1. Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.
We have already seen how the Lord had healed the blind man before getting to Jericho. The following event happens while He is passing through the city. The other gospels in recording their accounts of the healings of blind men give those that happened while He was leaving the city, and thus skip over any events such as these that happened while He was in Jericho. Therefore, the story we are about to read is one that is unique to Luke.
The name Jericho either meant “City of the Moon,” or “A Fragrant Place,” depending on how the word is derived. Some may remember that the city of Jericho was completely destroyed by the sons of Israel under Joshua in Joshua 6, and that Joshua cursed the one who would rebuild it. Therefore they might wonder how it could have existed at this time. Yet we do not read that God said that this cursed city would never be rebuilt, but rather that the cursed man who rebuilt it would do so at the cost of both his firstborn and his youngest son. We read this in Joshua 6:26.
26. Then Joshua charged them at that time, saying, “Cursed be the man before the LORD who rises up and builds this city Jericho; he shall lay its foundation with his firstborn, and with his youngest he shall set up its gates.”
The city could then be rebuilt, though the builder would have to pay a steep price indeed. We read of the one who paid this price in I Kings 16:34.
34. In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation with Abiram his firstborn, and with his youngest son Segub he set up its gates, according to the word of the LORD, which He had spoken through Joshua the son of Nun.
So Hiel the Bethelite became this cursed man, and lost his firstborn and youngest sons in the building just as God had predicted. Yet at this time that the Lord was passing through it, the city had long since been rebuilt and was thriving, the curse only extending to Hiel the rebuilder and not the city itself after it was built. After all, wicked cities, just like wicked men, can be redeemed by our Lord.
2. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.
Now we meet this man named Zacchaeus, which is an Aramaic name meaning “Pure.” He was far from a pure man in the eyes of most at that time, however, for he was a tax collector. The Roman method of collecting the taxes was to farm it out. They would sell the right to collect the taxes to some wealthy individual. Then, that person would be responsible for collecting the taxes. He was allowed to keep a certain percentage of what he collected, but really he was almost expected to collect more than that and to get out of it what he could. He had the power of the Roman government behind him. If any accused him of cheating, the Romans would be far more likely to listen to their agent than to the aggrieved citizen.
Since the tax collectors were working for the hated Roman occupying force, they became perhaps the most hated class in Israel. They were considered not only outcast “sinners,” but also traitors to their land and people. If any were likely to feel sorry for the outcast sinners, they were not likely to do so after one of them became a tax collector. These were considered by all to be the lowest of the low.
Now this Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. This is the only time we come upon this idea of the “arch-tax collector” or chief tax collector in the Scriptures, and this man was Zacchaeus. How far his authority extended it is hard to say. Whether he was merely the chief in Jericho, or if his authority extended far beyond that, we just do not know.
On top of being the arch-tax collector, Zacchaeus was rich. This means that he had considerable wealth, although it cannot possibly mean he was one of that caste of individuals who were normally called the “rich” in Israel. No tax collector could ever have belonged to that class. Yet Zacchaeus was rich in wealth, and whether or not he had gotten his wealth by abusing his privileges as a tax collector, everyone would have assumed that this was the case. Thus, all these facts put together are enough to assure us that this Zacchaeus must have been one of the most despised men in Jericho.
3. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature.
This Zacchaeus may have been a hated man, and he probably had a lot of disdain for those common Israelites whom he taxed as well. Yet here we see that he has quite a different attitude about the Lord Jesus Christ. He wishes to see who Jesus was. This means he wanted to see which one of the crowd was the Lord Jesus. This is a most interesting desire, and shows a curiosity that we would not expect from this man. Perhaps he sought to find out if He was really the kind of man that He was reported to be. A man like Zacchaeus was probably quite a cynical man, and used to thinking less of men than they were commonly believed to be. Yet he has heard that this Jesus is different from most men, and he wants to know if that is really the case. Perhaps the story of this great Teacher loved by the common people and yet so loving and open to even the tax collectors and sinners touched his heart, and opened up a longing that a hardened man like him did not even know was there.
Whatever the reason for his desire, he is not able to fulfill it, for he is just too short to see Him because of the crowd. Surely none in this crowd would have moved aside for the hated chief tax collector, either. Shortness of stature may not have stopped him from rising to the top of his profession and getting rich, but now it was stopping him from seeing the Lord.
4. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.
Consider the zeal of this man to see the Lord! He throws aside all dignity and pride and runs to climb this tree just to get a glimpse of Him. Running was simply not dignified, particularly in the robes which were commonly worn at that time. Moreover, climbing a tree is more like the actions of a child. How this outcast man’s lost soul must have longed for forgiveness and acceptance! Now through faith he looked to the only One Who could truly give these things to him.
The Companion Bible points out that this word for “sycamore” tree occurs only here in the Bible. It is not the same word as in Luke 17:6. Bullinger equates it with the Egyptian fig tree.
5. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”
Now the Lord Jesus comes to the place where this rich chief tax collector is hanging up in a tree desiring to see Him. Christ looks up into the tree and sees him. Then, the Lord makes a startling revelation. He has a plan and a program for His stay in Jericho. He is planning on staying at the house of one of the residents. And, surprise of surprises, the chosen house is that of this hated and outcast man, this one widely considered a traitor to his nation, Zacchaeus.
