The story of Zacchaeus is familiar territory, and familiar stories are dangerous. We tend not to stop and reread them. We come to the beginning of Luke 19 and say to ourselves, “I know this one.” And we move on.
We might remember Zacchaeus’ penitent heart. He was so sorry that he gave half of his possessions to the poor and declared he would repay everyone he defrauded four times more. The story ends with Jesus proclaiming “salvation has come to this house.” He reminded everyone within earshot that Zacchaeus is really one of them. He’s a child of Abraham too.
If we pause and spend some time in the story, we can catch the depth of his transformation. The story demonstrates several of Luke’s big ideas about the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Luke wants his audience to see how far Jesus goes to welcome outsiders, and Zacchaeus fits as a perfect outsider because everyone hates the tax collectors. The tax collectors were, by definition, rich. They had to purchase the right to collect taxes and they made their profit on what they charged above what they owed Roman empire. A close reading reminds us that Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector. He was a “chief tax collector” (19.1-2). Earlier in Luke, when some tax collectors asked John the Baptist what they were supposed to do, John told them, “Collect no more that the amount prescribed for you” (3.12-13). That would put them out of business.
Jericho was a big city. Herod had an extravagant palace there. So this would have been a fantastic place to be a chief tax collector. Zacchaeus probably had a staff of people collecting taxes on his behalf. It’s this hated outsider that not only gets a shout out from Jesus, but Jesus invites himself over for dinner. We don’t truly know what Zacchaeus thought about Jesus before meeting him. He could have just been curious. Or, he might have heard something about Jesus. Luke implies some eagerness when he describes Zacchaeus running ahead of the crowd to catch a glimpse (19.4).
When the crowd reached the tree where Zacchaeus found a vantage point, they didn’t just pass by. Jesus looked up and called out to Zacchaeus, “Hey man. Come on down. I’m coming over to your house for dinner.”
Jesus’ move was a startling breach of etiquette. People just didn’t do that. Inviting himself over accentuated his reputation for including outsiders. Earlier in Luke, some Pharisees and scribes asked his disciples, “Why does Jesus eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (5.30). Again and again, in Luke, Jesus welcomes the outsiders and invites them to experience a transformative new life. The character of faith and repentance means changing from the old self to become a new being in Christ. Jesus can invite people to experience transformation because he sits at the table in parity and acceptance of people like Zacchaeus. To the Pharisees, sitting down for a meal with someone meant approval of that person.
Faith, according to Luke, has an ethic. It’s not enough to simply say, “I believe in you.” It must be in here (heart). Faith shows in our actions. One’s life reflects what one believes. If we confess that Jesus is Lord, then our lives should reflect our confession. For Zacchaeus, this means dealing with reparations for the harm he has done. Saying, “I’ll stop cheating people from now on,” doesn’t do much for those he had already defrauded. In a close reading of this passage, and a desire to apply it to our lives, we end up having to deal with what we have, how we got it, and what came before us.
And I’m not going to lie to you or sugar-coat it, from any direction, Luke’s gospel is tough stuff. Reading Luke means having your toes bruised. I don’t know of any story in Luke that doesn’t subvert the social norms in some way. Luke was not only about transformation, but people’s lives reflecting transformation. For Zacchaeus, transformation into a new being meant giving away half of everything he had. Putting Luke 19 into the context of our study of food insecurity means asking how our bellies got full. Likewise, we can ask how someone else is hungry.
I remember when I first read about “fair trade” coffee. It was probably in the early 2000s and, shortly after reading about it, I saw a video about coyotes. Coyotes are coffee buyers for major corporations. They go to small farmers in poor, rural areas of Colombia and other coffee-growing countries. They offer a low set price to buy the coffee and if the farmer refuses, they simply didn’t buy any coffee and ensure the farmer can’t sell the coffee elsewhere. Fair trade coffee means paying everyone in the supply chain (from farmers to transportation to roasters, and so on) a living wage. That means fair trade coffee can be a little more expensive.
When I learned about fair trade coffee (and chocolate and bananas and tea and sugar and a lot more stuff), I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t buy non-fair-trade coffee and deceive myself into thinking that I was living out this Lukan ethic.
That’s what transformation does to us. It changes us from who we are into who God wants us to be. Now, it’s dangerous to use myself as an example because I’m still a sinner and a hypocrite.
Are there inconsistencies in my attempt to live out Luke’s ethics? Absolutely.
Do I judge people who drink Maxwell House coffee? Nope. Luke addresses that too. Luke 6.37, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
The story of Zacchaeus echoes Luke’s wider concern for the proper use of wealth and resources. Luke’s Jesus practices distributive justice, and the people who encounter him catch this vision. Whether Zacchaeus climbed the tree to get a glance at this guy who was all the rage, or he climbed up because he knew Jesus was special, it doesn’t matter. When he met Jesus and saw his face, Zacchaeus changed. His heart changed. The way he viewed the world changed.
I’ve known very successful people. There’s nothing wrong with success, unless that’s the only driver in a person’s life. Everyone has a choice. They can make possessions, success, and acquiring wealth the biggest drivers in their lives. Jesus addresses these people in Luke. He said that people like that already received their reward. “Woe unto you who are rich for you have your consolation” (6.24).
Jesus told several parables about people who missed the point. The Rich Fool (12.13-21), the Dishonest Manager (16.1-13), and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16.19-31)—all three parables show how easily wealth can become an idol. The story of Zacchaeus stands against these. He got it. He saw Jesus and made an honest assessment of his life.
His story provides us with an opportunity to assess our own lives. We can ask, if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves: What is God saying to us? What does it mean to us to encounter Jesus? How does my life reflect the transformation I’ve experienced in him? Maybe it’s something small, like trying to make sure we buy things made by people who received a living wage. Or, maybe God’s calling us to do something bigger, or radical.
Familiar stories are risky. It’s easy to hear them and think we know what they are about. If our understand of a story doesn’t include transformation into a new being, then we might not be reading it close enough. Let Zacchaeus’ grand gesture of heroic generosity inspire you to deeper faith and a life that testifies to Jesus in your heart.