[November 3, 2013] Today’s Gospel is the story of the little rich man Zaccheus whom Jesus sees, to whose home Jesus invites Himself, and who gladly frees himself of his wealth on account of Jesus. The poor often feel lost, but here Jesus declares that the rich also are lost and there is hope for them too in the Savior Who seeks us out wherever we are. In this wealthy nation where the rich create more poverty than jobs, and which mistreats and abuses its poor, this is a message that needs to be heard. The Christianity that it wears as a veneer is hypocritical when it privileges the rich instead of seeing wealth for the problem that it is. Zaccheus climbed a tree to see WHO Jesus is. If we would only see who Jesus is—that He is not someone we can predefine but Who reveals Himself on His own terms—we too might find the freedom and salvation that He gives.
Review (Luke 17:20—18:30)
In chapter 17 of Luke’s gospel Jesus told His disciples that He would not always be with them but that He would suffer many things and be rejected by this “generation” (the world of scattered Babel), a “generation” that would reject them too. He told them that in the days and years (and centuries) to follow, they were to keep themselves unattached, awaiting and ready for His coming in glory when He would take them to Himself and avenge their adversary. As they sought God in prayer, they were to keep themselves unencumbered by self-righteousness, having the attitude of little children, and they were to keep themselves unencumbered by wealth, and even by house and family. Whoever looks back or is held down by things, even inner attitudes, is not fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 18:1-30).
The Context (18:31—19:28)
Then in 18:31-34 Jesus takes the Twelve aside and tells them again that He is going to be handed over to the gentiles and be mocked, outrageously treated, and spat upon, and after being scourged, they will kill Him—“and on the third day He will rise.” We are on the eve of His entry into Jerusalem, near the end of His final journey from Galilee that began in chapter 9. He warned them before about His death in 9:22 and 9:44 and 13:33 and 17:25. And again we are told “they understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.” In this one verse we are told three times that the disciples—the Twelve no less—were deaf as to the meaning of Jesus’ words. The words were clear enough; perhaps they sought a “deeper” meaning that would obscure their plain sense. In any case, after all this time, the core male disciples were blind to the crux of the matter.
Though the text does not say they were blind, their incomprehension—even denial—of what Jesus plainly spelled out to them time and time again, can unarguably be described as blindness of soul.
Since the Gospel according to Luke sees Jesus through the lens of His apostolate and the apostolate of the church, this blindness is terribly significant. In the Acts of the Apostles (the continuation of this work) everything seems to hinge on whether the church—and in particular the apostolic workers—see the cross before them as well as behind them. Paul’s own life increasingly takes the form of the cross while those who oppose him “are enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18), Jews and fellow-disciples who desire not to be persecuted for the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:12). The churches that spread throughout the Mediterranean basin were founded on a vision of the cross (to whom Christ was openly portrayed as crucified, Galatians 3:1) and their success depended on whether they held fast and conformed to this vision, being “weak in Him” yet “living with Him” by the might of the power of God operating in them (2 Corinthians 13:3-4).
So if we are blind to the cross, we really miss everything. It is not surprising then that the following story tells of the blind beggar who receives his sight, and “began following Him.”
The story also has an underlying meaning with respect to Israel. Among the disciples it is the Twelve who are singled out in 18:31 as being particularly blind, the same Twelve whose failure was told so clearly in chapter 9 (and who were practically replaced in terms of their apostolate by the seventy or seventy-two in chapter 10). The Twelve were not simply apostles but were chosen to be eyewitnesses of Jesus from the beginning until His ascension into heaven (Acts 1). They were witnesses in particular to Israel, as Peter in the beginning of Acts makes clear. And they were chosen to judge (rule) Israel in the days of the kingdom (Luke 22:28-30). They have a special role therefore with respect to Israel. Yet they are still blind—as national Israel was—to the fact of the Messiah’s coming death, even though Jesus clearly told them. The death of the Messiah was an offence to the Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23), a stumbling block that many of them could not—and cannot—get over (Romans 9:32-33).
