How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Has little Zacchaeus the tax collector been misunderstood?

Read time: 8 minutes

I was almost persuaded the other night, sitting outside a pub in Glasgow with some Communitas friends, that the story about Jesus inviting himself into the house of Zacchaeus has been widely misunderstood. The suggestion was that Zacchaeus was all along a righteous tax collector, who welcomes Jesus into his home with a clear conscience. The crowds assume that he is a “sinner” only because he is a tax collector, and so they start grumbling; but Zacchaeus defends himself before Jesus. This is my customary practice, he explains: I give half of what I have to the poor, and if it turns out that I have wrongly assessed a tax payer, I restore it fourfold.

Jesus visits the house of Zacchaeus

And entering, he was passing through Jericho, and behold, a man called by name Zacchaeus; and he was a chief tax collector and he was wealthy. And he was seeking to see who Jesus is and was unable because of the crowd, because he was small in height. And having run ahead, he climbed up into a sycamore tree in order that he might see him because he was about to pass through there.

And as he came to the place, having looked up Jesus said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today it is necessary for me to stay in your house. And having hurried, he came down and received him rejoicing.

And having seen, all grumbled saying that he entered to lodge with a sinful man. And having stood, Zacchaeus said to the Lord, “Behold, my half of the possessions, Lord, I give to the poor, and if I wrongly accused anyone of anything, I give back fourfold.” And Jesus said to him that today there was salvation in this house, because indeed this is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost one. (Lk. 19:1-10*)

Innocent all along?

The argument has had its occasional defender, and there are some quite strong considerations that may be advanced in its favour.

Immediately before the Zacchaeus incident, as Jesus approaches Jericho, he is confronted by a blind beggar, who cries out repeatedly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (18:35-43). Like Zacchaeus, the man is unable to see Jesus, and like Zacchaeus he elicits an angry reaction from those around. The beggar is not a “sinner,” and his significance lies in the fact that despite being blind he sees that Jesus is the Son of David who will reign over Israel when the kingdom of God is established. Perhaps, then, the sight-impaired Zacchaeus serves a similar narrative function: he is not a bad person in need of forgiveness but one of the seeing righteous in Israel who, in his different way, enthusiastically supports the mission of Jesus. We will come back to this.

There’s something curious, surely, about Zacchaeus’ apparent lack of shame. It is not explicitly said that he repents; and the words “if I wrongly accused anyone of anything” are not clearly an admission of guilt. Why does he say “if” if this is a reference to corrupt or extortionate behaviour? Is it possible that he means only that in the event of an innocent mistake, he generously puts things right? So Fitzmyer argues: “The implication is that he does not do this deliberately; but if he has discovered that he has been so involved, he takes action to repair it.”1 The Hebrew name behind the Greek form has a root meaning of “clean” or “innocent,” according to Fitzmyer.2 A coincidence? Perhaps not.

Also, much is made of the fact that Zacchaeus is “small” (mikros) in height: he can’t see Jesus because of the crowd so he has to climb a tree. Has Luke found symbolic significance in his smallness? Those who are “least” (mikroteros) in the kingdom of God are greater than John (7:8). The “least” (mikroteros) among the disciples will be great (9:48). The disciples are the “little ones” (mikrōn) whom someone might cause to sin (17:2). If nothing else, it seems likely that Luke wants the reader to understand that Zacchaeus already has the same diminished social standing as the disciples.

In some ways the story illustrates Jesus’ instructions regarding the disciples’ mission (10:8-9). Zacchaeus “receives” Jesus exactly in the manner of a “son of peace.” To the household which receives them and provides hospitality the disciples are to say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” To Zacchaeus Jesus says, “Today there was salvation in this house.” Arguably, neither of these is a “literal” statement: the kingdom of God is not a localised phenomenon—it comes as a future national crisis; and Zacchaeus has not personally been saved as such. These are formulaic or idiomatic ways of affirming the value of their hospitality in the course of the mission to proclaim to Israel the coming sovereign intervention of YHWH.

