Jesus and Zacchaeus

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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 down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the author’s community

The world at the time of the text

Geography of the text

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Luke.

The World of the Text

Text and Textual features

The story of Zacchaeus is one of the best known passages in Luke’s Gospel. It is a narrative, with a clear beginning, middle and end, with a dramatic problem on which the resolution or coda hang.

Repetition and dialogue feature in the passage, as is contrast, best seen in the ‘seeking’ and ‘saving’ of Zacchaeus himself. 

The ‘joyful welcome’ (v6) echoes Martha’s joyful reception of Jesus in Chapter 10 and speaks to Luke’s emphasis on hospitality (2:28; 8:13; 9:5; 48, 53; 10:8, 10; 16:9; 18:17) and its links with messianic joy (1:14; 2:10; 6:23; 8:13; 10:17, 20).  Joy is also associated with repentance (15:5, 7, 10, 32).

This passage should also be noted for its use of Lost and found – making it the 5th passage in which Luke’s great theme is taught.

Characters and Setting

Both the previous story and this narrative are located within Jericho. This particular narrative appears only in Luke’s Gospel.  The character of the ‘tax collector’ (v2: architelōnēs) parallels the ‘rich man’ archon in 18:18 and establishes the wealth of the central character in comparison to their community. This provides the reason for the disciples grumbling about Jesus’ decision to dine with this ‘sinner’. The thematic link between the tax collector and the sinner (v7) has already been established in 3:12 and 5:8.

Ideas/Key Concepts

The suggestion of Jesus visiting the house of Zacchaeus (v5) draws on broad themes in Luke’s Gospel, including his liking for table hospitality. Byrne notes that Luke’s many meals with sinners deliberately identifies and teaches the hospitality of God to all people, including Gentiles, Luke’s likely community. If Zacchaeus can welcome Jesus at his table so then can the Gentiles.

The use of the term ‘I am giving’ (v8) is written in the present tense (Gk).  This suggests a repeated, established practice rather than an act of spontaneous generosity.  For Luke, almsgiving is a true sign of righteousness (6:30-21, 38; 11:41, 12:33, 16:9; 18:22, 29): Zacchaeus’ status as a sinner is assumed by the reaction of the crown and his employment. However, his response ‘if I have defrauded anyone’ leaves open the possibility that he may not have; if so then salvation comes to his house in his mere acceptance of the prophet and his disposition of his possessions for the poor (v9).

The story provides an answer to the question posed in 18:26 “then who can be saved?”  Zacchaeus stands in contrast to the wealthy ruler in 18:18-23, because of his willingness to receive the prophet with joy and his commitment to sharing his possessions with the poor.

Questions for the teacher:

What am I wondering about the text?
What of this information is important to share with the students?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text?
What might they already know about (from their study of literacy)?
What might they wonder about?

World in Front of the Text

Questions for the teacher:

How does the information assist you in understanding the text?
What else do you need to know?
How might Matthew’s community have reacted to this text?
What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

Meaning for today/challenges

The juxtaposition of Zacchaeus with the wealthy ruler provides the paradox to challenge pre-conceived ideas of who is righteous – everything about Zacchaeus suggests corruption but he is righteous in action.

The good news reaches the outcast – those who are lost and being sought out and saved.  Luke reminds the readers that disposition of heart of symbolised by disposition of possessions – those who share generously with the poor welcome the prophet with joy.

Jesus’ meal ministry is a concrete sign of the words of Isaiah foreshadowed in Luke 4:18-19 – eating with unsavoury meal companions created the scandal associated with his liberating mission and helped to bring him to the cross.  Jesus did not demand repentance of those to whom he offered hospitality. He only asked they accept his word.  By sharing a meal with them Jesus was declaring with divine voice that God shares life with them.

The change brought about by this surprising act not only transformed the life of the ‘sinner’ but also his community – this restoration is the liberation that the kingdom of God promises.

Church interpretation and usage

This narrative is often used to prepare young children for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It celebrates the ‘metanoia’ or conversion of the heart that occurs when receiving God’s mercy.  It is often used alongside three parables in Chapter 15 of Luke that all celebrate reconciliation: The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and The Prodigal Son.  Zacchaeus is an accessible figure to the reader, representing the flawed nature of humanity, loved and sought by God.

Liturgical usage

Year C 21st Sunday after Pentecost.