Jesus was passing through Jericho from the area of Jordan to Bethany near Jerusalem. He was on his way to raise Lazarus back to life. It was an important journey that he was undertaking but as he was going to perform this great miracle he still found time to deal with other people and their issues and needs and wants. The need that was going to delay him for a while was a man called Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector.
He is a small man, too short to see over the crowd. Zacchaeus, an abbreviation of Zechariah, means “the righteous one”– a big name to live up to.
The Roman empire had no officials of its own for the collection of taxes: in each country it used local people for this purpose. These were free to engage agents (hence we find reference to “chief tax collectors”: cf. Luke 19:2). The global amount of tax for each region was specified by the Roman authorities; the tax collectors levied more than this amount, keeping the surplus for themselves: this led them to act rather arbitrarily, which was why the people hated them. In the case of the Jews, insult was added to injury by the fact that the chosen people were being exploited by Gentiles.
They were treated as the worst kind of sinners going, as they were sinning through choice and not ignorance. They were classed as untouchables, people to be shunned at all cost. Some other occupations that were classed as sinners were barbers, tanners, shepherds; they were all immoral jobs but at the top of this list were tax collectors. The moral equivalent of tax collectors were traitors, murderers and infidels.
Having considered this we can somehow say that the name is incongruous for Zacchaeus, since he is the chief tax collector in Jericho, and tax collectors were notorious for cheating the general public to fatten their pockets. They would assess a tax, and if the person refused to pay or called it unfair, Herod’s soldiers would threaten him. Regions of a kingdom would be divided up into districts, and a tax collector would become responsible for collecting a certain amount of tax and passing it up the chain to the government. Whatever he collected over the amount required was his to keep. A chief tax collector would employ tax collectors under him to collect taxes in various parts of the district.
As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus is probably was responsible for collecting tolls on goods coming into Judea from Perea, a main trade route. This business has made him rich. But despite his riches, or perhaps because of them, Zacchaeus is hated by the people. They see him as a crook and a traitor, who works as a spy for the Roman oppressors in order to take their money and give it to the occupation government, and on to Rome.
Zacchaeus being described in detail as short, wealthy, and chief tax collector would simply imply that he is not only hated and condemned by the Jews but, more importantly his salvation is seemingly impossible.
In the figure of Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel, we have a portrait of a lost soul wanting, needing, waiting, willing and ready to be saved when the right moment comes.
Zacchaeus’ faith brings salvation not only to himself but also to his house. He expresses his faith in his fervent desire to “see” Jesus, even humbling himself to climb a tree just to watch Him pass by. While those of loftier religious stature react to Jesus with grumbling, Zacchaeus receives Him with joy.
Zacchaeus is not like the other rich men Jesus meets or tells stories about (see Luke 12:16-21; 16:19-31; 18:18-25). He repents, vowing to pay restitution to those he has cheated and to give half of his money to the poor.
By his humility he is exalted, made worthy to welcome the Lord into his house. By his faith, he is justified, made a descendant of Abraham (see Romans 4:16-17).
Zacchaeus knew that all his riches and wealth would never make him happy. He also knew that he needed a Savior, one that could save him from all his sins. One who could
give him true happiness and peace of mind. His desire and change of heart, to make restitution with those he falsely accused and stolen from, and to give half of his goods to the poor, could have only been made possible by the gift of God, to those who believe.