The Transformation of Zacchaeus

by Ahn Jae-Woong


Scripture text Luke 19:1-9

I. Introduction

The story of Zacchaeus contains important theological lessons concerning our faith upon which we ought to reflect self- critically at this point of our history in the ecumenical movement. Let me share with you some insights we can derive from Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus.

Context of the Event

In modern-day terms, Jericho may be described as a commercial and trade center, just like Jerusalem, wherein was located the center of power. It was, therefore, a center of socio-political as well as religious and cultural activities. The high priests, the rabbis, businessmen and other ruling elites were located in Jericho as well as Jerusalem. Even at that time, the role of this privileged class was to monitor any subversive activities or movements which threatened the status quo of their society. Jericho, however, was also a place where the ordinary people - the minjung of that era -lived and earned their living from commerce and trade for their own survival.

In those days, as is true today, high-ranking government officials seldom enjoyed the popularity of the common people. Zacchaeus was a Gentile who served the Roman government as chief tax collector. His job, therefore, alienated Zacchaeus from the people. Although Zacchaeus was a rich man and respected in his own circles, being an agent of the colonial masters caused him to be despised by the ordinary people in his town. Because he accumulated wealth for himself by cheating the people as well as the government, the people labeled him a "sinner."

Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus occurred while Jesus was passing through Jericho during His journey to Jerusalem. By that time, Jesus must already have been a well-known figure since He had been ministering throughout Galilee prior to arriving in Jericho. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem where He knew His ministry would culminate in His suffering, death and resurrection. Consequently the townspeople in Jericho had probably heard much about Jesus and were eager to see Him in person, which accounts for the curiosity of Zacchaeus and the large crowd.

Jesus, Zacchaeus and the Crowd

According to the text, there is not much dialog between Jesus and Zacchaeus, but clearly there is reciprocal action going on between them. Zacchaeus, having heard much about the person of Jesus, His teaching, His authority, His reputation and His miracles, was very eager to see Him and to find out who He really was. His enthusiasm to know Jesus has significant theological implications for us. The crowd prevented him from having a view of Jesus so he had to run ahead of the crowd and climb a sycamore tree in order to get a good look at Jesus. This active initiative of Zacchaeus, that is, his enthusiastic seeking out of Jesus the Messiah, brought about a historical event.

When Jesus came to the sycamore tree, He looked up and immediately found the lost one. He said to Zacchaeus, "Hurry down, Zacchaeus, because I must stay in your house today." We are told that Zacchaeus hurried down and welcomed Him with great joy, but the people who saw it started grumbling: "This man has gone as a guest to the home of a sinner!" We can observe here the difference in the crowd’s response from that of Zacchaeus’ to the unexpected historical encounter with Jesus. While Zacchaeus’ enthusiastic search was fulfilled by Jesus’ visit to his house, the crowd could only complain that Jesus should visit the home of a sinner. House, oikos in Greek, is often translated as "dwelling place." In the context of this story, Jesus was passing through their oikos and wanted to stay in Zacchaeus’ house (oikos), but the crowd did not welcome Him, unlike Zacchaeus who was overjoyed at Jesus’ desire to stay with him.

Apart from these two personalities, the crowd (referred to also as "all the people") features quite prominently. The crowd was made up of individuals who did not have much standing in their society. Being a colonized people, they were probably a discontented lot in search of a better life. Like Zacchaeus, they too had gathered out of curiosity to see who this Jesus was about whom they had heard so much; but unlike Zacchaeus, they were content with just having a general idea of who Jesus was. Thus, they did not share Zacchaeus’ enthusiasm to find out more about Him personally, yet they begrudged Zacchaeus a visit by Jesus. It was because of the crowd that Zacchaeus tried to see who Jesus was. It was also the crowd that called him a sinner and were unhappy about Jesus’ visit to his house.

II. Jesus’ Authority and Self-Understanding

Let us reflect now on the sigrnficance of Jesus in this event. The birth of Jesus itself had been a threat to the rulers of His day, which explains why King Herod tried to kill Him even while He was just a baby. They feared that Jesus might truly be the fulfillment of the prophecies that a Messiah would come to deliver the people from their oppression, implying an overthrow of the oppressors. This could be understood as an anti-emperor ideology. However, Jesus was not concerned about establishing an earthly kingdom.

Jesus’ very life was concentrated on proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. At the beginning of His mission in Mark 1:15, Jesus announces: "The right time has come, and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!" Jesus also gave us the two great commandments to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30). The Good News that Jesus preached and lived out is intended to help us make right our relationship with God, with ourselves and with others. This was how Jesus understood Himself and the purpose of His life as the son of God.

This understanding was the source from which He derived his self- consciousness of God’s will for Him and His mission as the servant-Messiah of God. In Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, we find the declaration of the sonship of the Messiah:

"You are my son; today l have become your father."

"Here is my servant whom I strengthen - the one I have chosen with whom I am pleased."

These prophetic announcements form the basis of Christ’s self- understanding of His relationship to God and His authority as the servant-Messiah.

"He was humble and walked the path of obedience all the way to death - His death on the cross." Philippians 2:8 testifies to Christ’s attitude of humility and His resoluteness in living out His faith convictions, even to the point of death. He continued to teach them after His death and resurrection. Christ am peared to His disciples and gave them the missionary mandate to go to all peoples everywhere and make them His disciples (Matthew 28:20). Even today, this mandate is given to us who claim to follow Christ.

