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Zacchaeus [or Zacchai] was a tax collector and a wealthy man (Lk 19:2). He was a Jew as is also indicated by the Hebrew origin of his name (Ezr 2:9; Neh 7:14). He was rich because of his profession and had reached the top position of Chief Tax Collector. However, he was socially and ethically poor among the Jews because of his allegiance to Rome as a tax collector and his excessive and forceful taxation strategies.

Obviously, the wealth of Zacchaeus gave him only momentary happiness with a deepening spiritual void. There were tax- collectors who had already received John’s baptism of repentance with a resolution not to collect more than what was prescribed (Lk 3:12-13). John the Baptist did not prevent them from collecting taxes for Rome. But he asked them to do justice to the taxpayer concerned. Zacchaeus declined to approach John because of his greed. Some of his friends who enjoyed peace after their baptism from John might have shared their experience with Zacchaeus. But approaching John as an afterthought would have been worthless because, by then, the prophet would have been beheaded by the king.

Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus performing miracles and forgiving sins to relieve the physical and mental miseries of people who were short of basic needs. He might have heard of Levi, the tax collector whom Jesus selected as his apostle. Levi, also known as Matthew, left everything he had and became a follower of Jesus (Lk 5:27-28). The change of Matthew’s life and the joy he felt despite his worldly loss might have been a hot topic for discussion among the tax collectors. Fed up with the emptiness Zacchaeus felt and the animosity he faced from others, he might have thought of following the example of Matthew. He had heard the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector narrated by Jesus who acknowledged the publican but not the Pharisee (Lk 18:9- 14). The tax-collectors were probably wondering how a popular Jewish Rabbi could favour them while other Jews despised them. Thus, Jesus became a point of discussion among the publicans. The news about Jesus’ curing of the blind beggar in Zacchaeus’ hometown was apparently the latest flash news. That facilitated Zacchaeus’ fervent longing to see Jesus while he was crossing Jericho, heading for Jerusalem. He wished to see Jesus, though not in person but as an observer, to find out how this man of God was in his appearance and dealings with the people.

While Jesus was passing by through, Zacchaeus “wanted to see what Jesus was like, but he was a short man and could not see him because of the crowd” (Lk 19:3). Besides physical shortness, Zacchaeus felt socially and spiritually dwarfed, too. He felt isolated by his Jewish community because of their hatred towards him as a greedy tax collector for Rome. Jesus was on his last trip to Jerusalem for the Passover which was to be followed by his crucifixion. By that time, he was popular, and large crowds milled around him, including his disciples and Jericho natives who had heard of Jesus’ miraculous healing of a blind beggar in their hometown. Jews from far and near were travelling to Jerusalem through Jericho for the Passover. Some of them also joined Jesus’ band. Because of the enormous crowd around Jesus, Zacchaeus had difficulty getting closer to him. Besides Zacchaeus’ short stature that would block his view of Jesus, his social alienation and people’s hatred prevented him from entering the crowd. He might have feared an attack from his enemies if they’d find him among them.

By the time Zacchaeus reached Jesus, he had left Jericho town and was heading towards Jerusalem. So, Zacchaeus could not climb any rooftop to see Jesus. The only way he could hopefully view Jesus was to climb a roadside tree where Jesus was about to pass, probably in imitation of people climbing trees to peek at Jesus. So Zacchaeus ran ahead of Jesus and climbed atop a sycamore tree (Lk 19:4).

Although many people watched Jesus from the roadside trees, he chose Zacchaeus. Jesus knew by his divine power the condition of Zacchaeus as a rich man with a spiritual vacuum. It was like Jesus knowing Nathanael when Philip introduced him to Jesus. Nathanael was surprised when Jesus told of him at his first sight of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him” (Jn 1:47). Jesus had also found Nathanael first under a fig tree that has resemblance to the Sycamore on which Zacchaeus climbed.

When Jesus called Zacchaeus by name, he was surprised because they did not know each other. Besides, Jesus was the popular prophet of the time and Zacchaeus was a hated publican. After becoming a tax collector, it was probably the first time he had heard himself being called so affectionately by name. That was obviously enough to soften his sturdy heart. Indeed, Jesus’ call of Zacchaeus by name in public was a huge recognition and personal attention for him. Jesus, the good shepherd, taught, “the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. … he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice” (Jn 10:3-4).

Jesus used the term “quickly” to express his enthusiasm to meet with Zacchaeus for his salvation. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for his final Passover and crucifixion as the Lamb of God. Before that, he longed to help as many people as possible. That was Zacchaeus’ first and last chance for redemption from Jesus.

During his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples were wandering around and had no residence of their own. People probably accommodated them hospitably. However, this is the only recorded instance of Jesus volunteering to stay in someone’s house. Jericho, being a rich city, was the centre of the elite Jews, especially the priests and the Pharisees. Jesus bypassed their residences and elected to stay at the house of a publican. He found a double purpose for it: On the one hand, he, along with his disciples, could get accommodation, and, on the other, he could spiritually influence Zacchaeus and his publican friends. Jesus came in search of sinners and not the righteous. For Zacchaeus, it was an unexpected and gracious offer from Jesus. A similar instance that Luke reports was the calling of Levi, another tax collector, who invited Jesus to his house for a grand banquet with his publican friends (Lk 5:27-32).

