so good at this slimy bit of extortion that he was the chief publican, a sort of godfather of tax collectors.

As you can expect, Zacchaeus was reviled by all Jews. He wasn’t even allowed to worship with them, because he was considered a public sinner, and thus ritually impure. Jews couldn’t even enter his house without becoming impure themselves. How ironic that his name meant clean, pure. Zacchaeus was the kind of guy who had no friends, only enemies, among his people. Somehow, since he was raking in so much dough, he didn’t seem to care.

So one day Zacchaeus heard that this traveling, miracle-working rabbi was coming to town. Jericho was on the road to Jerusalem, and these were the days leading up to Passover, so the city was mobbed with pilgrims. Jericho was a gateway to Roman-controlled territory, and was a thriving economic center, mostly because Jericho was headquarters for producing and exporting balsam, a popular commodity. Naturally, it was a major tax collecting site. The Romans weren’t stupid. Jericho was the area’s financial district, and the more they could tax the people, the better they could finance the Roman army. Jericho was just the place for a corrupt entrepreneur like Zacchaeus.

Because he was short in stature, he couldn’t see over the crowds when Jesus walked by. So he cleverly climbed a huge sycamore tree and sat in the branches, probably kicking out a few children in the process. He didn’t care. He wanted to see this man Jesus he was hearing so much about. Here comes Jesus, jostled by the crowds, bumping his way down the street, and He saw this little man Zacchaeus perched in the branches. Jesus stopped and looked up, and everybody else stopped as well to see what was going on. And Jesus did an amazing and shocking thing. Jesus called out to the little man by name and then said, “Come down from there! Let’s do lunch at your place!” One wonders how he got down from the tree. Frederick Buechner suggested he fell down out of pure astonishment.

The fact that Jesus knew this slimeball by name, knew him for what he was, accepted him, and wanted his company, so much as to invite himself over to his house! Shocking. Zacchaeus was overwhelmed into repentance. He immediately promised restitution to those he had cheated, and he topped it off by saying he would give half his wealth to the poor. Zacchaeus knew that everyone around them in the crowd had heard their conversation, but he didn’t seem to mind their whispering and grumbling. Most of the muttering was directed at Jesus, the brilliant holy man who surprisingly made such intimate contact with a despised outcast, risking religious impurity in the process.

Legend has it that Zacchaeus indeed made good on his promises, and started following Jesus. In fact, he was reportedly the first bishop of Caesarea years later. Zacchaeus turned out to be the polar opposite of the rich young ruler who Jesus had met so recently (Luke 18). One had wealth and wouldn’t give it up. One had wealth and did.

Jesus concludes the scene by saying that salvation had come to this house, and that He did what He did because He came to seek and save the lost. And He was good to His word. Jesus was unafraid to risk popular rejection and religious condemnation to touch the untouchable. Finally, Zacchaeus was as good as his name. And Jesus, He proved once again that He is the lover of the lost.