Hero photograph
Zaccheus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus
Photo by Painting by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum

A Man With an Amazing Plan — Luke 19:1

Kathleen Rushton RSM —

KATHLEEN RUSHTON writes that by misjudging Zaccheus in Luke 19:1– 10 we miss his vision for a better community.

For about four months, the Sunday gospels this year are from Luke’s account of the journey of Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. This journey begins in Lk 9:51 when Jesus “sets his face to go Jerusalem.” We are reminded they are “on the way” (Lk 9:56, 57; 10:38, 13:33), “on the way to Jerusalem” and passing through villages (Lk 9:52; 10:1; 13:22, 31). After leaving the Jordan River, Jesus was passing through the oasis town of Jericho (Lk 19:1) where there was one of the many palaces King Herod had built. From there, these travellers would begin their 27 kilometre ascent through the wilderness to go up to Jerusalem.

The first part of the travel narrative focuses on the qualities Jesus demands of those who follow him (Lk 9:51-14:33). The “gospel within the gospel” of Luke 15 is at the centre, followed by the second part which contains stories found only in Luke and sets out some of the obstacles which face those who follow Jesus. (Lk 16:1–19:10). This section ends with the story of Zacchaeus.

Who was Zacchaeus?

Zacchaeus, we are told, “was a chief tax collector and he was rich”. All is not what it seems to be. A clue is indicated by Zacchaeus’s name which comes from a Hebrew word meaning “clean, pure, innocent.” Biblical scholar, John Pilch, suggests that this story is about “Mr Clean, Mr Pure, Mr Innocent” — which is intriguing.

This story comes, as do all the gospel stories, from a world very different from modern western society. What we call economics, and how we understand economics, is very different from the ancient world. People believed that everything of value already existed, was limited in supply and was distributed already. Against this background “the poor” described people like widows and orphans who had fallen temporarily from their rightful place. A widow’s status could be restored through re-marriage and an orphan’s through adoption or when they grew into adulthood. “The rich” according to one understanding, were those who did not have to work for a living. And of course, “rich” could also mean greedy. Was this so with Zacchaeus?

Chief Tax Collector

The narrator describes Zacchaeus as a chief tax collector. At this time under Imperial Rome some local people and some cities contracted with the Roman administration to collect taxes for them in allotted areas. The contractors had to pay their areas’ taxes in advance and then set about collecting taxes with the hope of achieving a profit. In this rather risky business, chief tax collectors employed tax collectors to do the work. Tax collectors, including Levi who was known as Matthew, are found throughout Luke (3:12; 5:27, 29, 30; 7:29, 34; 15:1; 18:10, 11, 13).

Some tax collectors gathered direct taxes which were levied on land, crops and individuals. Others collected indirect taxes, such as tolls for crossing bridges, duties at markets and for goods and services. Tensions arose between collectors and those taxed. Few of these collectors would have been rich. However, some chief tax collectors would have been. There would have been honest and dishonest collectors. Those who watched the interaction between Jesus and Zacchaeus “began to grumble” because they assumed Zacchaeus was a sinner.

Zacchaeus’s Actions and Words

Short Zacchaeus “was trying to see Jesus” (Lk 19:3) and is unaware he is being sought (LK 19:5). He hurries down from the sycamore tree and welcomes Jesus. The word for welcome links him with Martha who receives Jesus as a guest (Lk 10:38); Simeon who receives the child Jesus (Lk 2:28) and those who receive the word of God (Lk 8:13; 9:48; 10:8;18:17). Zaccheus responds with joy to Jesus, as do those others.

In contrast to when Jesus tells a parable to defend the woman who anoints his feet, Zacchaeus defends himself (Lk 19:8). As he leads Jesus and his disciples to his house, Zacchaeus literally “stood”, stopping all movement forward, to deny publicly the accusations against him. First, he speaks in the present tense, not in the future tense as it is translated in English: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor.” The present tense in Greek has the sense of a repeated, ongoing practice.

Second, Zacchaeus uses a conditional clause: “If I have defrauded any one” which does not mean he has defrauded anyone consciously but if he discovers he has defrauded someone, he has an amazing plan. He will restore “fourfold,” that is, 400 per cent.

Jesus declares Zacchaeus “a son of Abraham” and as belonging to the reign of God for: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk19:9). These words echo those at the beginning of his ministry when Jesus declares that “today” the prophecy of Isaiah (Is 61:1–2 ) was being fulfilled, and also Jesus’ words to the dying thief: “Today you will be with me” (Lk 23:43).

Appearances are Deceptive

Zacchaeus, the rich chief tax collector, is perceived by the people to be corrupt yet he is found to be with those who follow Jesus by giving the poor what is rightly theirs (Lk 6:30–31, 38; 18:22) and by doing works of mercy (Lk 11:41; 12:33 eleēmosunē, derived from eleos mercy). In contrast, the pious, rich ruler perceived to have kept all the commandments, cannot sell what he owns and give to the poor (Lk 18:22). And lurking in the background are the grumbling ones also in need of conversion. Is it I, too, the reader?

An Amazing Plan for Today

Zacchaeus’s amazing plan to restore 400 per cent resonates with one of the radical challenges in Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ on Care for Our Common Home. Francis calls for a new global order in which the massive unpaid debts owed by the wealthiest, resource-greedy countries will be balanced against the development debts of the majority world. Francis describes the inequity that “affects not only individuals but entire countries”. He speaks of “a true ‘ecological debt’ [which] exists between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances, with effects on the environment; and the disproportionate use of natural resources by some countries over long periods of time ... The developing countries, where the most important reserves of biosphere are, continue to fuel the development of richer countries” (LS par 51–52).

There is no room for the globalisation of indifference. Francis speaks of differentiated responsibilities regarding climate change. We in developed countries must limit consumption and pay our debts to poorer countries by supporting policies and programmes for sustainable development.

In contrast to the biblical world view of limited goods, outlined previously, the dominant world view today is underpinned by a global order of neoliberal capitalism, exploitation of resources and greed. Like Zacchaeus, who stood up and declared his stand, we need to take a stand, no matter how small we feel, and state how in our actions — using the present tense — we respond to the cry of the poor and the cry of earth and declare that we too have an amazing plan: “If I have defrauded anyone...” 

Published in Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 209, October 2016.