Jesus—His Life and Message: Zacchaeus

December 8, 2020

by Peter Amsterdam

The Gospel of Luke tells of Jesus’ surprising interaction with Zacchaeus, a Jewish man who was a chief tax collector for the Roman government.

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich.1

In the King James translation he is called a publican, which is another name for a tax collector. Being a chief tax collector probably meant that Zacchaeus was in charge of other tax collectors who worked as his subordinates.

Tax collectors were generally despised by the Jewish population, not only because they collected taxes on behalf of Rome but also because they added extra to the amount owed as a surcharge, in order to cover their own expenses as well as make a profit. Sometimes these tax collectors would hire others to collect the taxes on their behalf, and therefore were known as chief tax collectors, which seems to be the case with Zacchaeus. One author explains:

Direct taxes included the poll tax (a general citizen’s tax) and a land tax (a tax on one’s harvest). In addition to these direct taxes, there also was a set of indirect taxes on all items purchased or leased in a region.2

The city of Jericho was a well-known toll place, as a great deal of commercial travel between Judea and Perea passed through it, which meant that collecting taxes was a lucrative profession there.

He was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature.3

Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus. He had probably heard some reports about Him, which motivated him to find out more. He faced a challenge, however, as there was a large crowd that prevented him from getting close to Jesus, and he was short and therefore couldn’t look above the heads of others in the crowd to see Him. If he wanted to see Jesus, Zacchaeus needed to be resourceful, and resourceful he was.

So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way.4

This type of tree is similar to an oak tree, though with a short trunk and wide branches which make for easy climbing.5 An adult climbing a tree was likely looked on as rather undignified, especially for a person who had status, wealth, and position in the community. So his actions indicate that Zacchaeus was more than merely curious in his desire to get a glimpse of Jesus.

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.”6

Jesus not only saw him, but also spoke to him. We’re not told how Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ name; He may have known it supernaturally, as He did when He saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”7Or, He may have known because people were calling out his name; or, He could have asked others what his name was.

So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.8

Zacchaeus responded immediately, came down from the tree, and took Jesus to his home.

And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”9

While Zacchaeus was happy to have Jesus come to his home, all those present began to grumble and complain. In calling Zacchaeus a “sinner,” the crowd was likely expressing their opinion about tax collectors and venting their feelings about the way they took advantage of those from whom they collected taxes. They also charged Jesus with associating with sinners.

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.”10

We’re not told when Zacchaeus said this to Jesus—whether it was when he came down out of the tree or later at his home. It seems that the exact timing was unimportant to the Gospel writer.

Bible commentators view Zacchaeus’ statement in two ways. Some understand it to mean that Zacchaeus was saying that all along, “I have been in the habit of giving half of my goods to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, then I pay them back four times as much.” The other view is that he was saying, “From now on I will give half of my goods to the poor and will pay four times the amount to anyone I might have defrauded.” It seems more likely that Zacchaeus was making a statement about the present and future—that he was committed to giving half of his belongings at that time to the poor, and that going forward, he would pay back four times the amount if he acted unfairly toward someone. Zacchaeus’ interaction with Jesus radically changed his handling of money; he moved from taking advantage of others to helping and serving them.

Zacchaeus’ pledge to give half of his goods away and to restore fourfold to anyone he wronged went far beyond what was expected. In Judaism, giving 20 percent of one’s possessions was considered very generous, and giving more than that was not considered prudent. If someone was found guilty of extorting a fellow Jew, they were required to pay back an extra 20 percent. Zacchaeus’ pledge was more in alignment with the double penalty which people had to pay if they stole an ox or a sheep.

“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”11

His pledge showed that he had changed. He knew that he had defrauded others, and he committed to repaying those he had stolen from. In doing so, Zacchaeus became an example of how to generously handle money.

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.”12

Because of Zacchaeus’ change of heart and his commitment to generosity and fairness, salvation came to him and his household. Throughout the book of Acts, there are references made to whole households receiving salvation.13 Zacchaeus’ status as a tax collector did not hinder his potential access to God, or that of his family, and his right response to Jesus brought them true salvation.

Jesus’ purpose—the reason for His birth, life, death, and resurrection—was to “save the lost.” In Zacchaeus’ interactions with Jesus, we find an example of just such a person getting saved. Zacchaeus seemed like an unlikely candidate for salvation. He was not only a sinner, but he worked for the oppressive Roman Empire, enriching himself at the expense of his own people. However, his encounter with Jesus completely changed his life. Jesus was willing to look beyond who and what a person was; He was willing to interact with someone who society despised and rejected, in order to give him the opportunity to receive salvation. May we all reflect Jesus when we encounter those who are looked down upon, and even those who have wronged us or others. May we show love, tolerance, and forgiveness to all we come in contact with. May we all do our best to be like Jesus.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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1 Luke 19:1–2.

2 Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, 331.

3 Luke 19:3.

4 Luke 19:4.

5 Bock, Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53, 1517.

6 Luke 19:5.

7 John 1:47–48.

8 Luke 19:6.

9 Luke 19:7.

10 Luke 19:8.

11 Exodus 22:1.

12 Luke 19:9–10.

13 Acts 11:13–14, Acts 16:15, 31, 18:8.