Zacchaeus Converted
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man called by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:1-10, NASB)

ZACCHAEUS’ STORY: TWO NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVES 
During the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector for the city of Jericho. We read about him in Luke’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10) as he encounters Christ. The common interpretation of this scripture—the one that I’ve heard from pastors on multiple occasions—serves as a powerful message of our Lord’s grace and salvation for the repentant.

There is another narrative perspective, however, that warrants consideration. This second narrative involves group prejudice, and the subsequent societal discrimination of a righteous man. If adhering to this alternative perspective of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Christ, we receive a cautionary tale of how group prejudices negatively shade our perceptions of reality.

These two narratives are distinctly different interpretations based upon our presuppositions of Zacchaeus’ character and integrity, with theologians and pastors offering compelling arguments for each. From what I can discern, both narratives appear to offer complementary messages that follow scriptural hermeneutics. Thus, both are shared herein.

This writing will first consider the implications derived from the more common narrative, which perceives Zacchaeus to be a corrupt and highly-immoral individual; extorting money from his fellow Jews. Then, it will examine implications from the alternative narrative, which assumes Zacchaeus to be an honorable man whose public reputation is attributable to societal prejudices against tax collectors. To conclude, application recommendations pertaining to these narrative messages will be provided.

DESPICABLE ZACCHEUS: CLIMBING ABOVE HIS CIRCUMSTANCES
Zacchaeus, Jericho’s chief tax collector, is known throughout the city as an embezzler and extortionist. He is deservedly held with the same repute as prostitutes and lepers. He is conducting his affairs as a crowd forms by the road. He can hear voices say, “It’s Jesus of Nazareth and His disciples.”

The crowd quickly grows, as stories of Jesus’ miracles precede Him. He is a healer, and speaks in a manner unlike other rabbis. They want to see Him, and to hear His teachings. Many are hopeful to catch sight of His next miracle.

There are even suggestions that the Nazarene may be the Messiah foretold in prophecy…

Upon hearing the news of Jesus’ presence in Jericho, Zacchaeus experiences an emotion that he has not felt for some time: hope. This Rabbi is rumored to associate with sinners and those of low status. Like many in Jericho, Zacchaeus desires to see this Jesus of Nazareth. Small in stature, the chief tax collector struggles to catch a glimpse of the Rabbi as He passes through the city. A thought enters his mind: Who knows when next this Jesus will pass through Jericho?

Hope is now accompanied by a sense of desperation. He must see this Rabbi from Nazareth! Further down the road, there is a Sycamore tree. If he hurries ahead and climbs the tree, he should be able to look upon Jesus. He runs towards the Sycamore with little thought of the many who view such behavior as unseemly; climbing the tree without hesitation. When Jesus reaches the place where the road passes the Sycamore tree, He looks up at him and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”

Zacchaeus is astounded, wondering to himself: How does Jesus know me by name?!? His astonishment, however, does not delay his descent from the tree as he hurries to receive the Rabbi. He does not wish to allow time for Jesus to reconsider. The chief tax collector, unfamiliar with acceptance, cannot restrain his joy; being in a state of elation.

His joy in hosting the Rabbi is then interrupted by those in the crowd grumbling, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Remorse for his immoral behavior now permeates his heart. His wealth has never brought him any joy comparable to that which he feels in the presence of the Nazarene. In fact, his wealth has caused him constant misery and loneliness. Maintaining the approval of his new house guest is all that he desires.

In this moment, Zacchaeus realizes that he must repent of his sinful ways and reject the practices that led him to accrue his substantial wealth and power. Moreover, he concludes that it is also necessary to amend his wrongs. He turns to Jesus and says, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.”

As his oath of restitution for past wrongs departs from his lips, Zacchaeus feels an overwhelming sense of relief. Then, Jesus replies with words that Zacchaeus will forever remember: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Receiving absolution for a lifestyle that he had long ago come to despise—but had believed to be inescapable—Zacchaeus now feels nothing but peace and joy.

He is no longer the man that he was only moments earlier, and never will he be again.

The Narrative’s Message: [First] Those undeterred by their circumstances when pursuing Christ are offered relationship with Him. Moreover [Second], Christ’s forgiveness is available to anyone who seeks Him with a repentant heart (i.e. exhibiting genuine remorse and turning away from their sinful behaviors).

These two elements of this narrative message are inseparable. For us to climb above our circumstances is tantamount to surrendering our lives to the Lord. When seeking (and then maintaining) a relationship with Christ holds utmost importance for us, we will overcome our sinful ways:

“Behold, 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. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:20-22, NASB).

