Luke 19:1 — 3
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature.
In a few sentences and his usual masterly literary stokes, Luke gives us a clear picture of Zacchaeus’ identity (a chief tax collector) and his intention or desire (to see Jesus). The magnitude and intensity of desire with which he sought to experience Jesus up close and personal will be made clearer as the story unfolds, but right from the get-go, there seemed to be an incompatibility, a mismatch of sorts between his person and his desire. There is a keen sense in which his identity and his desire may be in conflict. His desire stood out in contrast to his identity. He was faced with some major obstacles he had to overcome if he was to experience Jesus up close and personally – a couple of things that inherently worked against his desire to encounter Jesus.
The first was his identity. “He was a chief tax collector and was rich”. We have to step back and rewind into first century Palestine in order to understand the full impact of this statement.
Zacchaeus was a Jew (“a son of Abraham” – vs 9) but collected taxes on behalf of the Roman Empire, the occupying force in Palestine at the time. Most people resented the Romans and did not want to pay taxes to them. Tax collectors worked for the Romans so they were effectively representatives of the foreign domination of Rome. They collected taxes from people to give to the Romans and so were regarded as traitors. Tax collectors were responsible for paying to the government the revenue they had promised in obtaining their contract, but they were generally free to collect extra taxes from the people in order to make a profit as they were not paid a wage. They were expected to pay their own wages by taking extra money from people. Such a system was open to exploitation and tax collectors had a reputation for being very dishonest. Opportunities for theft, fraud, and corruption abounded, and tax collectors are portrayed negatively in almost all Greco-Roman literature. They often became rich at the expense of those they collected taxes from by overcharging people and pocketing the surplus.
In Jesus’ day too tax collectors were not popular and were commonly regarded as sinners. In the rabbinical writings they are classified with robbers. They were social outcasts. Zacchaeus was not even a low-level tax operator but a chief one at that. His kind would rely on low-level tax gatherers (often slaves) to do the actual (or dirty) work of collecting the monies. If tax collectors were considered traitors and sinners Zacchaeus then would have been chief among them, a major social outcast, one who was despised and looked down on by one and all. This reality did not work in his favour but against him in accessing Jesus, a first century Jewish rabbi.
His reluctance to push and force his way through the crowd to get closer to Jesus like the rest could have been caused by the social stigma attached to his occupation. Not only were his like considered sinners but associating and socialising with them was seriously frowned upon. As it is, Roman taxes were burdensome, systematic and meticulously structured making it very difficult for people to evade any of them. But the added burden of the tax collectors’ demands turned them into villains. They were not only considered sinners as a result of their devious and often fraudulent tax collection methods for their own gain but were also viewed as traitors of country and nation for representing and collecting tax on behalf of an occupying foreign power – the Roman empire. It was an open secret where their (and Zacchaeus’) wealth came from – its source and system of acquisition employed by them well known to all.
The second obstacle Zacchaeus faced was his natural build, his own stature which he practically and for all intents and purposes, could do nothing about. His natural physique, part of his own make-up was an impediment, a real obstacle to getting up close and personal with Jesus. Here was something that potentially disadvantaged and handicapped Zacchaeus from a front seat at the “show”, from a close encounter with Christ because of the vast crowd that accompanied Him.
Both his social status and physical stature were real and tangible handicaps and impediments to Zacchaeus’ desire to experience Jesus for himself. Yet, he did not allow them to stop him but was determined to overcome both and experience Jesus for himself no matter what.
Society is generally quick to label people by their actions without sufficient insight into their thinking and reasoning and good at making those labels stick. This man had a desire which, on the outside, seemed incompatible and incongruous with the label and notoriety society afforded him. What he was labelled with seemed to affect and influence how he thought about himself too.
Zacchaeus had a lot going against him. The odds were stacked against him. They were definitely not in his favour whether naturally, socioeconomically or religiously. He was severely handicapped in what seemed like every way. He not only had to overcome his natural build or height but his community’s disapproval and disdain of him as a result of his occupation. He refused to give up on his attempt for a close encounter or offer his natural impediment as an excuse – he was determined to see Christ up close and personal and he was not going to let this opportunity pass him by despite the imposing disadvantage of his natural build. He was not taking “no” for an answer to his quest to have a close encounter with this teacher from Galilee. His desire to see the Lord was so intense that he simply would not give up. Desperate situations demand desperate measures. His natural build was something he could do nothing about in the circumstances, but he determined not to give in to it or allow it to dampen his enthusiasm and desire to meet the Lord.
Knowing that he would not be welcome among the crowd in his own hometown he decided to tackle the second impediment in his own life – at a distance nonetheless – in order to fulfil his desire to see the Lord. He chose, what he thought to be a safe venture, a safe bet. He decided to aid his own impediment and headed for a natural riser – a sycamore tree along the route that Jesus would pass on. He had to figure out the route so as to be sure Jesus would be passing that way and be certain of it for if not, he would miss this one opportunity of having a close encounter with Christ.
Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree on Jesus’ route in order to catch a glimpse of and encounter Jesus for himself up close and personal overcoming his natural impediment and avoiding having to deal with the crowd’s disapproving glares and comments He would have most probably heard of the incident of the blind man by the entrance to the city who was hushed and discouraged by the crowd upon calling on Jesus and did not want to risk that.
Though it would have been unbecoming of a man his age and standing to climb a tree, Zacchaeus did not rethink his strategy as time was of essence and this opportunity to see the Saviour was an opportunity not to be missed. He wasn’t bothered about embarassing himself by climbing a tree but went for it without second thoughts driven by his intense desire to see Christ, to have a close encounter with Him.
Climbing onto a tree would offer him a glimpse of the Lord at a reasonable distance without exposing himself and causing a backlash from the crowd for getting too close seeing that he was considered a “sinner”.
Find out in the next post if and how Zacchaeus manages to find the person he was so desperately seeking…