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Dues and Rewards: Zacchaeus, the End, and biblical law

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Dues and Rewards: Zacchaeus, the End, and biblical law |

Jesus v. Jerusalem: A Commentary on Luke 9:51–20:26

11. Dues and Rewards (Luke 19:1–11)

All that has been taught so far concerning Christ’s lawsuit against Israel will be repeated in intensified form in chapter 19. Hardly a word of this chapter does not apply to that lawsuit, though in different ways. The first part is a living example of the remnant coming from among the despised classes. This part—the story of wee little Zacchaeus—could actually have been discussed in conjunction with any of the last few sections where Jesus defended His fellowship with sinners and tax collectors (15:1–16:31), taught about overcoming stumblingblocks (17:1–10), or emphasized the faithfulness of the remnant (17:11–18:43). I treat it separately from those sections because of its climactic nature.

This climactic nature leads Jesus then immediately to give a parable about the timing of the coming of the kingdom—there was a series of reckonings which must first take place, though the things that would take place would portend even more to their destruction. The people would then prove him correct by completely ignoring his parable during the triumphant entry. Jesus would then clearly pronounce the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

A True Son of Abraham (Luke 19:1–10)

Jesus was getting very near to Jerusalem; His journey was nearly complete. He had healed blind Bartimaeus “as he drew near to Jericho” (18:35); He now “entered . . . and was passing through” Jericho which was only fifteen miles northeast (mostly east) of Jerusalem. From here the walk to Jerusalem would only take a day.

Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector, he was the chief tax collector and he was rich (Luke 19:2). Luke relates his story:

And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

This is a story about the worst of the worst sinners among that group of tax collectors, and yet the best of the best examples of true salvation. While many rich and prominent Pharisees, and multitudes of gawking masses had been left behind by Jesus, this professional extortioner was among the elect remnant, as he was found and saved.

To appreciate fully the depth of this man’s sin, we must understand the nature of tax collection in those days. The text itself tells us enough to understand that Zacchaeus had enriched himself through the coercive power of the Empire (theft) and used devious means to do so (false accusation, v. 8). Yet this is one place where a little extra-biblical background is illuminating:

The collecting of the customs was not done by officers of the State, but by lessees, the so-called publican, who leased the customs of a particular district for a fixed annual sum; so that whatever in excess of that sum the revenue yielded was their gain. . . . This system was widely prevalent throughout ancient times, and came often to be applied, not only to the customs, but also to the taxes properly so called. . . . The extent to which custom might be charged was indeed prescribed by the court; but since these tariffs . . . were in early times often very indefinite, abundant room was left for the arbitrariness and rapacity of the tax-gatherer. The advantage taken of such opportunities, and the not infrequent overcharges that were made by these officials, made them a class hated by the people.

In short, tax collectors were private contractors to the State who promised to collect a fixed sum of revenue to the State; but anything they collected beyond that fixed sum was theirs to keep. This obviously became an incentive to envious and conscienceless people to extort as much as they could from the situation, thereby enriching themselves via the power of the State. It was robbery pure and simple, and those that engaged in it often used devious tactics and false accusations and threats in order to procure greater sums from innocent people. Worse yet, these people were not the invading, occupying Romans themselves, but fellow Jews who saw the opportunity to use Roman State power to enrich themselves at the expense of other Jews. They were turncoats, thieves, and liars who had Imperial immunity for their crime. They were hated by the people, and rightly so.

This makes it all the more scandalous that Jesus would befriend these people—the unrighteous mammon—and encourage His disciples to befriend them. It is even more scandalous yet that one of his closest twelve disciples had been one of these criminals—Matthew, or Levi—who had been sitting at the very customs house near Capernaum when Jesus called him (Luke 5:27; Matt. 9:9; Mark 2:1, 14). Matthew in fact immediately invited Jesus to dinner with a whole company of these tax collectors (Luke 5:29; Mark 2:15), and it was likely here that word of Jesus began to spread among the class of tax collectors. Perhaps Zacchaeus himself had learned of Jesus through this grapevine, for he was a head among the tax collectors. This means that he likely acted as a central agent who collected the taxes already collected by other local collectors. He had a broad network of tax-collector friends, no doubt, and he appears to have known something of Jesus before He arrived in Jericho.

