Year C: Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

Luke 19: 1-10

He came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways are you “seeking” to see who Jesus is and what represents the “crowd” that gets in your way?
  2. Each of us is a combination of mixed motives, sinful and saved, lost and then found. Where have you had an experience of being “saved” by Jesus? What did it look like and how did you respond afterward?
  3. How does the flow of God’s forgiveness and love help you to accept the broken parts of yourself and others? How are you responding to this movement of God?
  4. When have you felt compelled like Zacchaeus to show the love of God to others four-fold? Tell the story

Biblical Context

Luke 19: 1-10
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

Only Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus, and he tells it at the end of a multichapter narrative describing Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. The journey is replete with stories of Jesus seeking out and saving the lost. But who, in the story of Zacchaeus, is Jesus seeking? Who is lost?

Our familiarity with this story may lead us to say, “Zacchaeus, of course.” We know Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and we know tax collectors were recruited from the Jewish community because it was less risky for the Roman occupiers to have Jewish locals collect the taxes charged for the occupation of their homeland. Luke identifies Zacchaeus as a “chief tax collector” (v. 2). He tells us Zacchaeus was wealthy, and we can guess why. Tax collectors defrauding the populace was an ongoing issue for the community of Jesus’ time (Luke 3:13). Zacchaeus would have been a man well known in Jericho, and well hated.

And yet, for Luke, tax collectors, loathed as they were, were among the marginalized who were attracted to Jesus. They were among the lost whom Jesus came to seek and save. But there is still the problem of ill-gotten wealth here, which is viewed with suspicion in all the Gospels.

The name Zacchaeus means “righteous” or “pure.” And he was short. That is how he ended up in a sycamore tree. On, where those of us who don’t read Greek can gain a bit of background, we learn that the Greek word for “short,” when used in the superlative as it is here, can be translated as “least.” That is how it is used in Luke 9:48: “for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

And then there is Zacchaeus’ claim: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (v. 8, English Standard Version). This is said in the present tense, as it was in the original Greek, not the future tense, as some translations suggest. Zacchaeus resolves the issue of his wealth by saying he is already giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back those he has defrauded four times what he has taken.

Some commentators interpret the present tense here as a “futuristic present.” Zacchaeus repents and vows that henceforth, he’ll make restitution. Still others interpret the verbs as a “progressive present tense,” something ongoing. But it is interesting to note that Zacchaeus’ claim is no different grammatically from what the Pharisee said in his prayer in last Sunday’s Gospel: “I fast twice per Sabbath, I tithe everything that I possess” (Luke 18:12)

If we use the first interpretation, Zacchaeus is a decent man about whom people have made all kinds of false assumptions. This interpretation fits with many such twists where Jesus calls out good people who are bad and commends bad people who are good — the faith of a Roman soldier, a good Samaritan, a Samaritan leper who was the only person to give thanks for his healing, and a tax collector (!) who was commended as more righteous than a sanctimonious Pharisee.

The Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Kaeton, an Episcopal priest, is quoted as suggesting, “The despicable Zacchaeus is the generous one. The traditional interpretation that Zacchaeus is a sinner whose conversion tricks us into committing the very sin that the story condemns.” “Turns out,” Kaeton writes, “Zacchaeus does live up to his name. He is, in fact, ‘the righteous one.’ Turns out, Jesus knew that all along!” (Quoted in “A Repentant Sinner or a Hidden Saint? The Story of Zacchaeus,” “Journey with Jesus,”)

The crowd had demonized Zacchaeus. Jesus praises him as “a son of Abraham” (v. 9). Luke’s Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus does not define Zacchaeus as a sinner rejected by God. He may have sinned, but that does not define him. What defines him is that “he too is a descendant of Abraham.”

William Loader, a minister of the Uniting Church in Australia and emeritus professor of New Testament at Murdoch University, Perth, notes, “The point within that context is that Zacchaeus is not a nobody. He is also a human being — in that context, a child of Abraham, ‘one of us Jews.’ Among his people Jesus would write no one off. … This is not unlike what Jesus tells his disciples to do in Luke 10: “turn up on their doorstep for a meal and see what happens!”

Striving to See

Elizabeth A. Elliott

I had the opportunity to attend an Olympic soccer match in 1996. We left at the half, but I remember taking the long walk to the car, completely unable to see above the heads in front of me. I saw only a wall of people’s backs around me as we made our way through the crowd. I held on to the shirttail of a family member so I wouldn’t be separated in the jungle of people, and had to trust that I would find my way through.

During that walk, I desperately wished I had some height on my short frame. My grandpa was a whole foot taller than me! I can identify with the short Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel.

One of the things that struck me in this passage is how Jesus and Zacchaeus sought each other out. Zacchaeus climbed up a tree to get a better vantage point from which to see Jesus. Jesus called Zacchaeus forth by name, saying, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And the joy is palpable between them.

Jesus searches for us, too. He calls us by name and desires to come to our house. We should find great joy in that initiative.

Zacchaeus responded to Jesus’ acceptance by giving away half his possessions to the poor and going above and beyond in repaying those he had extorted in his work as a tax collector. Do we do the same when we have been moved by God’s love and mercy for us? Zacchaeus’ generosity came from a sense of being accepted and forgiven. He received neither of those things from the crowd who murmured around him.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem as he passed through Jericho. He was on his way to his crucifixion, yet he took every opportunity to save those entrusted to him, including Zacchaeus. As it says at the end of the Gospel, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost.”

We can easily be like the crowd around Jesus and Zacchaeus. We can be just as cynical as the ones asking why Jesus would spend time with this tax collector. But Jesus spent time with other despised sinners and tax collectors because he saw beyond their outward behavior and into their hearts, which were open to God’s grace.

The first reading from Wisdom sums up the way Jesus would approach Zacchaeus: “But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.” The people hated Zacchaeus because of his job as a tax collector and his extortion of others. But Jesus had mercy on him. Jesus saw past the sins of Zacchaeus and perceived a heart that was ready to change.

We see in the first reading that God does not judge. God loves all of us, even the ones whom many others condemn. Because we both experience and dole out judgments so often, it can be hard to remember how non-judgmental God is. We don’t need to live our lives in fear of judgment from God.

Zacchaeus can teach us how to be persistent. He desired to see Jesus so much that he strove to overcome the obstacle of his low physical height. How motivated are we to change our own lives? Are there trees we are willing to climb in order to find a deeper relationship with God? How will we respond when we encounter God’s love?