He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. – Luke 19:1-2a (ESV)
The first ten verses of the nineteenth chapter of Luke tell the story of Zacchaeus. As we go through this story of Zacchaeus, attempting to understand the truths conveyed herein, we must bear in mind to whom this Gospel of Luke has been written. It has been written to a Roman government official, a believer, presumably a Gentile, named Theophilus. That is important as it relates to this story.
It is said of Zacchaeus that “He was a chief tax collector and was rich” (19:2b). In this role, he would have been quite hated by a sizable majority of the people of Israel with whom he came into contact, as he worked to collect taxes on behalf of the oppressive Roman government. Thus, he served to perpetuate and enforce the rule that the people wished to throw off and bring to an end. For what it’s worth, he would also have been known as a publican.
The people of Jericho gathered to see Jesus, the one that they had heard about, and who some had come to believe might very well be the promised Messiah. Though there were many views of the Messiah, one that was quite prevalent was one in which the Messiah was the individual that had been purposely sent by their Creator God to overthrow those who presumed to rule over God’s chosen people. Not surprisingly, with the stir that the presence of Jesus created wherever He went, Zacchaeus wanted to see this Jesus as well.
It is reasonable to presume that he also would have been fully aware of what was implied by messianic claims, especially as it related to his own job and his livelihood. Normally, though he would have been the object of the scorn of the members of the family of Israel, being the chief tax collector would have afforded him a place of honor (though begrudging) when it came to significant happenings and public events, but in this case the people ignored him, which is understandable because of what was implied by all this talk of Messiah. Of course, as is generally noted when people talk of Zacchaeus, it did not help that “he was of small stature” (19:3b).
We all know how the story goes. Zacchaeus, this chief tax collector for Jericho, “ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He (Jesus) was about to pass that way” (19:4). Would that not have been an odd sight for the people of Jericho? Their hated chief tax collector, was climbing a tree so that he could get a glimpse of the Messiah, the One that was about to put him out of a job. Not only that, but he ran. Both of these activities were considered to be dishonorable, and a respectable man would not engage in them.
Putting aside the potential shame of climbing a tree (hints of Jesus’ own ignoring of shame to come when He would effectively “run ahead and climb a tree”?) Zacchaeus had elevated himself so that not only was he going to be able to see Jesus, but also so that Jesus could see him. It is likely that the people thought that Jesus, upon seeing Zacchaeus in the tree, would have some harsh words for him. However, something quite surprising happens when Jesus encounters part of Rome’s oppressive cabal. “When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried and came down and received Him joyfully” (19:5-6).