ESSAY
Zacchaeus
POSTED
September 17, 2019

The story of Zacchaeus includes numerous interesting details that link this story with others in the Gospel of Luke. There are also details that tie the story of Zacchaeus to the Old Testament in ways that we might not initially take note of.

In the Gospel of Luke, the story of Zacchaeus is linked with other stories through key words. The most obvious connection is with Luke 15, the threefold parable — culminating in the famous story of the Prodigal son — that Jesus told to those objecting that He was eating with tax-collectors and sinners. Pharisees and scribes “grumbled” that Jesus ate with the undesirables (Luke 15:2). As I pointed out in a previous essay, this is the word used in the LXX to refer to the Israelites’ constant grumbling in the wilderness, characterizing the Pharisees and scribes as people like their ancient fathers.[i] That same word is used in the story of Zacchaeus, one of three occurrences in Luke (5:30 in a slightly different form that appears 6 times in the Gospels; 15:2; 19:7 in a form that appears only in these two passages in Luke). The Pharisees grumbled in Luke 5 and 15, now it is the people in general — not a good final story before Jesus enters Jerusalem.

Of course, the word “tax-collector” also connects these two passages, though the word in Luke 19:2 actually adds special emphasis since Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, but a “chief” tax collector, one who managed the regular tax collectors. Luke actually uses the word “tax collector” not only more often than the other Gospels (Matthew 5:46–47; 9:10–11; 10:3; 11:19; 18:17; 21:31–32; Mark 2:15–16; Luke 3:12; 5:27, 29–30; 7:29, 34; 15:1; 18:10–11, 13) but also with greater emphasis on stories of tax collectors repenting and eating with Jesus. In fact, the ministry of John the baptizer in the Gospel of Luke — and only in Luke — includes tax collectors repenting of their sins. The story of Zacchaeus is the last story in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, bringing His ministry to a climax in the salvation of a tax collector!

There is also a thematic link to the three-part parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son in that each part of the parable shows us that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15:1-2) precisely because the mission of the Son of Man was to seek and save the lost (19:10).

There is some irony in the fact that another key word in the final story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is about a “rich” man. In Luke’s Gospel, the rich are an important theme, which can be seen simply by comparing the occurrences of the word: Matthew 3 times, 19:23-24; 27:57; Mark two times, 10:25; 12:41; Luke 11 times, 6:24; 12:16; 14:12; 16:1, 19, 21-22; 18:23, 25; 19:2; 21:1. All three synoptics include Jesus’ teaching about it being easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25). But Luke also includes parables about the rich that are not found in the other Gospels: the parable of the rich fool (12:16-20), the difficult parable of the rich man with a dishonest manager (16:1-8), and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31). Throughout the Gospel, Luke has portrayed the rich as those who are self-sufficient, hard-hearted, and loving their riches more than God.

But as the final story shows clearly, what Jesus taught the disciples is true: with God even the salvation of the rich is possible! Though Zacchaeus took the initiative in the sense that he was looking for Jesus and climbed the tree to see Him, he did not call out to Jesus or draw near to ask for help. Jesus found the lost sinner, presumably hiding in the tree — for a rich, but short tax collector to climb a tree to see Jesus must have been at least a little embarrassing! Without being addressed or introduced, Jesus called him by name! Also, Jesus did not wait for an invitation to dinner, but invited Himself, telling Zacchaeus that He “must” — a Greek word that implies the necessity is to be found in the plan of God — not only dine with him, but stay the day at his house!

Another key word in the story is “Abraham.” Matthew, the Jewish Gospel, only uses the name Abraham 7 times (Matthew 1:1–2, 17; 3:9; 8:11; 22:32). Perhaps not surprisingly, Mark, the Roman Gospel uses the name only once in a passage that has parallels in both Matthew and Luke (Mark 12:26; cf. Matthew 21:31-32; Luke 20:37). John uses the name Abraham 11 times, but it appears only in one chapter which records a conflict between Jesus and the Jews (John 8:33, 37, 39–40, 52–53, 56–58).

Just as Luke is the Gospel of the rich man, it is also the Gospel of Abraham (Luke 1:55, 73; 3:8, 34; 13:16, 28; 16:22–25, 29–30; 19:9; 20:37). The woman who had been bound by Satan for 18 years, was a daughter of Abraham that Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). Lazarus — like Zacchaeus, one of the few people named — died and went to Abraham’s bosom, while the unnamed rich man who went to hades ironically calls out to “father Abraham” (Luke 16:22–25, 29–30).

What is especially interesting about the reference to Abraham in the salvation of Zacchaeus is that Luke’s Gospel begins with John the baptizer declaring that no one will be saved because he is descended from Abraham, God can raise up children to Abraham from stones (Luke 3:8). That seems to create a problem. Why would Jesus say, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9)? Certainly, as John the baptizer had declared, being descended from Abraham does not give one a ticket to the kingdom. What is Jesus saying?

The answer is clear from the previous verse in which the repentant Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” This also comports with the teaching of John the baptizer who demanded “fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). In other words, Jesus is saying that Zacchaeus’ repentance shows him to be a true son of Abraham, a man with whom Jesus would be honored to stay.

Jesus came to seek and save those who are lost — not the 99 who grumble and think they need no repentance, not the Pharisee who prays, “I thank you I am not like other men.” Not like them. However, if like Zacchaeus we seek Jesus, He will find us and call us by name. He will stay with us today and forever.


Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.


[i] https://theopolisinstitute.com/perspectives-on-the-prodigal-part-i/

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