III. The Transformation of Zacchaeus

Jesus’ acceptance of Zacchaeus, in spite of the crowd’s judgment and rejection of him, brought about a total transformation of the person of Zacchaeus. While Jesus was visiting him in his home, Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "I will give half my belongings to the poor; and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay him back four times as much." According to the Israelite civil law, restitution was required for a theft that had been committed. "If a man steals a cow or a sheep and kills it or sells it, he must pay five cows for one cow and four sheep for one sheep" (Exodus 22:1). Zacchaeus must have based his decision to restore fourfold those he cheated on this practice. This concrete act of repentance on the part of Zacchaeus is an important turning point from being a sinner to becoming "a descendent of Abraham."

Repentance for Zacchaeus was shown in his willingness to right the wrongs he had committed against others. The declaration of Jesus that "Salvation has come to this house today..." meant that not only Zacchaeus but his entire household experienced true conversion. Through the act of repentance of one person, by word and deed, the whole household was saved. If then each of us would truly repent, imagine the impact our transformation would have on our communities, both locally and globally.

We are also reminded of the encounter between Jesus and the rich man who asked Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life (Mark 10:17-31). Although the rich man had obeyed all of the commandments, Jesus told him he needed to do only one thing: he had to sell all that he owned and give the money to the poor. When he did this, he would have riches in heaven and be able to follow Jesus. The act of repentance in the case of this rich man was to be able to forego his earthly security and attachments. His conversion would not be authentic until he could do so.

Zacchaeus’ own decision to give up half his property and repay fourfold those whom he cheated is a fine example of sincere repentance. Thus, it was his genuine conversion which caused Christ to declare salvation upon him and his household. Another example of authentic conversion was Levi, also a tax collector, who responded to Jesus’ call to follow Him. In Luke’s account, we read that Levi left everything and followed Jesus (Luke 5:27-28). This was something the rich man could not do.

IV. Impllcations of Zacchaeus’ Story for Our Lives

Jericho, being a center of commerce and trade, was also a center of corruption as is characteristic of most cities in Asia and elsewhere. Zacchaeus was a product of this type of corrupt social system. He is an example of those who accumulate their wealth and power through ill-gotten means at the expense of others, especially the poor. Being a rich man by profession, he enjoyed all the privileges and honor that came with his social status. Prior to his conversion, he probably was concerned only about his own self-interest through attaining social recognition and accumulating wealth and power. He enjoyed honor and respect from the ruling and upper class bureaucrats whom he served, but he was despised by the common poor people, the minjung, whom he cheated.

This old Zacchaeus could represent those people today who are the ruling elites, government officials, the professionals, the church ministers and workers or even leaders of the ecumenical movements. I am sure we can identify ourselves to a certain extent with the old Zacchaeus. We could consider ourselves a privileged class who enjoy social recognition, the assurance of security and power in the ecumenical arena. It is also possible that, like the rich man, we may have be-come more concerned with achieving our own self-interests in the name of serving God through the ecumenical movement.

At one juncture in our lives, we may have been as enthusiastic as Zacchaeus in seeking Christ and trying to find out what Jesus really was about based on what we heard and knew of Him; but over the years, we may have become more like the rich man. We may have faithfully fulfilled all of the rituals of the Christian tenets but in the process have become enslaved by our attachment to the comforts afforded to us by our status, security and power. If, indeed, we find ourselves to be in such a state, we must, like Zacchaeus, repent in word and deed.

It would have been easier for Zacchaeus to follow the crowd and to seek to know Jesus based on the majority’s perception and understanding of Christ. Instead, however, he separated himself from the crowd and went his own way to find out and to experience for himself this Christ whom he had heard so much about.

In contrast, the rich man, who, like Zacchaeus, was from the privileged class, chose to follow the dominant practice of his class. He chose to preserve his status, wealth and power at the expense of losing his own soul. Like the scattered crowd, this rich man remained a lost and disintegrated being. More often than not, out of consideration for our image, status and job security, we prefer to stand with the crowd. Our life is more comfortable if we side with the majority rather than dare to live by our faith convictions be-cause if we do that we may have to stand alone and risk losing our earthly rewards and maybe even our very lives. In this respect, Jesus was obedient even unto death, and we are called to be no less.

The name Zacchaeus is formed from the Hebrew word zaccai, meaning ‘ pure or "righteous." The character of the old Zacchaeus was, indeed, far from being true to his name. Nevertheless, after his conversion, Zacchaeus was transformed tobewhathe was named to be - the pure and righteous being God intended him to be. Zacchaeus’ repentance resulted from critical self-examination in the light of Jesus’ life and teachings.

His enthusiastic search to know Christ led him to examine himself in relation to God and his neighbors. To love God was to love his neighbors as he would love himself. To be in right relationship with God was to be in right relationship with himself and with his neighbors. Therefore, there is hope yet for us to be right with God, with ourselves, with others if we but truly repent and devote ourselves to finding again the Jesus of whom we may have lost sight.

Zacchaeus’ repentance in his house was an act of gratitude of Jesus’ acceptance of him which led to his salvation. We who are living in this global village or oikos have experienced Jesus passing through our lives. Let us show our gratitude for His love and acceptance of us by making right our relationship with God, with ourselves and with the people whom we have wronged. Let us truly repent in word and deed in order that salvation might come into our midst, our oikos, today.

(This reflection was presented at the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) General Committee Meeting, June 1991, Hong Kong.)