If this is the case, then it is appropriate that the blind beggar should, as if he represented Israel, cry out to Jesus, “Son of David! Have mercy on me,” again and again. He could have cried something else, but it is this Name, the Name that Jesus would bear as He enters the holy city on Palm Sunday as the King of Israel. Things are about to shift in the gospel. The focus until now has been on Jesus’ apostolate as the model of the church’s. Beginning in 19:28 the focus will be on God’s assize of Jerusalem and the end of Second Temple Judaism in the judgment of God, not only on account of Jerusalem but on account of the blindness of the “Judaizers,” those who harassed the apostles as they began to share the Gospel with gentiles, those who eventually sought to overthrow the yoke of the Romans, who could not bear to submit themselves to the discipline of God. The Day of the Lord would come upon Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Yet the promise remains that all Israel would one day see. The Spirit of grace would be poured out on them and they would look on Him Whom they had pierced and give to God the repentance that was due (Zechariah 12:10—13:1), and they—like the beggar in Luke 18:42—would be saved (Romans 11:26). “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you!” (the word sōzō, “saved,” is used in both Luke 18:42 and Romans 11:26).
The long teaching section of Luke from chapter 9 to 19 here almost comes to an end with the blind receiving their sight, always the first goal of teaching.
It does not quite end though. We are told yet another story about seeing in 19:1-10. Zaccheus is someone who was “seeking (zēteō) to see” Jesus, Who He was, and climbed a sycamore tree “in order to see Him.” Jesus, then, we are told (with a reversal of direction), “looked up” and saw him. Finally we are told that “the Son of Man has come to seek (zēteō) and to save (sōzō; remember 18:42) that which is lost.” And who is more lost than the one who cannot see?
19:11-28 seems to finally conclude this teaching section, but it actually introduces the section that follows. 18:31—19:28 is all transitional (Luke likes to have transitional pieces between sections to smooth the change). 18:31—19:10, with its allusions to Israel, looks forward to the section that follows in Jerusalem, but with its emphasis on blindness and seeing, it acts more to conclude the teaching section that began in chapter 9. 19:11-28 speaks to the disciples about their faithfulness with what they have been given, but more directly it speaks of what Israel has been given, and in particular the stewardship that has been given to Israel’s leaders, and this looks more ahead to the confrontation in the coming days.
Let us consider the story of Zaccheus.
Introduction: Zaccheus Wants to See Jesus (19:1-4)
Jesus “entered and was passing through Jericho.” Jericho is about seven miles from the Jordan, opposite the point where Joshua had Israel cross the river, and is about fifteen miles northeast of Jerusalem. It was famous for its palm trees and balsam. It was a favorite residence for priests when they were not engaged in temple services; it was also important for commerce and trade, and therefore was a headquarters for tax collectors. Priests and tax collectors rubbed shoulders, but did not mingle. It was the natural route for Jesus to take on His way from Perea to Jerusalem.
Jericho was destroyed by God in Joshua 6 and its rebuilding was prohibited under a curse in Joshua 6:26. It incurred, nevertheless, in the days of King Ahab in 1 Kings 16:34 (though prior to this refortification it was inhabited; see Judges 3:13 and 2 Samuel 10:5). Later it became the site of a school of the prophets under Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-22), who sweetened the waters of a nearby spring. On the plains of Jericho Zedekiah fell into the hands of the Chaldeans (Jeremiah 39:5; 52:8); and 345 of its inhabitants are mentioned as having returned from Babylon under Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:34; Nehemiah 3:2; 7:36). Anthony gave its revenues to Cleopatra, and Herod the Great rebuilt and ornamented it. He also founded a new town higher up on the plain than the old site. After the palace was plundered and destroyed by a slave of Herod, it was rebuilt by Archelaus who also replanted the plains with palm trees.
Zaccheus’—Zakkai—is a Jewish name: it appears in the list of the Jews who returned with Zerubbabel from Babylon (Ezra 2:9; Nehemiah 7:14) and also in 2 Maccabees 10:19. It means pure, clean, or innocent, and while the man himself was certainly not innocent, it is not without significance as the story turns out. Nevertheless, the reason Luke tells us his name is probably because he was still accessible as an eyewitness to the Gospel story. At the time of this story, however, he was a tax collector, and not only a tax collector, but a chief tax collector, probably the agent who had the general supervision of the tax collectors of the province. There is no surprise, therefore, when Luke tells us that the man was rich. The implication is that his wealth came from collecting taxes. It almost necessarily follows that he practiced extortion and defrauded people.
