Zacchaeus the Honest Tax Collector

 

It’s a cute song but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19. Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into what might be happening. Jesus is continuing to travel around teaching and healing and he arrives in Jericho. There is a chief tax collector who is wealthy. Chief tax collectors contracted with the local administration to collect the taxes in an area. They would pay the amount upfront and then hire tax collectors who went out and collected the money. If there was any cheating or extortion on the taxes it was a benefit to the chief tax collectors. The tax collectors tended to be people who couldn’t find work. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He has paid the taxes up front to the city. He hires people to collect the taxes with the hope that they will bring in enough money for him to break even. Even better would be to make a profit. This is how Zacchaeus lives. There was a stereotype that the chief tax collectors were wealthy because they had collected more taxes than were necessary. (See Social Science Commentary on the Gospels for more detail.)

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but he was too short to see over the crowd. So, Zacchaeus got an idea and climbed up in a tree. From there he had a great view of what was happening. Jesus comes along and calls out to Zacchaeus. As they walk the crowds follow and they are distressed because they see Jesus associating with someone wealthy who has gained his wealth at their expense. Zacchaeus makes a declaration. In many of our English translations it says something like: half of my possessions I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay back four times as much. But the English translations miss a nuance. The Greek is in the present tense which means that Zacchaeus already gives half of what he has to the poor. If he realizes that one of his tax collectors has defrauded someone he pays it back four times as much. Zacchaeus is already a good guy but the community doesn’t know this. They see his wealth and make assumptions.

But now they hear Zacchaeus making a claim and they have to rethink what they think they know about him. As the crowd has their image of Zacchaeus shaken they might find new respect for him—a wealthy man who gives away half his goods with asking for recognition and a tax collector who is honest. As the crowd reassess their perception of Zacchaeus he is no longer an outsider. The English translation says that salvation has come. Salvation has its roots in the Greek word salve which means to heal. When people find their place in community they are healed and the community is healed.

Salvation isn’t just for the individual but for the community. We are healed as we find our place in community. We all make assumptions about other people. We lump people in with a particular group without really knowing anything about them. We don’t always know how people think or what is in their hearts. We might not even know the good things they do because they keep it hidden or because we don’t want to see. Seeing something different might unsettle us.

Stereotypes create broken community. Making assumptions about people create broken community. If the community had taken time to get to know Zacchaeus they would have known the he was honest and that he shared his wealth. It wasn’t Zacchaeus who needed healing. Zacchaeus didn’t need to change. The community of people who disliked him needed to be changed.

We all have stereotypes and we all make assumptions. These stereotypes create broken community. We (all of us) are always in need of healing. Like the crowd in the story, we need to listen to our neighbours. We need to listen to the people we don’t know and hear their stories. We need to be open to being transformed so that healing can happen as community is restored.

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