Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

152. Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10)*

It was the afternoon before the sabbath began (see Study 154), and Jesus, accompanied by a great throng of Passover pilgrims, was passing through Jericho, when one of the most unusual incidents of his ministry took place.

There in Jericho lived Zaccheus, a chief publican. He was the senior administrative officer of the inland revenue, a man of very considerable wealth. Hearing that Jesus of Nazareth was in the town, he determined to see him (cp. Jn. 12 :21). Like everyone else, he had heard much about this man. Perhaps through an old colleague, Levi the publican, he had heard more than most. So he set out to make use of this opportunity of first-hand knowledge about Jesus.

Finding Jesus was an easy matter, but getting near enough to have a good look at him and to hear what he was saying proved a much more difficult proposition. The crowd round Jesus was considerable, and Zaccheus was a little man. More than this, he was hated, and the local people, recognizing him there, enjoyed putting hindrance in his way.

But Zaccheus was a man of resource. More significantly, in his resolution to see Jesus he was willing to throw to the winds all the dignity which little people so often value. So, running ahead on the road which Jesus must follow, he came to a "sycomore" tree. It was actually a species of fig tree, short in the bole and with wide-spreading branches and dense foliage, a great favourite as a shade tree in that hottest town in Israel (1 Kgs 10 :27; 1 Chr. 27 :28). Clambering hastily up into this vantage point, he worked his way out on to a limb so as to be able to look down on Jesus from only a few feet away.

Great was his astonishment when the Teacher from Nazareth stopped and, looking up, addressed him by name (the Good Shepherd "calls his own sheep by name"; John 10 :3): "Zaccheus, make haste, and come down, for today I must abide at thy house." "Must" (it is necessary)—because the sabbath day was coming on? or because this was the solitary opportunity to save Zaccheus? Yet v.l RV says Jesus was passing through Jericho! The descent of the publican was even more hasty and less dignified than his climbing up.

With what fervour did he express his satisfaction at having Jesus and the twelve come to his home. A few days later Jesus was to come to Jerusalem and find a fig tree quite destitute of fruit (Mt. 21 :19), but there was good fruit in this one under which he had paused.

So this undersized richly-dressed publican and the gaunt sinewy prophet went off together, whilst murmurs of astonishment and indignation went round the crowd that Jesus should choose to have anything to do with one so hated and unclean. Besides, was not Jericho a city of priests and Levites (Lk. 10 :30)? The Talmud says it had nearly as many priests as Jerusalem had. So there were plenty of homes which could provide more seemly hospitality! More than this, it was sabbath eve, so moving on next day would be out of the question. Jesus and his men -at least thirteen in that party!-would have to stay at the home of Zaccheus from Friday night to Sunday morning!

Earlier that day (most probably) another man, a member of the Sanhedrin, had come to Jesus and had gone away again. He could have invited Jesus to his home, had he chosen to do so—"and he was very rich" (18 :23). Instead that great experience was reserved for a loathed and despised publican. It is the only time the gospels tell of Jesus inviting himself to the home of anyone.


The openly-expressed criticisms that Jesus was become a guest (E.W. 2 :7; 22 :11) of "a man that is a sinner" lay very much on the mind of Zaccheus. So, that same day (v.5,9) before ever the sabbath came on, he stood before Jesus and all the twelve (v.ll), and declared his discipleship and the willing-hearted renunciation that went with it: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods (not: the half of my income!) I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation (and the list of these would not be a short one!; contrast 1 Sam.12 :3), I restore him fourfold'— as who should say: 'Sinner I may have been, but from this day forward my life is different, and they are wrong, Lord, to slander you so.'

This resolution made by Zaccheus was drastic indeed. When a man confessed fraud and made voluntary restitution, the Law required that one fifth be added to the repayment (Lev. 6:1-5; Num. 5:7). In cases of discovered theft, if the property was still intact, double payment was to be made (Ex.22 :4,7). But if the stolen goods were destroyed, then four times the original value was to be paid (Ex. 22:1).

Zaccheus was willing to impose the most extreme penalty on himself; and, over and above that, he thereupon devoted half of his capital to good works among the poor.

He was immediately rewarded with one of the most satisfying and reassuring declarations any man could wish to hear: "This day," Jesus said to him, "is salvation (the forgiveness of sins; Lk.l :77) come to this house—forasmuch (he added, addressing his disciples) as he also is a son of Abraham." As Abraham, in faith, had made his sudden break with the past, so also Zaccheus. His name, which means "pure" or "clean", was now his by right (cf.v.7). In a double sense salvation had come to his home, for Jesus (the salvation of Jehovah) was there as his guest (cp.2 Sam.6 :11). And since Jesus could see that the tremendous example of Zaccheus was already an influence on the entire household, even though half their wealth was gone, he included them in the blessing also.

Thus he turned from parable to reality his own gracious story of the lost sheep: "the Son of man came to seek and save that which was lost."

Lessons to be learned

Few incidents in the variegated gospel records illustrate so wide a range of important principles associated with salvation; so it is not merely by its vivid incident and characterisation that the story of Zaccheus continues to hold its readers.

The outstanding lesson is that there is little good in knowing Jesus from a distance. Without close personal association, merely seeing him is a thing of little consequence. The woman in the crowd who touched the hem of Christ's robe was thereby healed, but without the face-to-face encounter with him and open confession would she have been saved (Lk.8 :45-47)?

The fig tree, so often a figure of Israel and its Mosaic law, was a good place from which to view Jesus (for the Law has many wonderful and impressive foreshadowings of him), but except a man come away from that and meet Jesus in person, receiving him as Lord into the home, the best has not been known.

And if this great blessing is to be had, there must be firm resolution to overcome discouragements and handicaps, a readiness to throw personal dignity and reputation to the winds, and a willingness to make drastic renunciation of worldly advantage.

The story reads as though Zaccheus made his declaration of thorough restitution on impulse out of gratitude for the blessing Jesus brought to his home. It is a wholesome reminder that sudden good impulses are not to be resisted or deliberated on but forthwith put into operation.

And the Lord's emphatic "This day is salvation come to this house" should surely suggest the importance and value of the day of one's conversion or baptism as a day to be solemnly remembered. Far more important than the world's pagan celebration of the anniversary of one's birth as a son of Adam! (Mk.6 :21; Gen.40 :20). "The same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" (Acts 2 :41). "I thank God ... for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now" (Phil.l :5). The new birth is the day of real importance.

Notes: Lk. l9:1-10

A man named Zaccheus. Gk: a man of consequence or distinction.

Chief publican. Observe Luke's interest in publicans: 3: 12; 5 :27;7 :29; 15:1; 18:10; 19:2.
Little of stature. Grammatically this description could be read as applying to Jesus. And three other passages (Mt.21 :5; Jn.20 :15; Mk. 15 :21) have been cited as supporting the idea (?); but all this must give way before Lk.2:52,40RV.
Fourfold. Why seven-fold in Proverbs 6:30,31?

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