The Untouchables – The Tax Collector

The Untouchables – The Tax Collector

The Untouchables – The Tax Collector. 

“And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house!’ So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.” (Luke 19:5-6).

Please read the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10).

Zacchaeus is 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 demanding extra taxes from the Jews. Zacchaeus was a thief and 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 the tax collectors.

As one would 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 unclean themselves. How ironic that his name means “pure and innocent one.” 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, Jericho 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 really care. He wanted to see this man Jesus he was hearing so much about. So here comes Jesus, jostled by the crowds, bumping his way down the street, and He saw this little man Zacchaeus perched in the branches of the tree by the roadside. 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 said, “Come down from there! Let’s do lunch at your place!” One wonders how Zacchaeus got down from that 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 obeyed rabbinic law and promised four-fold returns on his thievery, and 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 within listening distance had heard their conversation, but he didn’t seem to mind their whispering and grumbling. Most of the muttering was directed at Jesus, the unpredictable holy man who surprisingly made such intimate contact with a despised outcast, risking religious impurity in the process.

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

Jesus concludes this scene by saying that salvation had come to this house, and that Jesus did what He did because He came to seek and to save the lost. And He was good to His word. Jesus announced, in another controversial action, that Zacchaeus was a Jew in good standing, calling him a “son of Abraham.” Most of the Jews didn’t want to hear that, and wouldn’t even consider it. Jesus was unafraid to risk popular rejection and religious condemnation to touch the untouchable. Finally, Zacchaeus was as good as his name. And Jesus proved once again that He is the lover of the lost.

“After these things Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi Matthew, sitting at the tax office. And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ So Matthew left everything, rose up, and followed Jesus. Then Levi gave Jesus a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. And the scribes and the Pharisees complained against the disciples of Jesus, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”  (Luke 5:27-32).

When talking about the untouchable tax collector, we can’t forget about the writer of the first Gospel in Scripture. Jesus walked straight to the tax office, and officially welcomed Matthew into the select group of disciples. Of course Jesus and Matthew rubbed shoulders for three years during the ministry. Was Jesus ever ashamed to have Matthew in His group of followers? No. He had no qualms about inviting someone who was considered unclean into His group of special students. After an all-night prayer session, Jesus received His marching orders from the Father about who should become an all-important apostle, and so we can take it that the Father Himself wanted to have Matthew, a reviled tax collector and outcast, as a select disciple of the Lord, a future leader of the Church.