Justifications For The Alternative Narrative: Jewish tradition believes that Shiv’im Panim l’Torah: “The Torah has 70 faces.” As God’s Word, scripture has greater depth than what is solely on the surface. Therefore, those who study the Torah generally permit scriptural inferences (i.e. exegesis) to fall within four main categories. These four categories create an acronym, “PaRDeS,” which means “orchard” or “garden,” possibly referring to the restoration of Eden.

pardes

Christian theologians may use PaRDeS or a similar apostolic method called the “Quadriga” (credit Thomas Aquinas for the method’s name) to interpret scripture: This method also considers scripture through four interpretive layers:

  • Literal (i.e. what is plainly stated)
  • Allegorical (i.e. symbolic)
  • Tropological (i.e. broad, metaphorical moral implication)
  • Anagogical (i.e. mystical interpretation, only possible through the Holy Spirit)

Interestingly, the two Zacchaeus narratives are both literal interpretations; operating under differing contextual assumptions. Such interpretive scenarios support the argument that context always matters.

The more common narrative is dependent on the belief that Zacchaeus is a person of the worst sort. When introducing Zacchaeus, Luke focuses on his profession and his wealth. Tax collectors during this time were considered traitors to their people; working on behalf of the Roman Empire. In stating that Zacchaeus was wealthy, many deduce that he achieves that wealth by adhering to the period’s tax collection norms; embezzling and extorting others. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, we read of Jesus sharing a parable that compares a presumably immoral tax collector to a self-righteous Pharisee. The parable’s lesson—where He states the tax collector to be more justified in God’s eyes—must surprise His audience:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:10-14, NASB).

Subsequently, with Luke sharing Zacchaeus’ story in the next chapter of his gospel account, it is not far-fetched to see the story serving as a real-life continuation of that earlier parable’s message. But what is Jesus’ intended message in that earlier parable?

Does Jesus intend to focus on the power of forgiveness, or, is the emphasis more about challenging how others perceive righteousness based on professions? Or, does Jesus intend to communicate both messages? (Note: this is my belief). Of course, we only know that the tax collector humbly admits his sinfulness in prayer. He is a sinner. Yet, are any of us different, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NASB)? Again, while we must comprehensively consider context within scripture, are we unnecessarily narrowing the context of this narrative?

For instance, while some scriptural translations of Luke 19:8 use a future tense, the use of a present tense interpretation is also acceptable. The reason for this interpretive flexibility is due to the original Greek writing being composed in the present tense, which can sometimes be translated by Semitic languages to represent a present-future intention. Therefore, Zacchaeus’ response to the crowd’s murmurs may be stated as a remedy-positioned future tense:

“Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8, NASB).

Or, his response may be stated as a vindication-positioned present tense:

“Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (Luke 19:8, CEB).

Further, when considering the math remunerations stated by Zacchaeus, he would be unable to give half of his wealth to the poor if more than an eighth of his fortune is acquired dishonestly. While neither confirming nor refuting either interpretation, such understanding—if Zacchaeus is, in fact, a despicable tax collector—helps determine the possible scope of his corrupt behavior.

Another argument for Zacchaeus being an honorable man is his name. The name Zacchaeus means “pure.” As I mention in a previous work, scriptural subtext is often communicated by the meanings attributed to names. What if, as an already wealthy man, Zacchaeus secures the Chief Tax Collector position to protect his people from extortion? Unfortunately, if this is true, then he is the victim of perception, because his fellow Jews resent paying a tax to the Romans. They associate him with Roman oppression, and consider him to be a traitor; being one of “them.”

Lastly, the language that Luke uses in telling Zacchaeus’ story differs from what he uses in his earlier repentance stories (see Luke 5:20; 7:47; 15:21; 18:13). The repentant explicitly state their sinfulness, and/or Jesus explicitly forgives the individual for their sins. This is not so with Zacchaeus. And, if we assume that Zacchaeus is a righteous man, when Jesus states that “Today, salvation has come to this household, because he, too, is a son of Abraham (Luke 19:9, NASB),” it may suggest that Zacchaeus’ story is more about inclusion (as a societal outsider due to prejudice) than conversion (though, neither does it reject the belief that he is converted). What if Jesus is using the word “salvation” as a metaphorical representation of Himself?

Or, there is the possibility that Zacchaeus’ story is more complex than either narrative. What if he is one of the reformed tax collectors that are baptized by John the Baptist (Luke 3:12-13)? Once crooked, he is now fulfilling his tax collecting responsibilities with integrity.

