We are studying Luke 19:1-10 for Sunday, March 24 – the story of Zacchaeus, “a wee little man” who not only sees Jesus but gets to host him as one of the last stops on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. [Questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve been following Jesus through the gospel of Luke, as he makes his way through “Luke’s special section” from Galilee to Jerusalem. By this time, Jesus has come to Jericho, healed a blind man [whom Jesus encounters just before entering Jericho – Matthew and Mark have blindness-healing episodes as Jesus is passing through or leaving Jericho], and appears to be passing through town.

Jericho as a place has a history – it’s the first inhabited place the Israelites encounter when they invade the land of Canaan, it’s mentioned several more times in the history of ancient Israel, and it’s already figured prominently in Jesus’ story of the Samaritan who acts like a neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). So there are jostling connotations related to Jericho: it’s a point of entry, a place of peace and prosperity (per its nickname “the city of palms”), a place of conquest, and also in some stories a place of refuge (see 2 Samuel 10:1-5, about David’s emissaries to the Ammonites). According to Wikipedia, it was a center of a thriving ancient-world trade in balsam, which added to its prosperity, and which would have made Zacchaeus’ role as chief tax farmer especially lucrative.

The name “Zacchaeus” sounds Greek, but its Hebrew root would have meant “clean, pure” – possibly ironic, given what we think we know about tax farmers: namely, constantly prey to corruption, and hated by the taxpayers.

Zacchaeus is described as an “architelōnēs”, a term that occurs exactly once in the Bible. It’s translated “chief tax collector” or “superintendent of tax collectors,” and it seems like it ought to correspond to some known bureaucratic position, but I haven’t found a source that admits to that. [But there is an interesting, if somewhat lengthy, discussion of the connotations of the term “telōnēs” here.]

The tree Zacchaeus climbs is not the kind of sycamore tree that grows around here, which is a kind of “plane tree,” but is instead a kind of fig tree that has a distinctive spreading appearance, edible fruit, and looks from its pictures like it might be easy-ish to climb. [General information about sycamore-figs here. For the adventurous, probably a lot more than we really want to know about the relationship between mulberries and figs here, along with a tasty-looking recipe for figs with cheese.]

This story about someone who is a “chief tax collector” and “rich” occurs after there’s been a long build-up of the themes of social outcasts and also of richness. In addition to the stories we’ve studied over the last couple of weeks, there’s all of Luke’s Jesus’ discussion of the peril of hoarding wealth (Luke 12:13-21), the parable of the shrewd/dishonest manager and the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16), and the story of the rich ruler who doesn’t seem to want to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-27).

What has gone before puts Zacchaeus in an uncertain narrative position here. As a tax collector, he’s one of the people who have been coming to Jesus, over the objections of the Pharisees and scribes, and who on the basis of the stories in chapter 15 we might want to think of as “found”; as a rich person, though, on the basis of the stories in chapter 16 and 18, we might not hold out much hope for him.

Who is he going to turn out to be, really? We might legitimately be in some suspense about this around verse 2.

It may not be coincidental that Zacchaeus himself is trying to see “who Jesus is” in verse 3. Just because, as a grammatical construction, this is a little peculiar; it would be easier to write that he was trying to see Jesus. So this person who is trying to see “who Jesus is” is going to reveal who he is by the end of this story.

Or, perhaps, that determination of Zacchaeus’ status is going to reveal who Jesus really is.

CLOSER READING: Jesus seems to have a change of plans in the story, because in v1 he is “passing through”, but in v5 he tells Zacchaeus that he “must remain” at his house. [So – why? What happens to effect this seeming change of plan?]

In addition to being a rich chief tax collector, Zacchaeus is famously “small of stature,” so practically he can’t see past the crowd to see Jesus. We might wonder whether there’s more to this: so, despite his riches, is he a “least” or a “little one” – that Jesus did say back in Luke 18:15-17 not to hinder from coming to him? Or, simply that there is a way in which he is easily overlooked and dismissed, despite his economic position?

His “trying” to get a good view of Jesus is literally a verb that means something like seeking, searching, the way someone looks for something that has been lost or is of uncertain location. Jesus will use the same verb in v10 to describe his mission. [Again – Zacchaeus and Jesus are mirroring each other.]

There’s haste – a sense of urgency. Zacchaeus “runs” to the front of the crowd, then climbs the tree; then he’s described as “hastening” or “hurrying” twice in verses 5 & 6 – what’s translated as a command from Jesus in v5 is grammatically more like a description of Zacchaeus.

We should mention that Jesus knows to look up here in v5, and knows Zacchaeus by name. Almost as if he has been looking for him, on purpose, the way we’d look for Waldo in one of those Where’s Waldo? pictures.

We are happy to find Waldo if we’ve been searching for him. The text doesn’t assign an emotion to Jesus here, but it does assign one to Zacchaeus: rejoicing. Notice that after running Zacchaeus is going to be having a celebration, it seems. This might remind us of the story of the happy father we read last week. Does this work, since Zacchaeus is the one acting like the father here, doing the receiving, while Jesus is the one doing the arriving, as if he had been lost … ?

It’s probably not a coincidence that “all who saw it” grumbled, given that ambiguous position we noted before. We’re accustomed by now to the Pharisees and scribes grumbling, but in this case, everyone has something to hold against a guy like Zacchaeus. He’s an equal-opportunity offender.

So now Zacchaeus “stands” – in all his shortness – and makes a declaration about restitution: half of his property to the poor, and a fourfold restitution to anyone he’s wronged.

Commentators generally call our attention to the fact that Torah doesn’t require people to restore things fourfold, generally; usually, it’s the value of the wrong plus one-fifth (e.g., Leviticus 5:14-16, Numbers 5:5-7. In the special case of having stolen an ox and killed it, you’d need to restore it plus four more (Exodus 22:1). So, Zacchaeus seems to be going above and beyond.

The verbs here are present tense, so one commentator suggests that Zacchaeus is telling Jesus that he already does all this – he’s cleaner and purer than people know. That would give Jesus’ declaration about salvation having come to Zacchaeus’ house a kind of social meaning: almost as if Zacchaeus has been restored to the community, now that this truth about his character has been revealed.

On the other hand, Bible translators (all of them, it seems) give this declaration a future sense, which inclines us to read the salvation as having to do with Zacchaeus’ change of heart, from greedy to generous. That more familiar reading might also be more consistent with the themes Luke has been emphasizing so far, and would almost make Zacchaeus a contrast to the rich ruler in chapter 18. That would help explain why Luke might have used an obscure word like “architelōnēs” here, which includes that Greek word for “ruler” (the “archi-” part). Just to remind the reader.

The social commentators emphasize that this is a “healing story.” That would seem right, even if Zacchaeus’ behavior has changed.

It also seems to be a kind of miracle story. That would make it Jesus’ last miracle in Luke’s story.

And given the play in this story on low-ness and high-ness – Jericho a low place, Zacchaeus a short man, the position in the tree (high), the prospect of Jesus’ trip (up) to Jerusalem – it is a fitting conclusion to this part of Luke’s story, about Jesus who “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).

Maybe it even gives us a little foreshadowing of what resurrection means.


mosaic of ox representing St. Luke