Commentary on Luke 19:1-10
As Jesus passes through Jericho, he comes to the end of his journey to Jerusalem.
Yet while his face is “set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53), he is not so preoccupied with his own fate that he cannot take time to notice others.
A number of important Lukan motifs have been compressed into this brief episode.
The simple act of noticing is not insignificant. Jesus has a gift for seeing and affirming what others do not (see Luke 5:27-28; 13:12; 20:1-3). It is unclear, however, if Zacchaeus wants to be noticed. Luke only says that he wants “to see who Jesus was” (verse 3). In contrast to those who directly approach Jesus (e.g., Luke 5:12-16; 9:37-43; 18:35-43), Zacchaeus appears to seek a comfortable distance. At the same time, his actions are extraordinary enough (running and climbing a tree would not have been proper adult behaviors) to suggest—perhaps—a nascent desire for something more. Regardless, Jesus does not need a direct petition to notice someone in need of fellowship. He meets even the most hesitant approach with the same compassion and mercy.
This brings us to the Lukan motif of social outreach and inclusion. In this uniquely Lukan scene, Zacchaeus’ marginalized status stems from his occupation as chief tax collector. Tasked with collecting Roman tariffs on transported goods, tax collectors held a less-than-virtuous reputation in first-century Jewish society. While the mere fact of Roman tariffs could have upset those living under Roman occupation, many tax collectors earned their reputation through over-charging. This seems to be the case with Zacchaeus.
The language of inclusion is particularly strong in the case of Zacchaeus, as Jesus tells him, “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” The language of “hurry” reciprocates Zacchaeus’ initial excitement in running ahead of the crowd (the same Greek word also describes the shepherds’ “haste” in seeking out the baby Jesus; Luke 2:16). The language of necessity (dei; NRSV: “must”) suggests that Jesus’ fellowship with Zacchaeus flows from the divine will (see also Luke 4:43; 13:16; 15:32; 24:7). This is no random encounter, then, but an integral stage of Jesus’ kingdom mission.
The language of public critique is also strong. The onlookers make the stereotypical association between tax collectors and “sinners,” but Luke describes this specifically as “grumbling” (diagonguzo, verse 7; see also Luke 15:2) Significantly, it is the same term used to describe the Israelites complaining against Moses in the wilderness (see Exodus 15:24; Numbers 14:2; Deuteronomy 1:27). With this scriptural echo Luke reinforces the high social cost that Jesus pays in associating with Zacchaeus. More importantly, he highlights just how radical Jesus’ mission appears to those who have grown comfortable with social stereotypes. As a tax collector—and especially a chief tax collector—Zacchaeus is seen as beyond redemption.
Of course, it would be a mistake to equate “social outsider” and “sinner.” In fact, Zacchaeus’ pronouncement (verse 8) is ambiguous in the Greek and could be construed as a clarification of his present behavior and thus a retort to public accusation. The trend in Luke, however, is to embrace the stereotypical association between tax collectors and sinners (Luke 3:12-13; 5:29-31; 15:1-31; 18:9-14) as a way to highlight the compassion of Jesus. Over the course of the narrative, tax collectors come to symbolize humanity in need of repentance and mercy. Note, for instance, that the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son—the consummate story of repentance and mercy—is prompted by Jesus’ fellowship with tax collectors and sinners (15:1). Jesus’ final affirmation of Zacchaeus echoes the conclusion of that parable: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (verse 10; see Luke 15:31). Thus the story of Zacchaeus, like that of Levi at the beginning of the Gospel (Luke 5:32), personalizes the motif of repentant tax collectors (on repentance, see also Luke 3:8; 17:3-4; 24:27; Acts 2:38; 11:18).
The economic nature of Zacchaeus’ repentance is also distinctively Lukan: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (verse 8). Of all the Gospels, Luke is the most interested in economic justice. Luke’s Jesus condemns the accumulation of wealth and possessions at the expense of the needs of the poor (see Luke 6:24-25; 12:13-34; 16:19-31), while the church endowed with Jesus’ Spirit ensures that none of its members go without (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37). It is fitting then, that Jesus’ public ministry concludes on a note of economic justice.
Finally, there is the theme of table fellowship. We can infer that Zacchaeus “welcoming” (verse 6) Jesus into his home implies social solidarity, solidarity set in motion by Jesus and consummated by the breaking of bread. This too is a strong Lukan theme, tying together the threads of social inclusion (Luke 14:1-14), repentance (Luke 5:29-32; 15:1-31), and even messianic banquet (Luke 14:15-23; 24:28-35). So when Jesus tells the disgruntled onlookers, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (verse 9), he is not referring only to Zacchaeus’ vow of repentance. Yes, there is a correlation between Zacchaeus’ repentance and his salvation. But it is Jesus who “has come to this house.” Jesus notices the distant outcast, enters into friendship with him, and, through that friendship, shapes him into a true son of Abraham.
There is a beautiful 1924 children’s book by Joan G. Thomas, titled If Jesus Came to My House.1 It is neither about Zacchaeus nor repentance. But it is a touching depiction of friendship with Jesus—not just receiving Jesus but giving oneself to Jesus.2 The book holds great potential for exploring what it means to “welcome” Jesus intimately and to live in light of that fellowship.
Joan G. Thomas, “If Jesus Came to My House.” Full text and pictures at http://www.collectiblechildrensbooks.com/2009/04/if-jesus-came-to-my-house.html.
- Watch oral performance of this work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Uq6BMPCJdo.
November 3, 2019