Just as Jesus asked Zacchaeus to come down quickly, he hurried down joyfully to meet Jesus (Lk 19:6). Thus, both Saviour and penitent were eager to meet each other! Zacchaeus did not ever expect to be personally picked by Jesus from amidst a large crowd. That public honour obviously made him rejoice at the privilege of hosting the highly popular Jesus. In a way, the Sycamore became a medium for his transformation. He climbed it with a sense of curiosity to see what kind of person Jesus was and came down quickly from it with a sense of anticipation at meeting the divine person who was about to change his life and destiny.

It is natural that people of any nation or category would hate one of their own kind working for their enemies. Zacchaeus was one such Jew collecting taxes for the Roman emperor, the enslaver of the Jews. Zacchaeus’ collection method was unethical because there was no standard tariff for taxation during that period. His unjust plunder is clear from his resolution to recompense for the money he had gained by cheating others. He cared only for personal wealth and ignored Jewish patriotism, religious practices, the sufferings of the people, and even social approval. Hence, the Jewish public had branded Zacchaeus as a sinner and had detested him. He was ineligible for salvation according to their standards. So, with Jesus’ involvement with such a publican there arose doubts as to Jesus’ credibility. The crowd was unaware of Jesus’ intention and considered him as trespassing traditional Jewish boundaries. In reality, Jesus was making Zacchaeus pay back all the unjust amounts he had levied upon them. Often, God’s or His representatives’ actions might seem strange to us because of our limited knowledge. We should be patient for the outcome of their mysterious actions.

But Zacchaeus spoke to Jesus, “The half of my goods, Lord, I give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I pay him back four times” (Lk 19:8). Jesus demanded nothing from Zacchaeus. However, the publican felt that Jesus, while coming to his house, had entered his very heart. He found himself examining his conscience for the first time, followed by a powerful urge to renew his life to become a worthy host of Jesus. Like the centurion who approached Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant, Zacchaeus also felt, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof” (Mt 8:8). He was convinced that the happiness he felt in amassing wealth was worthless compared to the joy that comes by totally renouncing everything he had unduly accumulated. Hence his firm resolve and confession to the Son of God!

Zacchaeus was enormously rich because he was a high-ranking tax official in an extremely resourceful city. Giving away half of his wealth was a big deal. It was his years of hard-earned wealth. In the past, he could not imagine losing or leaving off even some of it so easily! Yet, here was he, his heart touched by Jesus, all his material wealth becoming a huge burden for him. By following Jesus’ teaching, “Sell your belongings and give alms” (Lk 12:33), Zacchaeus disposed half of his property among the poor. So, his almsgiving was by no means a minimal amount or from the surplus savings that he had.

Zacchaeus had never thought of the hardships of the poor. But he had noticed their lighthearted living, free of worry! God had been feeding them through the generosity of others. Instead of remaining a selfish person, Zacchaeus became altruistic and made a firm resolve to distribute half of his wealth to the poor, ostensibly keeping the rest to restitute those whom he had exploited. Zacchaeus put into practice what the rich youth failed to do when Jesus said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). Zacchaeus wanted to be perfect and, by distributing half of his wealth to the needy, the spiritually poor Zacchaeus became rich in the heavenly realm.

Zacchaeus knew he had deceived many and thus made them suffer. He volunteered to spend the rest of his wealth to compensate for the damage he had done to others’ finances. Being a Jew, he was aware of God’s commandments, “When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft” (Ex 22:1). “If what he stole is found alive in his possession, be it an ox, a donkey or a sheep, he shall make twofold restitution” (Ex 22:3). God told Moses, “Tell the Israelites: If a man or a woman commits any offence against another person, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and thereby becomes guilty, that person shall confess the wrong that has been done, make restitution in full, and in addition give one fifth of its value to the one that has been wronged” (Num 5:6-7). When Prophet Nathan narrated to King David, the story of a rich man who “spared his own flocks and herds to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him: he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the one who had come to him,” David responded, “He shall make fourfold restitution for the lamb because he has done this and was unsparing” (2 Sam 12:4). Zacchaeus confessed to Jesus his sins and restituted what the law demanded or even more by paying back four times what he had cheated. Thus, Zacchaeus showed the people the method of a genuine conversion.

Because Zacchaeus desired and attempted to see Jesus, despite the obstacle of the immense crowd and his own physical stature, he found viable means to view Jesus coming and gained his attention in public. When Jesus volunteered to be a guest at his house, he felt as if Jesus was mobilizing his heart. Zacchaeus felt the need to clean up his soul to receive Jesus. While he forfeited most of his wealth by voluntarily giving half of his assets to the poor and the rest to restitute for his sins, he gained peace and joy. He regained public acceptance of the Jews and recognition of the Christians. Luke presented him in the gospel as a memorable role model for the conversion of sinners. All this is so much more precious than the value of all the wealth he had accumulated.

When Jesus called the apostles, they left everything they had and followed him. Jesus told Peter, “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). During the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:19-21). The heart of Zacchaeus was in the wealth he had amassed through unjust means. When Jesus came to him, Zacchaeus converted his possessions into his resources to achieve heaven. Though the rich Zacchaeus became poor in this world, he became wealthy in heaven. That is why Jesus promised salvation to him and his family, who had gained from his sins and now spiritually benefitted from his conversion. Salvation comes to us and our families when we receive Jesus and respond in the manner in which Zacchaeus did.

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