In our last article we saw the remarkable way in which our Lord healed the blind men at Jericho and the language that was used in the divine record to connect that incident with some of the key events that had occurred in that city many years before. The story, however, doesn’t stop with the blind men in the way. Our Lord continues onwards towards municipal Jericho where another healing of a different kind is to take place.

Luke alone records the incident in Jericho involving Zacchaeus. His gospel focuses a great deal on those who were considered social outcasts by the people around them.

The recent miracle between the two Jerichos had electrified the crowd “and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God” (Luke 18:43). We can appreciate the joy and thankfulness of the Master’s two new disciples following him in the way as the numbers in the crowd began to swell even more. Surely he was the son of David, just as the two men had cried out.

As Jesus entered the civic section of Jericho, Luke introduces us to Zacchaeus. His name is highlighted and so is his status. He was “chief among the publicans, and he was rich” (Luke 19:2). His name is of Hebrew origin and means “pure or just”. He stands in complete contrast to Bartimaeus whose name means “son of impurity”. But they both had one thing in common—they were unable to see Jesus. Bartimaeus was blind and Zacchaeus was too short! His name, however, was ironic because he was a publican and these tax collectors were considered anything but pure. They were objects of hatred and detestation so that the Jews considered that none but persons of worthless character were likely to be found in this employment. As such they were not permitted to enter the synagogue and no one could come near them without being defiled. They were therefore treated as “unclean” by the Jews, and in their minds were certainly unable to be saved. He stands in the record as unclean as Rahab did many years before.

Luke states that he was chief among the publicans and this serves to underscore the source of his great wealth. One of the things for which Jericho was famous was the balm derived from the balsam tree. Josephus (Antiquities XV.96) calls balsam “the most precious thing there is”. It was fragrant, soothing, and highly regarded for its healing qualities. The trade in this commodity—and in other commodities abounding in the Jericho region—yielded high taxes for the Roman government. Besides this, Jericho was at the heart and centre of a vast trade route network. The city had trade connections with Damascus, Tyre, and Sidon to the north, Caesarea and Joppa to the west, and Egypt to the south, as well as with many other cities and countries in every direction.

As the head of the tax collectors in this region, Zacchaeus was a sort of commissioner of taxes, who supervised other publicans serving under him. One of the striking things about this despised class of people, however, was that a number had come to John’s baptism in the Jordan just a few kilometres distance from Jericho (Luke 3:12-13). John’s message to them was forthright: “Exact no more than that which is appointed you”. In submitting to baptism they declared God righteous (Luke 7:29) and later drew near to hear the words of Jesus concerning the lost (Luke 15:1). Whilst we don’t know whether Zacchaeus responded to John’s work, we do know that he had a conscience about his life, and this drove him to do what he did.

He was a very wealthy man. In the course of his travels, he may have been aware of the two blind men sitting begging, but there is no indication that they had been helped by his wealth. In Luke 18:22-24 we see that the rich young ruler could not give his wealth away and follow Christ. This prompted the Lord to say that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. The disciples were incredulous: “Who then can be saved?” (Gk: sozo). Luke is now about to illustrate that, with God, all things are possible and Zacchaeus is about to become living proof that a rich man can be saved (19:9-10, “saved” = sozo). While riches were the young ruler’s idol, riches did not impede Zacchaeus from coming to Jesus. He held nothing back. Notice that Jesus did not ask Zacchaeus to sell everything and distribute to the poor. Jesus knew Zacchaeus’ heart. The man’s unsolicited response to give to the poor and to make restitution to those he had defrauded was clear evidence of the desire of his heart! Jesus also did not tell Zacchaeus to quit his job as a tax collector either, or to follow him in the way, as he did with Matthew. The Lord knew what was in the hearts of men and handled different people in different ways.

Luke records that Zacchaeus “sought to see Jesus who he was” (19:3). He was unable to see, just like Bartimaeus. Here is the theme of Joshua 3:3 once more: “When ye see the ark…ye shall go after it”. This was what Zacchaeus was trying to do and Luke’s phraseology suggests more than just idle curiosity. He really wanted to understand the real Jesus. He had heard many things, but he needed to see for himself. Was Jesus going to be a hard man, rebuking people like him? Would he understand his position? The fact that he wanted to see the Lord indicated that he had a conscience about where his life was heading. He somehow knew that it needed to change. But there must have been something standing in the way, preventing him from moving forward.

He was barred from worshipping in the synagogue yet had a desire to seek something higher; something more in life. What was stopping him from joining the band of disciples before Jesus came to Jericho? Perhaps it was his job which generated such hatred from his fellow Jews that he was unable to take the next step. This is suggested in the next phrase: he “could not because of the press”. The hatred and exclusion from society was like a barrier preventing him from reaching Christ. It was perhaps too hard to find someone to help him because everyone shunned these men. He couldn’t find anyone in his line of work to assist. He wanted to change but no one was interested in showing him how!

Verse 10 tells us that he was lost. He knew he needed guidance, but he needed someone to come along and steer him in the right direction. He needed someone to assist him to reach for the right solution to his life. He longed to do the right thing, but he didn’t know how. He didn’t know the steps he needed to take. He sought Jesus—but actually Jesus was seeking him.