When he heard that Jesus was passing through, he wanted to see Jesus. Luke said he wanted to see “Who He was,” that is, the kind of person He was. Obviously he had heard of Jesus: not only was Jesus well known among the people, but within the circles of tax collectors everyone must have heard of Him (see Luke 15:1). Yet Zaccheus had never seen Jesus, and thought perhaps he could make a better estimation of the Man if he could lay his eyes on Him. The crowd however would not make way for him, and he was short. It is doubtful that they would have given him any room, considering that he was a tax collector, regardless of his reputation as a man of wealth (or even because of it).
His solution was to run ahead and climb a sycamore tree. Thus perched above their heads he could get a view of Jesus in the crowd. Excavators of Herodian Jericho compare the city to Rome, Tivoli and Pompeii where trees grew in parks, villas, avenues and public squares. The sycamore tree is not like the one in front of my old house, which is in the maple family. Rather, this sycamore is the Egyptian fig tree, which flourishes in the plains and valleys and has low, wide-spreading horizontal branches and therefore is easy to climb. The fact that Zaccheus was willing to climb it tells us something about him, his resoluteness, his willingness to appear foolish, and perhaps his boyishness.
Jesus Sees Him (19:5-6)
His intent was to see Jesus, but Jesus also makes a point of seeing him. Jesus comes to where he is and looks up at him in the tree and says, “Zaccheus,” calling him by name, “hurry and come down, for today I must stay in your house.” Jesus probably caught his name from the remarks and jeers of the crowd. He uses this knowledge to speak directly to the man (as He speaks to us). Jesus says to him that He must stay in his house, meaning that it was His great desire to do so. Furthermore, He uses the word “stay” (menō: abide) which indicates that He desires to use his house for accommodations; He wants to dine with him and stay for a while, probably overnight. See Revelation 3:20 (“I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me”). Zaccheus hurries down from the tree and receives Him into his home gladly.
It is an important thing to see Jesus (John 12:21), and to know “Who He is,” to know Him, but it is quite another thing to be seen by Him (and even to be known by Him). I am reminded of our desire for Him to “lift up His countenance” on us (Numbers 6; the Psalms), the countenance being the part of the face of which the eyes are most prominent. It was His look that melted Peter, after all (Luke 22:61). For Him to look upon us is so much more than the physical look. It means He notices us; He takes note of us; we become the focus of His attention. His “I am” looks into the heart of who I am; our face-to-face encounter becomes deeply person: His Person turns me into a person in relation to Him. At that moment, before I am, He is. What then? (In our relationship with each other, do we really look at each other? Or is it all busyness and action?)
Jesus also sees us, calls us by name, and invites Himself into our lives. We shrink back, thinking we are unworthy, but He knows who and what we are and has invited Himself. Open up and make room for Him; He will not bite your fingers off! Nor will He condemn the company you keep or how you keep your house. He is interested only in you. He is not expecting you to fix up your house first before you let Him in. That would certainly grieve Him if you act like this. When He makes Himself at home with you, all He wants is your attention, and affection. That is all. If afterwards you want to fix things—and they probably will not be the same things you first thought to fix—then it will be the natural and right thing to do.
What People See (19:7)
When Jesus went to Zaccheus’ house, the crowd, and the neighbors, “see” and all started to murmur and grumble. Even though it was a common complaint about Jesus that He ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:30; 15:2), and Jesus had just spent from chapter 14 making the case for His doing just that, it still surprised the people of Jericho. For while the city was headquarter to tax collectors, it was also a place of business people and a retreat for priests, and surely, as Jesus was about to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, He might have prepared for the holy festivities with better company. The offence of Jesus’ actions did not dampen because they were consistent with what He had been doing all along. The people still felt snubbed by Him; He preferred the company of these sinners, they felt. “It is one thing to visit with this tax collector—we get your point—but must you be his guest? Honestly! The man is a sinner. Would you not rather stay with decent folk?”
Zaccheus Declares Himself: “Look” (19:8)
Zaccheus was aware of this. Inside the house, probably as they reclined around a dining table—if they were indeed in his house at this point—Zaccheus stood up and spoke. This indicated the effort and resolve on his part that it was taking to say what he was about to say. It was an announcement before Jesus and the others who were in the house with him, not only the other tax collectors but probably his family and household.