For creating a narrative for the alternative interpretation, let us assume that Zacchaeus was baptized by John, and is an honorable man; conducting his affairs with integrity before and after being dunked in the Jordan River. The following narrative is developed under these assumptions.

RIGHTEOUS ZACCHAEUS: PURSUIT SEEN THROUGH OTHERS’ PREJUDICE
While collecting taxes from a store owner, Zacchaeus also receives from a subtle—yet still overt—look of disgust. It is, unfortunately, a common occurrence. The palpable loathing his fellow Jews exhibit towards him is relentless. On days like today, when he must collect taxes from store owners, he is left emotionally drained. He thinks to himself: Why do they loathe me so much? Do I not demonstrate integrity when conducting my affairs? Do I not expect the same integrity from those who work for me?

From the distance a crowd is forming alongside the city’s main thoroughfare. The name “Jesus of Nazareth” is heard among the voices in the crowd. Zacchaeus feels a sudden rush of adrenaline throughout his body. No longer is he drained, but excited.

Zacchaeus has heard of this Rabbi. People say that John the Baptist proclaim Him to be the Messiah of prophecy. Since being baptized by John, Zacchaeus has been anxiously waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Supposedly, Jesus associates with sinners and those of low societal standing. Maybe Jesus will allow me to host Him, Zacchaeus thinks to himself. Then he reconsiders: No, there is no way. And yet, a small semblance of hope remains with him.

The crowds around the road are already thick with onlookers. Small in stature, Zacchaeus is unable to see the Rabbi and His disciples as they pass. He remembers that there is a Sycamore tree further down the road. If he runs, he should be able to reach the tree before Jesus arrives. By climbing the tree, he should be able to see above the thick mass of onlookers that surround the Rabbi.

Zacchaeus races to the sycamore and climbs its branches for a good vantage point of the road. When Jesus reaches the place where the road passes Zacchaeus’ sycamore tree, He looks up at him and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”

Zacchaeus is astounded, wondering to himself: How does Jesus know me by name?!? His astonishment, however, does not delay his descent from the tree as he hurries to receive the Rabbi. He does not wish to allow time for Jesus to reconsider. The chief tax collector, unfamiliar with acceptance, cannot restrain his joy; being in a state of elation.

His joy in hosting the Rabbi, however, is quickly interrupted by those from the crowd grumbling aloud, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Rarely does Zacchaeus address the vitriol directed towards him. In some ways, he can understand their perspective. They see him as a traitor—someone who aids the Roman Empire. What they do not understand is how he protects them from abuses of power; whereas, another may exploit them with the authority they receive from Rome. And anyway, why should he defend himself when none would listen? In this instance, however, Zacchaeus is not going to remain quiet as his fellow Jews unjustly admonish Him in front of the Messiah. While he has a voice in the presence of Jesus—one that the Rabbi appears willing to hear—he shall back his words with his wealth (i.e “put his money where his mouth is”). He turns to Jesus and says, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

What Jesus says in response to Zacchaeus’ pledge with words that provide the city’s chief tax collector further vindication: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

In receiving vindication and acceptance from the Messiah, Zacchaeus experiences two emotions that had escaped him for some time: peace and joy.

The Alternative Narrative’s Message: We are often blinded by our prejudices. We can unjustifiably impart labels on others based on their group associations (e.g. tax collector). Further, if seeking to find fault with anyone, we will succeed, for:

Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and who never sins (Ecclesiastes 7:20, NASB).

This verse from Ecclesiastes identifies two central elements of righteousness. First, our goodness is action-based (i.e. does good); whereas, Jesus is the personification of all that is good (i.e. He is pure goodness, and does good). Second, we all sin, because we all fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). When considering these two central elements of righteousness together, we can deduce that:

  • failure to do good when capable (omission) is the same as committing sinful behavior
  • being guilty (i.e. sinners), we should never assume the Judge’s authority
  • when seeking forgiveness, we would be wise to show humility and be repentant
  • we should first accept internal responsibility for our failings, before attributing our failings upon others

And, when we fail to partake in righteous behavior, we eventually adopt prejudices.

Prejudice manifests from our arrogance and ignorance. When operating under prejudicial convictions, we compare ourselves to others with a biased lens. Those who we associate to be different than us we perceive negatively. Conversely, we generally reserve positive character assessments for ourselves and those with whom we associate; exhibiting a psychological phenomenon known as positive distinctiveness.