On the other hand…

I have to say, I always enjoy these counter-readings with their potential to disrupt or subvert the assumptions that we make about the Gospel narrative. But there are certainly problems with this one. In the first place, we do not appear to have been set up to expect a righteous tax collector.

Let’s go back a bit further. A Pharisee and a tax collector stand praying in the temple (Lk. 18:9-14). The Pharisee not unreasonably thanks God that he is not like the tax collector: he is not rapacious and unjust, he is not an adulterer; he fasts regularly and pays the tithe on his earnings. The wretched tax collector, by contrast, humbles himself and prays for mercy from God; and it is the tax collector who goes home “justified” and who, in the age to come, will be exalted.

The typology was anticipated in Jesus’ earlier response to the Pharisees and their scribes when they complained about his association with tax collectors and sinners. He has not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (5:32). Likewise, a repentant tax collector would be the one lost sheep which is found, in contrast to the “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:6-7).

Then Jesus tells a righteous, Torah-observant ruler of the people to sell all that he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. The man is very rich, and Jesus says to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those having possessions to enter into the kingdom of God; for it is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to enter into the kingdom of God” (18:24-25*).

The idiomatic saying about the camel parallels an earlier one: “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to fall” (16:17*). A camel passing through the eye of a needle and heaven and earth passing away are two equally impossible things. Jesus did not expect people with great possessions to find their way into the future reality of God’s rule over his people—not least because so much wealth would be destroyed in the course of the war against Rome. The rich man who is tormented in Hades is an example. He is excluded from the presence of Abraham; he is not re-assimilated into Israel’s seminal identity. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, is the exception who proves the rule. The things impossible with people are sometimes possible with God (18:30).

There are also a number of specific exegetical reasons for thinking that Zacchaeus now realises that he must change his ways.

The present tense verbs “I give to the poor… I give back fourfold” could perhaps be taken in an iterative sense: I do this repeatedly or when required. But the contrast between the aorist expression “if I falsely accused…” and the present tense “I give back” seems to imply a distinction between a possible past offence and a present or impending act of reparation.

Moreover, it seems impractical for Zacchaeus routinely to give half of what he possesses (ta hēmisia mou tōn hyparchontōn) to the poor. The expression “the half of his property” (to hēmisu tōn hyparchontōn) is found in Tobit 8:21; 10:10 with the clear sense of half of a person’s total possessions. You can’t keep doing that, not in any meaningful way. The Pharisee in the temple could say, “I tithe everything that I obtain” (18:12), speaking of his customary practice in the present tense, but that is expressly with reference to income, not possessions.

The language of “falsely accusing” (esykophantēsa) a person has a background in the Septuagint in contexts which make it difficult to construe the action as an “innocent mistake”: “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; each of you shall not falsely accuse (sykophantēsei) his neighbour” (Lev. 19:11; cf. Ps. 118:122; Prov. 14:31; 22:16; 28:3; Eccl. 4:1). The word is used in Luke 3:14 in respect of Roman soldiers making false accusations to extort money from people.

The final saying about the Son of Man coming to seek and to see the one who is lost aligns the preceding affirmation with his response to the grumbling of the Pharisees on a previous occasion when he was feasting with tax collectors and sinners: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5:32). That rather puts Zacchaeus in the category of “sinner who needs to repent.”

But then again…

In the end, it seems important to recognise the very positive portrait of Zacchaeus. He is the rare rich man who spontaneously commits to giving up half his wealth in response to the presence of this Son of David. Probably, the offer to make reparations is an admission of complicity in a corrupt and unjust tax system, if not of exact personal guilt; and he is “saved” at least in the sense that he now identifies with the Jesus-led movement of renewal.

He does not become a “follower” as such, but he is no longer one of the “lost”; he has become an authentic participant in the family of Abraham as it is being redefined by Jesus, at least as a “son of peace.” But Nolland is right, I think, to say that the tone of the story counts against the view that Zacchaeus is “describing his regular practice and not his newfound intention.”3

  • 1J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (1974), 1225.
  • 2J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1223.
  • 3J. Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53 (1993), 906.