ESSAY
Zacchaeus, Part 2
POSTED
September 24, 2019

In part one of this essay, I mentioned that the story of Zacchaeus includes not only many details that point to other passages in Luke, but also details that point to the Old Testament, though we might not initially think of them.

The first detail I have in mind is rather obvious, but it is so obvious it might be missed. I mean the mention of the place “Jericho.” I suspect that Matthew and Mark speak of Jesus leaving Jericho and Luke speaks of Jesus entering Jericho because Matthew and Mark are speaking of the old city and Luke is speaking of the adjacent new city. Leaving the old Jericho and entering the new Jericho are essentially the same thing. There are other possible solutions to the seeming conflict in the Gospel narratives, but that is not really my concern.

The matter is the name of the city, Jericho. In Luke this is especially important because until 18:35 and 19:1 — the double mention of the city — no city has been named in the travel narrative that began in 9:51 (Jerusalem is mentioned, but not as a city Jesus passed through). Why mention Jericho at all? Other places went unnamed. Why mention Jericho at this particular juncture in the narrative? Everything has been pointing to Jerusalem, but now Luke gives us a double reference to Jericho.

First, note that some cities have names that people do not really identify with a specific story or idea. Think of the name of the small city I grew up in, Chillicothe, Ohio. Not many people hear that name and think immediately of Tecumseh — at least not many people who are not from Ohio. Though the city has an historical association, as most cities do, it is not so well known.

Contrast that with Gettysburg. Anyone who knows anything about American history — which today might not include many people under 30! — will know about the famous battle that was fought there and Lincoln’s equally famous address. Just saying the word “Gettysburg” creates an associative explosion. The whole civil war — in particular that notable battle — Lincoln’s well-known speech and everything that Lincoln stood for come to mind.

“Jericho” is a word like that. Luke gives it some emphasis, especially in this final story which is only recorded in his Gospel. Like Luke, Matthew and Mark both tell us about the blind man/men that Jesus healed in Jericho (Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). But Luke adds another Jericho story: the story of Zacchaeus. And Luke wants us to know that this is also a Jericho story (19:1).

So what are we supposed to remember about Jericho? Obviously, the battle that Joshua and the Israelites fought. That comes to mind first. The conquest of Jericho — accomplished by “ceremonial warfare,” in other words a form of prayer seeking God’s judgement — was the beginning of the conquest of Canaan. Also, it is clearly related to the judgment on Egypt by the structure of the two stories: for Moses and Egypt — 1) destruction of Egypt, 2) passover, 3) miraculous crossing of the sea; for Joshua and Jericho — 1) miraculous crossing of the Jordan, 2) passover, 3) destruction of Jericho.

The city was devoted to destruction in a Sodom-and-Gomorrah-like judgment — completely overturned and burned to nothing. But its rebuilding is also an important part of Jericho’s history. Hiel of Bethel, no doubt under orders from the Baal-worshipping Ahab, rebuilt the city. Why? In the first official building project of Ahab’s reign (1 Kings 16:29-34), the chief pagan city of pre-conquest Canaan being rebuilt was a symbolic undoing of Yahweh worship and a return to Canaan’s past. Hiel suffered the curse that Joshua pronounced (Joshua 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34). Ahab’s attempt at undoing the conquest, however, was doomed to failure.

Because God had a different plan. Elijah’s confrontation of Ahab and his prophets (1 Kings 18) eventually resulted in groups of prophets in the Northern kingdom. Before he is taken to heaven by the Lord’s chariot, Elijah traveled from Gilgal to Bethel and from there to Jericho. After crossing the Jordan river miraculously, Elijah is taken away while Elisha watches. It was from Jericho that Elijah and Elisha departed before Elijah was lifted away and it was to Jericho that Elisha returned. Elisha then healed the waters bringing covenant blessing to the city that had been cursed.

Elijah, the new Moses, is followed by Elisha, the new Joshua, who brings blessing where the original Joshua brought curse. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus last healing miracle is opening the eyes of the blind at Jericho. John the baptizer was Elijah who introduced the new and greater Elisha, Jesus, and He too brings mercy and healing to the city that was cursed — the city from which His famous ancestress, Rehab, had come. All three Gospels put the New Elisha in Jericho to bring blessing before He goes to Jerusalem to bring a curse, as Elisha cursed the priests of Bethel and then went on to Mt. Carmel where Elijah had defeated Baal and his priests (2 Kings 2:23-25).

Luke gives extra emphasis to Jericho by adding the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) followed by a parable of judgement (Luke 19:11-27), anticipating Jesus’ last ministry in Jerusalem with its condemnation of Jewish leaders and prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This comports with last allusion to the Old Testament in the story of Zacchaeus: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 11:10). Jesus is here pointing to Ezekiel 34:11 and 16, but also to the larger context. The meaning of Jesus’ words was no doubt lost to the original audience, but Luke himself and his friend Paul would no doubt have recognized that Jesus is declaring Himself to be Yahweh as the true Shepherd of the sheep, who came to seek and save the lost. As Ezekiel 34 makes clear, that necessarily involves judging the false and wicked shepherds and distinguishing between sheep and goats.

There is another and important allusion to the Old Testament in the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus states that if he had taken money unlawfully, he would restore fourfold. Obviously, if it had been his regular practice to use his position as chief tax-collector to defraud, fourfold restitution would have bankrupted him rather soon, so his declaration about fourfold restitution may be in part a form of self-defense.

It is not, however, an attempt to go beyond the double restitution normally required (Exodus 22:9). Exodus 22:1 specifies “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep.” Why should sheep and oxen be treated differently from other animals or property? The answer would seem to be their place in the sacrificial system. An ox is the offering for a leader (Numbers 7:3). A sheep is the offering for the commoner (Exodus 12:3). The law seems to use the ox and sheep as symbols of leaders and commoners and thus to mean that if someone rebels against the leaders, the punishment is fivefold whereas the punishment for oppression by leaders is fourfold. Revolution is worse than oppression, but both require extraordinary restitution.[i]

If this is the correct approach to the law, Zacchaeus' promise to restore fourfold whatever was unrighteously taken was a statement of sincere repentance. Thus, Jesus declared “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).

This is a story for the modern church where too often repentance does not include restitution. Repentance, like faith, is dead without works.

The new Elisha, Jesus, heals the blind and raises the chief tax collector who had been dead in sin. He then moves toward Jerusalem to enter as King, to lament her coming judgment, and to die on the cross in order to rise from the dead and ascend to the throne. From which He will come to judge the living and the dead!

Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.


[i] See James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, Texas:: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), pp. 261-71.

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