Zaccheus announces, “Behold”—another word that means, “look or see,” with the nuance of to “pay attention”—“Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and whatever I have taken from anyone by false accusation, I will give back four times as much.” Let us take this apart: “I will give” (didōmi) is actually in the present tense though it has a future connotation. It has a future connotation when it is something firmly resolved upon or certain (examples: Matthew 26:2; Luke 12:54; John 14:3; Colossians 3:6). It cannot be that Zaccheus means that he is in the habit of giving away half of his goods (though some commentators make the case that he only means half of his income, though the word for goods does not have this signification: it means possessions). Concerning the second half of his announcement, the word “if” (ei) occurs in the original, but suggests less doubt than it does in English. It implies that “the condition being true, that which results from it is to be regarded as real and certain.” Zaccheus is not saying, if perchance he has happened to have taken anything from anyone by a false accusation, but rather, whenever he has. False accusation (the same word is used in Luke 3:14) was a common method of extortion practiced by tax collectors (see Luke 3:12-13). It was, in fact, so much a part of the system that an honest tax collector could probably not make a living, much less become rich by it. Though the word for restore is in the present tense, it has a future sense. It does not mean that Zaccheus was in the habit of robbing people and then restoring their goods, but that this is what he is about to do.
If Zaccheus gave half his possessions to the poor and restored fourfold what he had defrauded, he would not only no longer be rich, he probably would not have much left. In this case, he stands as a contrast to the rich man who became very sad and walked away from Jesus (Matthew 19:22) when Jesus told him to “sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor” (Luke 18:22-23).
Jesus teaches His disciples to live simply, in terms of their material condition, if He is not telling them outright to be voluntarily poor. “Watch and guard yourself from all covetousness,” He told the crowd in 12:15 when someone asked Him to tell his brother to divide the inheritance, “for no one’s life,” Jesus says, “is in the abundance of his possessions.” To His disciples Jesus said, “Sell your possessions and give alms; make for yourselves purses which do not become old, an unfailing treasure in the heavens, where thief does not come near nor even moth corrupts” (12:33). In 14:33 He told the crowds, “Every one of you who does not forsake all his own possessions cannot be My disciple.” In 16:1-13 He told His disciples a parable about the unrighteous mammon and how we must, with the time that we have left before the Judgment, become faithful with it as something that belongs to Another, for no one can serve two masters: “You cannot serve God and mammon.” In 16:19-31 He told another parable condemning the selfishness of the rich. In 17:31-32 He warned His disciples to be ready to forsake their possessions when the Son of Man is revealed: “In that day, he who will be on the housetop and his goods in the house, let him not come down to take them away, and he who is in the field, likewise, let him not turn back to the things behind. Remember Lot’s wife!” Possessions are things to which the soul is attached (see Luke 12:16-23 where the word translated “life is psyche, soul), and “whoever seeks to preserve his soul will lose it, and whoever loses it will preserve it alive” (17:33). It was still in this context that He told “a certain ruler” to “sell all that you have and distribute [the proceeds] to the poor, and you will have treasure in the heavens” (18:22; compare this with what He told His disciples in 12:33). So much for the system of capitalism!
Leviticus 6:5 and Numbers 5:6-7 says that a thief must restore whatever he has stolen plus another twenty percent. In the case of a sheep, a thief was to restore four sheep for every one he has stolen (Exodus 22:1; 2 Samuel 12:6). Not only was Zaccheus freeing himself from the burden of his wealth, he was also making restitution. We cannot always make good the damage we have done in the past, but we can make some sort of restitution. It shows that we recognize the harm we have caused. This restitution is a way for Zaccheus to be done with his past, to cut the cords (of debt) that bind him to others so that these cords do not follow him into his new future (see 17:31-32).
Jesus’ Declaration (19:9-10)
This was enough to show Jesus that Zaccheus was repenting. Jesus not only welcomed tax collectors and sinners, and they came to Him as their Friend, but they also repented, and He expected as much. Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” I think Jesus means more than the mere fact that He had come to Zaccheus’ domicile. The word for house also means household, meaning not only the family (however extended) but also the servants and slaves who served them—everyone under the roof. It may be that Jesus was not only referring to the physical house in which they were but also to Zaccheus’ household—salvation has come to them. Apparently the rest of the family and its servants were in concurrence with Zaccheus when he made his announcement. The whole household was repenting.
That Zaccheus was recognized as a “son of Abraham,” just as the crippled woman was recognized as a “daughter of Abraham” (13:16), means more than that they were Jewish (see Luke 3:8). It refers to their election. In the case of the woman in chapter 13 that election was based purely on the mercy of God (she had done nothing except be in need). In Zaccheus’ case, Jesus is clearly referring to his repentance. Zaccheus had shown himself to be like Abraham (Romans 2:28-29; 4:16-17; Galatians 3:7, 29). Zaccheus demonstrated his faith when he declares that he—like Abraham leaving Ur—is leaving his possessions and way of life behind him (compare also 17:31-33).