Throughout scripture, Christ, admonishes those who engage in prejudicial practices. Why? Because prejudicial practices establish norms of hypocritical living. During his earthly ministry, shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus identifies the Pharisaic norms of the time to be rife with hypocrisy; strongly exhorting against such practices (see Matthew 23).

As the ultimate authority and standard for goodness, Jesus is within His rights to condemn the scribes and Pharisees. Yet, let us not believe that permits us to do the same. While we should hold one another accountable to our professed beliefs (Proverbs 27:5-6; Ezekiel 3:20; Hebrews 10:24-25), we are not given authority to pass judgment or condemnation (Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37; John 8:7; Romans 2:1). God alone judges our righteousness. And Jesus clarifies that—although He specifies the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees  as a cautionary example (given their status as religious leaders)—He finds everyone guilty of hypocrisy:

Lament over Jerusalem
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23: 37-39, NASB).

Considering the two Zacchaeus narratives, how can we apply their messages into our own lives? What should we do?

SEEK HIM MORE: PURSUIT THAT GOES ABOVE AND THROUGH
When considering both Zacchaeus narratives, we should realize that pursuing Christ is not a conditional behavior. Faith is not dependent on our circumstances. Yes, we may be in the midst of difficult times. These difficulties may be the result of wrongs incurred upon us, or, the outcome of our own poor decisions. However, our present circumstances, no matter how emotionally challenging, are inconsequential to pursuing Christ.

When pursuing relationship with Christ, we must rise above our circumstances.

Christ loves us, sacrificing Himself on a cross to offer us salvation and eternal relationship with Him (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; 1 Peter 3:18-22)! What is our response to His offer? While Christ invites us into an eternal relationship, do we accept (or, have we accepted) His invitation (Revelation 3:20); welcoming Him into our hearts?

Zacchaeus does!

Welcoming Jesus Into Our Home (i.e. Heart). In a metaphorical sense, by opening his home to Jesus, Zacchaeus opens his heart to the Lord. By accepting Christ’s invitation, Zacchaeus’ life forever changes. No longer is there enmity between him and God. For, to be friends with Christ is to be friends with our Heavenly Father (John 14:6-11). Though, relationship with Christ does not end with establishing relationship. We are to pursue an ever-growing relationship with our Lord.

As one’s friendship develops with another, they come to know each other better; responding better to their friend’s needs. While Jesus already knows us better than we know ourselves (i.e. He knows our needs), we are to actively deepen our relationship with Him by striving to know Him better. This requires pursuing Him with a truly repentant heart (James 4:8; John 6:40; Acts 3:19); acknowledging where we fail in our relationship with Him. Learning from our failings to love Him better. Fortunately, Christ is patient with us (2 Peter 3:9).

Moreover, consider that Zacchaeus welcomes Christ to His home without time to prepare for Him. Regardless, Zacchaeus is incapable of being prepared to receive his perfect Lord. Like a compassionate friend, Jesus stays with us in our filth. When we first welcome Him to our home (i.e. heart)—given His propensity to show up when we are least expecting—it is assuredly in shambles. And, in a spiritual manifestation, He never leaves! What are we to do?!?

Well, what do we (hopefully) do when we are embarrassed to have our friends sitting in our filth? We clean up! Fortunately, the Holy Spirit accompanies Christ as we welcome Him into our homes (i.e. hearts); helping us clean up our mess.

Therefore, we can never pursue Christ enough. We are to meditate on His Word day and night (Joshua 1:8). While pursuing Christ, we are progressively transformed. This process of continuous pursuit and personal transformation is referred to as sanctification.

This transformation should be evident in our relationships with others.

Developing Healthy Relationships By Overcoming Prejudices. From no fault of our own, we may need to endure unjustified abuses within an environment that is prejudicial towards us. The reality is that we all, to some degree, will endure prejudice. And regrettably, at some point, we are bound to engage in prejudicial treatment towards others.

Sometimes, we may experience prejudice because we are professed Christians. For those following the faith, such prejudices are to be expected; though, the occurrence and severity of these prejudices may differ depending on a plethora of factors (e.g. our national citizenry). We must, however, take utmost care never to use our faith as justification for our own prejudices. While those who act with prejudice upon us position themselves as our enemies, we are commanded to love them nonetheless (Luke 6:35)!

In pursuing Christ, we must labor through the prejudices of our fallen world. These prejudices includes both those that unjustly target us, and those that we wrongly attribute to others. With our eyes towards Christ, and hearts full of humility (James 4:6-10; Philippians 2:3) and love (Hebrews 10:24), may we rise above our circumstances and through our fallen world’s prejudices to bringing us peace and Him glory.

AMEN.

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