Luke includes in his Gospel an account found nowhere else in the Gospel tradition, a story which fits well with many of the Lucan themes regarding the value and danger of wealth and possessions – not to say that these are not concerns of Jesus himself, or not found in the other Gospels, just that they achieve a heightened prominence in the Gospel of Luke – regarding the tax collector Zacchaeus. This is a story beloved by children in Sunday Schools for a number of reasons: Zacchaeus is short like children and cannot see over the other adults; he climbs trees; Jesus sees him and calls him by name; Zacchaeus is moved by his encounter with Jesus to give away most of his money to the poor. It is a simple and straightforward story. There is no “but” to that designation, such as “but we as adults recognize its profound complexity,” only the hard call of simplicity.
Zacchaeus is short so he climbs a tree to see Jesus. This chief tax collector and “rich man” is intrigued enough by Jesus that he seeks him out – he desires to see him, which has both a literal and a spiritual sense. Jesus, however, more than simply seeing Zacchaeus, already knows him: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (19:5). Really, Jesus must stay at his house? As interesting as that fact is that Zacchaeus seems to find this perfectly normal, as the narrative states that “he hurried down and was happy to welcome him” (19:6). I bet he was happy to welcome Jesus, as just moments before the chief tax collector was straining to see him from a tree he had climbed because of the crowds and he certainly knew the sort of contempt with which a tax collector was held by the general populace.
That contempt comes through in 19:7, in which the crowds grumble because Jesus “has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” I have some sympathy for the crowds. Many of them were probably more righteous than Zacchaeus, who himself might have defrauded many of the people in the crowd, or sent out his underlings to defraud them, and now he is the one to welcome and receive Jesus? Why? That is, after all, the root of their question: why should Jesus welcome the sinner and go to his home and not the home of the righteous?
As with so many of Jesus’ parables and his encounters with sinners, he knows them better than they know themselves, as the encounter with Jesus leads Zacchaeus to an almost immediate act of repentance, in which he states that he will give half of his money to the poor and “if” he has defrauded anyone, which I take to be an acknowledgement that he has, he will pay it back four times. By the end of this, Zacchaeus is no longer, let me suggest, a rich man in terms of worldly possessions. The payment in terms of “fraud” (or “extortion”: Greek: sykophanteo, “to extort,” “to exact money wrongfully”) goes beyond what the Jewish law required (Numbers 5:7) and tax collectors, who “farmed” taxes for the Romans, were notorious for making certain they got their share and beyond in their taxation.
Zacchaeus’ act of repentance and restitution, though, indicate the strong hold that money has on us until spiritual insight cracks the bonds and the way in which money keeps us from salvation. Certainly, it is the spiritual act of repentance that leads Zacchaeus to salvation, but if Zacchaeus did not literally give back his money to the poor and those he had defrauded, would Jesus respond to Zacchaeus by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9)? Jesus connects Zacchaeus’ salvation to his willingness to free himself from what seem to be the bonds or shackles of wealth.
I think this is a simple parable, which explains to us that those who seek Jesus, Jesus already knows and is ready to welcome them home; it also suggests to me that repentance is what we desire in our deepest selves as Zacchaeus is ready to do so immediately when Jesus calls out to him. Simple, however, as I am fond of saying, does not mean easy. St. Augustine, in Book VIII, 12 of Confessions, gives one of the most famous examples of the desire for repentance foundering in the laziness of our lives:
"I was thus weighed down by the pleasant burden of the world in the way one commonly is by sleep, and the thoughts with which I attempted to meditate upon you were like the efforts of people who are trying to wake up, but are overpowered and immersed once more in slumberous deeps. No one wants to be asleep all the time, and it is generally agreed among sensible people that being awake is a better state, yet it often happens that a person puts off the moment when he must shake himself out of sleep because his limbs are heavy with a lassitude that pulls him toward the more attractive alternative, even though he is already trying to resist it and the hour for rising has come; in a similar way I was quite sure that surrendering myself to your love would be better than succumbing to my lust, but while the former course commended itself and was beginning to conquer, the latter charmed and chained me."
Money can chain you, as Zacchaeus knew, as can many other things, yet our relationship to money is something we rarely think of in terms of repentance, even though Jesus warns against its entanglements more often than most other sins. Even if we are not chief tax collectors and "rich" men and women, something can be done. Climb a tree, I suppose, so Jesus can see you; he already knows your name and you know you want to repent. And never think you are too old to climb a tree. It's not easy, but it is simple.
John W. Martens