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Jesus is alluding to Ezekiel 34:16: “I [the true Shepherd of Israel] will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.” This was the major theme in chapters 14—17:19. Zaccheus was seeking, we are told in verse 3, but here Jesus says that it is Jesus who is seeking—seeking that which was lost. The parables in chapter 15 are all about how He seeks and saves those who are lost. This is Jesus’ answer to those who complain about His staying with a man who is a sinner. Not only does He seek the lost but He saves them—they repent.
The reference to the “Son of Man” still refers to the apocalyptic Son of Man of Daniel 7:9, only here it is this glorious coming One in His hiddenness, His humility, seeking out the lost of Israel before He comes in judgment. The title, therefore, has a certain irony to it.
Had Jesus been seeking for Zaccheus when He looked up at him and said that He must stay at his house? It is like in John 4:4 where John says Jesus “had to” pass through Samaria where He met the woman by the well. I do not mean that Jesus had a foreknowledge of who He would meet, but it was all in the providence of God. Nevertheless, Jesus was seeking for the lost ones such as these, and found them.
I am assuming these words were spoken in the house in the presence of Zaccheus’ household and friends. It could be that they were spoken while they were still under the fig tree, though I think this less likely. Zaccheus’ household and friends would not have been there but the neighbors who despised him were. It would have taken quite a bit of courage on Zaccheus’ part to say that he would restore fourfold whatever he had defrauded, for these people would certainly hold him to his word. Jesus however might still have accepted that Zaccheus spoke for his household. Jesus’ own words would then have been addressed to the crowd, telling them that Zaccheus too is a son of Abraham (as they were, that is, he is not outcast from Israel), and that He, the Son of Man has come to seek and to save people such as Zaccheus, whom they considered “lost.”
In 18:34 the disciples (the Twelve) cannot see. In 18:35-43 a beggar has faith and receives his sight and is saved. And in 19:1-10 a sinner who is looking is seen, and repents and is saved. The first story (18:31-33) is the baseline; the goal is reached with Zaccheus. The blind man who now can see is saved and follows Jesus. The sinner who at last is seen, follows Jesus by giving away his wealth, and thus demonstrates that he has been saved—and is a son of Abraham. He demonstrates what it means to be fit for the kingdom of God.
This story captures many of the themes of Luke. In chapter 4 the theme of Jubilee was introduced, and we saw many cases in which Jesus brought the liberation of the Jubilee to people. This story that comes at the end of Jesus’ ministry just before He enters Jerusalem as its King and Judge is another example of liberation. Zaccheus was a rich man who was “saved” from his wealth—as was his household—and he was a sinner who was saved from the captivity of his sin, and thus participated in the Jubilee that Jesus brings no less than the leper whom Jesus liberated from his uncleanness in chapter 5.
Other themes that are captured here: Zaccheus’ letting go of his wealth demonstrates the material from chapters 17:20—18:30 (he is a rich man unencumbering himself of his wealth by giving to the poor and bringing closure to his past); and his outcast status demonstrates the entire block of material from chapters 14—17:19 (he is a repentant tax collector eagerly seeking to see Jesus; Jesus inviting Himself to stay with him shows Jesus associating and eating with sinners, and seeking the outcasts of Israel; Zaccheus’ “salvation” demonstrates Jesus seeking and saving the lost as in the three parables in Luke 15). There are echoes to themes in chapters 12 and 13 as well, on repentance and material possessions. Of course, the story also recalls the story of Levi in 5:27-32. There too Jesus invites a tax collector, who leaves all behind to follow Jesus; there too people (there it was Pharisees and their scribes) murmur that Jesus is eating and drinking with the tax collectors and sinners; and there too Jesus is calling sinners to repentance (seeking and saving the lost).
The Homilies of Clementine and the Recognitions of Clementine (the Pseudo-Clementine writings from the third or fourth century) tell us that Zaccheus was appointed the bishop of Caesarea by Peter against his will. Clement of Alexandria identified him with Matthias. These are probably fictions, but that the Christian Zaccheus was available as an eyewitness of the Gospel at the time that Luke published his gospel scroll in 56 CE is at least (probably) true.