Zacchaeus was “small of stature” which may explain why he had sought out a position of coercion and power: he was a classic Napoleon figure, compensating for his lack of size with legalized tyranny and force. He would naturally wish to meet this powerful influential Jesus, but could not see over the crowd. Yet he was interested enough that he would go the extra measure: he climbed a tree to see over the crowd.

I have a feeling that something is going on in Scripture with references to “sycamore” trees, though I confess, I am unsure what it is. This particular reference is to a sukomorean which was not quite the same as the earlier “sycamine” sukamino (Luke 17:4) which is probably a mulberry. David had a garden of these and a special overseer for them (1 Kings 10:27). Zacchaeus’ tree is a different type, sometimes translated as “sycamore-fig” (NIV), and was an apparent cousin to the standard fig tree (Greek, syce). Sources tell us that this “sycamore-fig” bore fruit all year round though the fruit was less popular; it was thus a beneficial tree for the poor. Perhaps there is meaning in Zacchaeus about to be proven part of the remnant, climbing the ever-fruit bearing type of fig; whereas in contrast faithless Israel would be symbolized by a fruitless fig tree in the near future (Mark 11:12–14, 20–21). I think this is strained speculation. But there is an interesting parallel in the ministry of the prophet Amos, who also condemned Israel in his day:

Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.

“You say, ‘Do not prophesy against Israel,
and do not preach against the house of Isaac.’

Therefore thus says the Lord:

“‘Your wife shall be a prostitute in the city,
and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
and your land shall be divided up with a measuring line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land’” (Amos 7:14–17).

Jesus was on the eve of presenting His own denunciation of the harlot city which would fall by the sword, etc. Is this little, yet vivid detail of the sycamore-fig tree in Luke the same kind of image-indicator we see so often in biblical theology? I admit, again, this is speculative, but it is certainly an interesting detail in this right. Amos’ prophecy was certainly about to see a parallel in Jesus’ pronouncements against that same city.

Whatever the details may portend, the overall message of the story was clear. Here was the head of the tax collectors, and yet he comes to faith in Jesus. Again, the remnant comes from the despised classes. Again, the faithless multitudes cannot handle the fact that Jesus dines with such as him. But the grace afforded to the remnant again prevails, and Zaccheaus shows that fruit which Pharisee and multitude alike refused to produce: repentance.

In repenting, Zacchaeus did something else the people neglected—he took seriously the Mosaic law. Not only did he give half of his own wealth to the poor (an act of charity), but he was willing to pay restitution on any he had gained through overcharging and extortion. This is what the law required:

If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. . . . If the stolen beast is found alive in his possession, whether it is an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double (Ex. 22:1).

In other words, a convicted thief was required to pay restitution in the following forms depending on the circumstances: if the stolen goods are recovered, he must restore the goods plus pay the same amount additionally as a penalty. Thus, he would be paying double. But if the goods had been squandered, sold, lost, etc., and were not recoverable, then he was required to repay at least fourfold.

This latter case is exactly what Zacchaeus promised to do for anyone he had falsely accused. He thus acknowledged that his wealth had very likely come through theft (no matter how legal it was under Roman law). (This, by the way, is a great incident to show that no matter what pagan civil laws are being enforced in a land, God’s law is the supreme law which transcends all others, and which believers especially should uphold.) He was willing to meet the stiffer penalty of the Mosaic law.

This willingness was evidence of true repentance. Jesus certainly accepted it as genuine, pronouncing Zacchaeus saved, a son of Abraham, and seeing the conversion as further confirmation of His mission to find and save the remnant: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9–10).

This affirmation that the chief tax collector was a true son of Abraham must have given that faithless multitude something more to murmur about.

Purchase Jesus v. Jerusalem

Next Section: The Parable of the Return in Judgment (Luke 19:11–44)


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 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.


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