The Story of Zacchaeus

The story of Zacchaeus is one of the most well known stories in the gospels. But when you read it there is a strange information distribution. Now, what’s information distribution? One of the helpful things that you can do when you’re trying to understand a story, especially a well-known one, is look at how much information is devoted to each major section or event or character in the story. The purpose of doing this is to see what the author actually focuses on, what he wants us to pay attention to. Because if it’s a very well-known story our attention naturally gravitates toward the parts that are popular. So let’s look at the information distribution in our story.

The story is short, it takes less than a minute to read, so let’s read the whole thing:

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The story consists of 10 verses. Seven of the verses happen outside with the crowd with Zacchaeus running up in a tree and coming down and the crowd grumbling. Only three verses is the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus, you could say the moral of the story. So we have a strange amount of attention on Zacchaeus’ action and the tree. I mean, why have all the stuff about the tree anyways couldn’t we just have the conversation in the house, Zacchaeus telling Jesus that he’ll give away a bunch of his stuff and Jesus saying that salvation has come here?

One of the fundamental features of great art, whether it’s architecture, music, or literature, is that all the parts work together to make the whole, all the parts, the sentences, the words, the images contribute to the main thesis of the work. So there is never a shape or a note or an image that’s not serving the goal of the work. So let’s look at the craft of Luke and how he uses these images and actions contribute to his message.

Luke opens the story like this:

“He entered Jericho and was passing through.” (Luke 19:1)

Jesus has just about finished his journey to Jerusalem that started 10 chapters earlier and just like the journey of Israel in the wilderness ended with them passing through Jericho, so Jesus passes through Jericho. But this is not a little detail to fill out the scene, Luke is showing us that this Jericho scene is parallel to the Jericho scene in the book of Joshua.

In both Jerichos you have a hostile group of people, the crowd here and the inhabitants of Jericho in Joshua. And in each story there is one exception, one convert, one faithful and unexpected one –a prostitute in Joshua and a tax collector here–whose home will be the place of their transformation. Notice, the Canaanites are parallel to the Israelite crowds here. Israel have been Canaanized and need to be reconquered, but this time the warfare and the weapons will be different.

Luke then introduces our main character, Zacchaeus with sets of conflicting attributes. His name means innocent or pure, but he is a chief tax collector and rich. The tax collectors were well known for taking far more than was just. So, perhaps his mother named him innocent but clearly that innocence is long gone.

And second, he was seeking to see Jesus, but he was short and there was a crowd. Our second conflict that needs to be resolved.

Now why are we told about his height? Luke is setting up a parallel between Zacchaeus’ two problems: his wealth and his height, the two problems of the story. One of Luke’s characteristic features is his attention to the poor and warning about the difficulties of wealth. And what Luke will do is present an allegory of Zacchaeus’ wealth through the little vignette of his height and the tree. Let me show you how.

Here is the sequence of actions. Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, he can’t because he’s short and the crowd is preventing him, so he climbs up in the sycamore tree. Interestingly, when he gets in the tree the narrator does not tell us that Zacchaeus sees Jesus but that Jesus sees him and it is at that point that Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he must go to his home. Zacchaeus excitedly comes down to Jesus.

Instead of bringing us right to Zacchaeus’ home, the narrator tells us about the crowd’s reaction. Luke tells us “And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Notice, the crowd sees something, something that makes them grumble. Every character in this story sees something, Zacchaeus is seeking to see Jesus, Jesus sees Zacchaeus, and the crowds see a man’s hospitality to a sinner.

Luke is implicitly asking who has accurate sight. Zacchaeus appears to be a sinner but Jesus sees him correctly as a man with hospitality and generosity. Zacchaeus overcomes his height and the crowd to properly see Jesus. The crowd sees both Jesus and Zacchaeus incorrectly. Notice how they describe each character. The crowd says “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” They are characterizing Jesus as a sinner who eats with sinners and Zacchaeus as a sinner, and they are wrong on both fronts.

Zacchaeus will tell Jesus that “half of my goods he gives to the poor. And if he has defrauded anyone of anything, he will restore it fourfold.” And in response Jesus will say, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

So far from Jesus’ sinning with a sinner, Zacchaeus is a righteous man and Jesus brings salvation. What the crowd sees as a hindrance, sin, was actually an act of salvation. What Zacchaeus had as a hindrance turned out to be salvation: his height and wealth. Both his height and wealth saved. (Not final salvation, of course, but salvation in the sense of means of transformation). His height saved him because that’s how Jesus ended up seeing him and his wealth saved himself because it both helped save others from poverty and saved himself by giving it away. In the previous chapter Jesus will say that it’s easier from a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven and Zacchaeus has voluntarily impoverished himself. Crowds take no action but Zacchaeus takes tons of action. The narrator give Zacchaeus seven verbs: ran, climbed, hurried, came down received joyfully, stood, said. The crown has one: grumbled.

So it is the crowds who can’t see. Notice the contrast between Zacchaeus’ seeing and the crowds’. Zacchaeus is taking action to see Jesus even in light of his physical and social problems, he’s short and there’s a crowd, all they see is Jesus’ going to Zacchaeus’ home, and even that they see incorrectly. Zacchaeus can’t see and changes it, the crowd thinks they see but can’t. Far from Jesus partaking of sin, he is declaring, providing salvation. Jesus says he is doing two things “seeking and saving.”

But back to Zacchaeus’ height and the tree. Height corresponds to his wealth or role as chief tax collector because that prevents him, in the eyes of the crowd, from being with Jesus.But Zacchaeus knows his height is a problem so he is diligent to run and climb to overcome it. Just like he is diligent to use his wealth and position to improve his spiritual condition. That is he uses his wealth and position to give “half of [his] goods to the poor.”

Furthermore, his problem, small stature, allowed him to be seen by Jesus just like when he reduces his wealth it will not be a detriment but an actual benefit to him. Becoming small can be good if you need to fit through the eye of a needle, a story that was told in the last chapter just a few verses ago.

But let’s zero in on what Jesus says. Jesus said that “salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” So Jesus says that the Son of man came to do two things: seek and save. He sought Zacchaeus in the tree and has saved him because “salvation has come to” Zacchaeus’ house. And what has come to Zacchaeus’ house? Jesus, whose’ name means “Yahweh is salvation.”

In a delicious irony, the crowds, Israel, is grumbling again. If you remember in the Old Testament, they grumbled at the giants in the land, here they are grumbling against not a giant but a small man, an anti-giant. They don’t see that the challenge of a giant, or a sinner could be a blessing instead of a curse. This is what Zacchaeus’ sees with his wealth and height, a challenge that can be overcome, transformed, saved.

Okay, but there’s one additional detail that we haven’t dealt with, the sycamore tree. Notice, Luke has not just described as a general tree, but a particular kind of tree. Why?

Interestingly, the word “sycamore” occurs 7 times in the Old Testament. And I believe Luke is alluding the last instance of it, in the prophet Amos. It occurs in Amos 7:14,

Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs.”

Now you may be thinking, “what does that have to do with this story?” But take a closer look. Amos is saying that he was a strange, a completely unlikely selection to be a prophet because he was just a sycamore dresser. Notice, this is the same thing that happened with Zacchaeus. He was a completely unlikely selection to be a prophet, someone who communicated God’s word, as well. He is a tax collector, not only that a chief tax collector. And yet his words are recorded in the Bible. And it is his words and actions that serve as contrast and condemnation to the crowds of Israel.

So this small man who saw well, has become a stumbling block for Israel. This strange prophet a sign and a word because salvation came to his home.

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