The Lord is invoking a royal mandate here. A king had the right to demand lodging of any one of his citizens, and that citizen would be expected to provide it. Of course, it could be a very expensive thing to have to provide for a king and his royal entourage. Yet for a beloved king, no greater privilege could be granted to one of his loyal subjects. Now, Zacchaeus is honored by having this demand made of him. He is to be privileged with the presence of the King of kings!
We can clearly see the Lord’s divine knowledge here. He not only knew of this man Zacchaeus, but knew right where to find him and what he was doing. He did not have to go to his place of business or make enquiry for the man He was seeking. Moreover, Zacchaeus was probably not the only man to climb the tree to see the Lord, although he must certainly been the only man of his station to do so. Yet the Lord knew right where this one was and which man he was, and could go right to him to inform him of the honor God had granted him on this day.
Imagine how it must have felt to this outcast man to hear such a request from the mouth of Israel’s greatest teacher! We who have never been cast out of our families and societies can only imagine how such words of kindness and acceptance would have sounded to one in this man’s condition. For though he was rich in possessions, we can clearly see from this story how deeply he must have longed for something more.
6. So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.
Zacchaeus wastes no time in getting out of the tree. He must have been joyful indeed. He had hoped for a glimpse of the Lord, and now he has received so much more. What a wondrous thing it is for a lost and lonely sinner to encounter the love and acceptance of our God!
Zacchaeus receives the Lord joyfully into his home. Certainly no rabbi, no king, and no man of importance in Israel must have ever asked to be there before. The men Zacchaeus was used to entertaining must have been his fellow tax collectors and sinners, and perhaps a few Romans. Yet now he has a far more honored Guest, and he must have done his best to treat Him royally.
7. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”
The Lord may have been loving and forgiving towards Zacchaeus, but the people of the city do not share his attitude. Those who knew Zacchaeus in that city were less willing to forgive than the Lord, and so murmured against His actions. We could certainly have expected this, and the Lord must have known it would happen. Yet He seems to have paid no attention to them whatsoever. His reputation was in the hands of God, and He was more interested in doing the will of His Father than He was in pleasing men. If we desire to behave as the Lord did toward those in need of forgiveness, we also must often ignore the disapproval of many who do not understand or share that desire.
We might wonder what the Lord’s disciples thought of all this? I suppose that they must have been used to it by now. Their Lord led them from dining in the houses of the rich and powerful to dining in the houses of the hated and outcast. By their association with Him, they had seen the inside of the homes of the most powerful Pharisees and the most despised sinners. Indeed, He had chosen some of His disciples from both classes, it seems. They knew their Lord enough to trust His judgment. Indeed, if they did not, they would have long since ceased to be His disciples. Those who hold the judgments of this world and the culture they live in over those of the Lord will not be long in following Him.
8. Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
Zacchaeus hears these charges, and feels he must respond to them. He cannot allow the Lord’s reputation to suffer on his behalf if he can help it. Thus, Zacchaeus acts to prove that he is a changed man. First, he pledges to give half of his goods to the poor. This was a most generous act indeed. Then, he promises that if he has taken anything from anyone by false accusation, he will restore it fourfold.
Again, we find that it was quite common in that day for these tax collectors to take more from a man than he owed. They would do this by falsely accusing him of owing more than he did. Zacchaeus does not say how often he has done this, but clearly implies that it has been a practice of his. He now promises that any case in which he has done this, he will pay back fourfold. This was the law for one who had stolen a sheep, according to Exodus 22:1. What Zacchaeus had done was not exactly the same as stealing a sheep, but he adapts this law to his situation, and shows an honest heart in doing so. He truly wanted to make restitution as best he could for the dishonest things he had done.
How little it took to change this man that most considered to be vile! Some there are who only need a little love and acceptance, and yet never find it. This man found it in the Lord Jesus Christ, and for this seemingly little thing of sharing a meal with him was willing to turn his whole life over to Him. This was the power of the love of God.
9. And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham;
The Lord responds to Zacchaeus’ changed attitude. He proclaims that today salvation has come to this house. It had come in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He had brought salvation here indeed. If we would bring salvation into our lives, we need the same one to bring it in as Zacchaeus had. Without Him, we are as lost and alone as Zacchaeus was, whether or not we know it. Yet with the Lord in our lives, we can declare that we have found salvation.
There certainly may have been some who heard the Lord who were reluctant to see salvation come to this outcast and despised man. Yet the Lord reminds them of a fact which they had forgotten: he also is a son of Abraham. Not only was he this by blood, but now by his words and actions in verse 8, he has proved that he is one in heart as well.
10. “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Christ reveals that He had come for all the Israelites, not just those considered as good, upstanding citizens. He had come precisely to seek and save lost sinners, and that is exactly what Zacchaeus was. His position as a lost sinner was just more obvious in the eyes of men than that of others, yet they all were under the same curse and all needed the same forgiveness. Thus Christ sought and saved this one who was lost, and He does the same today through His word. That is the point of this parable. No matter how lost a man might appear in the eyes of other men, the Lord is the One Who can save that which is lost.