We can imagine this despised man trying to push through the seething crowd but finding his progress blocked at every turn. No one was prepared to give way or help out. We can see him standing on tiptoes, but to no avail. That crowd becomes a symbol of the barriers in life that prevent us from doing the right thing. There is always a push back from the world when we seek to do good. He could have given up, but with a degree of eagerness and urgency he ran ahead (cp Isa 55:5) and scrambled up and along the low branches of a nearby sycamore tree. The sycamore was a second-class fig tree, which produced a very poor-quality type of fig, less sweet than the fig and not easy to digest. In fact, it was only bought and eaten by the poor as a cheap source of nutrition. He was a rich man in a poor-quality tree and he was like that fruit—indigestible to those around him.

But he was there to “see Jesus who he was…for he was to pass that way”. Once more we have the language of the ark passing by to show them the way they needed to go. And the Lord knew all about this man. He knew his name; he came to the precise place where he was situated; he knew to look up to find him. The same eye that saw Nathanael under the fig tree saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree.

Jesus had steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem. Nothing was going to deter him, except this kind of work—to seek out and to save the lost. But salvation is a matter of urgency and therefore he commanded Zacchaeus to “make haste and come down; for today I must abide at thy house”. “Now is the day of salvation”, warned Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:2. In another place he exhorted the ecclesia, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 4:7 ESV). For us—we may not have a tomorrow. Our Lord could be here at any moment. That same sense of urgency needs to be fully grasped.

This is the only recorded incident of Jesus inviting himself into someone else’s home. “I must (the Greek word means ‘necessary’) abide at thy house”, he said. Abiding with someone is a turn of phrase that Christ used to describe ‘dwelling in someone’ (John 15:4). Now Zacchaeus never could have anticipated anything like this because he knew he was considered a defiled person and no one who considered himself righteous or clean would ever come near him, let alone near his house, and worst of all, eat a meal with him, which was tantamount to affirmation and partnership. But this is exactly the method God used in the past when He moved within an unclean city to expose the faith of Rahab. The spies entered into her house. Our Lord does the same thing here.

It is intriguing to note that Jesus is on this deliberate path leading inexorably to Jerusalem and, in the case of Bartimaeus, the Lord was passing by a blind man with no intention of stopping. That man had to scream out for help to get his attention! But in contrast the Lord is entering this part of Jericho seeking the lost (Luke19:10). Even on his way to the cross he is seeking out people for salvation.

Luke records that Zacchaeus made haste and came down. There was no hesitation; no debating; no procrastinating. He did precisely as the Lord bid him and “received him”. This is the same word used in James 2:25 of Rahab the harlot when she received the spies into her home. And he did this joyfully. It was a pointed contrast to the young rich ruler who went away “very sorrowful” (Luke 18:23).

We are not told any details relating to the discussion in that house. All we are told is the outcome that eventuated. In chapter 19:8 we learn that “Zacchaeus stood”. Once more we have a link back to the events surrounding the movement of the ark where we learn that when the priests came to the Jordan they were to stand still and at that point Joshua could invite them to come near and hear the words of God (Josh 3:8-9). Luke is portraying Zacchaeus linking himself to those priests standing before the Lord of all the earth and identifying himself with the words of God.

We have seen a lot of running and making haste but now we witness him standing. This suggests that most likely he had been on his knees before Christ, and in that humility he now takes a formal stand. He stood and made a formal declaration. It’s as though he now stands to make a resolution. What prompted this confession? I am sure that as the Lord was talking with Zacchaeus, helping and guiding him to a right decision, the subject of his wealth came up. The Lord would have questioned the value of this wealth and how it was derived and that had brought Zacchaeus to this point of repentance.

“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor”: whilst this confession is couched in the present tense it is really a declaration of change. It’s as though he is saying that right now I am going to give my goods to the poor. Right now I am going to examine my behaviour and if I have sinned I am going to make restitution. The reason for saying this is because on hearing that confession of intent, Jesus declared, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost”. If Zacchaeus had been already doing this, then the Lord’s comment about ‘today is salvation come’ would be meaningless. If, however, it was a promise of future intention, the Lord’s commendation makes sense and Zacchaeus no longer becomes lost.

What the young rich ruler couldn’t do, Zacchaeus does. Achan coveted and hoarded wealth; Zacchaeus is going to give it away. The salvation Rahab had experienced in her house was the same salvation that Zacchaeus experienced in his house. John the Baptist had predicted that “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” and Zacchaeus was living proof of that power and ability.

God’s care for the lost began immediately after the transgression: “Adam…where art thou?”. It continued right through Israel’s history and will be seen once more in the kingdom age: “I will seek that which was lost”, says the Shepherd of Israel, “and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick” (Ezek 34:16). This was ever our Lord’s perspective as he said in the synagogue at Capernaum, “this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing” (John 6:39). We need to have that same disposition and seek out those of our number who find themselves lost; those who need direction; those who need guidance and counsel; those who need help. We need to encourage them and strengthen them that they may embrace their calling more fervently. If the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost, then we ought to do likewise.