Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham!” – Luke 19:9 (NET)
Jesus, in a move that was likely to have been viewed as shocking by many of its witnesses, went “to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” (19:7b). That man, of course, was Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was not only one of the hated tax collectors that worked in collusion with the Roman authorities and serving as a constant reminder of Israel’s continued subjection to a foreign power, but he was also tagged with the second epithet of being a “sinner” (someone who did not live up to covenant obligations). Luke informs his audience that Zacchaeus was, in fact, a “chief tax collector” (19:2), and that commensurate with such a position, he “was rich” (19:2).
When Jesus encounters Zacchaeus while passing through Jericho, He invited himself to the house of this rich, chief tax collector, saying “I must stay at your house today” (19:5b). Though it is not explicit in the text, one can certainly find an implication that Jesus was going to be sharing a meal with Zacchaeus, who was going to serve as His host. Now, this is not the first time that Jesus has made what some would consider to be a questionable choice in dining companions. The Gospel of Luke, and indeed all of the Gospels, are littered with accusations of Jesus dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” which simply was not perceived to be comely behavior for a man that was somewhat clearly presenting Himself as a messiah figure.
Beyond that, even when Jesus is not going to dine with those that are perceived to be the wrong people, and dines with the “right” people instead, He still comes in for criticism, be it for allowing a disreputable woman to wash His feet (chapter seven), or for not washing His hands (chapter eleven). Seemingly, Jesus can’t quite do things properly. Such is His burden.
Now, no record of Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus is provided. Luke moves from the complaint about Jesus to reporting that “Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!’” (19:8) Why Zacchaeus does this is left for the audience to determine. Clearly though, he is quite overwhelmed by Jesus’ presence. Perhaps he was also a witness to Jesus’ healing of the blind beggar, which was done “As Jesus approached Jericho” (18:35a)?
To that point, Luke write that “When all the people saw” this healing, “they…gave praise to God” (18:43b). Obviously “all” does not mean “all,” as it is a use of hyperbole, and one should not presume that Zacchaeus was part of this group that offered praise to the Creator God as a result of the healing of the blind man, but surely, even if he did not personally witness it, the news of this healing would have come to the ears of Zacchaeus, as tax collectors were certainly attuned to the local goings-on. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Zacchaeus is reported to have said these things after welcoming Jesus joyfully (19:6b), and presumably after hearing the complaints of the people.
It is Zaccheus’ expression of financial commitment that prompts Jesus’ statement of “Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham!” (19:9) Though this commitment by Zacchaeus and the resulting words from Jesus were probably surprises to Jesus’ audience, it would not necessarily come as a surprise to those that have been paying attention to Luke’s narrative. In fact, the story of Zacchaeus represents something of a summary of what has come before and is a vindication of Jesus’ teaching.
In chapter eighteen, Luke presents a parable from Jesus about “Two men” who “went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (18:10). In this parable, the tax collector “stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’” (18:13) Without need to recount it here, suffice it to say that the Pharisee’s prayer was somewhat different.
Jesus explains that “this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee” (18:14). Interestingly, if one went from the Temple to Jericho, one would be said to have “went down to his home” (to be fair, all are said to “go down” from Jerusalem) which fits nicely with the story of Zacchaeus (but Luke has also told the story of the “Good Samaritan, in which “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” (10:30a), so it is not at all difficult to surmise that Luke wants his audience to think of the tax collector “going down” to Jericho from the Temple). One also notices that this tax collector referred to himself as a sinner, which is also said of the tax collector Zacchaeus, which offers some additional symmetry to the accounts.