Think for a moment about your favorite pre-industrial British novels or television shows. It could be Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Downton Abbey, or even historical documentaries about landed estates or castles. I hope you are visualizing vast landed estates with lots of servants who have strict dress codes, manners and hierarchy and a city, over populated full of desperate people also separated into classes by their accent, their dress, and their occupation.
I point this out, because it is easier for us to visualize the pre-WWI British class structure and the tension between the classes, than it is for us to realize the Mediterranean class structure of the first century was very similar with all the same tensions. The climate is different therefore, dress and customs were different but classes could still be easily identified by their dress and the language they spoke. But the general structure was very similar. No one would confuse a Galilean fisherman and a Pharisee, or a Roman and a wealthy Jew.
The majority of our characters in the New Testament that receive any significant description tend to come from the rural peasant class. Jesus was born into a rural peasant family as were about 98 % of the population. But there was a small portion of the population that were “rich”. They often had a posh country estate with a surprising amount of what we call modern conveniences like central heat and indoor plumbing. Their land was worked by tenant farmers. They would also have a city home where they gathered to discuss or manage local politics and religion. These were the political and religious leaders, the educated, the wealthy, the elite. According to Bruce J. Malina, in his The New Testament World the peasant population had their own pods of local control based in kinship. This past Wednesday, our Bible study group read that Moses, a married adult with his own children, asked his father-in-law, head of their family unit, for permission to go to Egypt as God had commanded him. This is a world where everyone and everything had its proper place in society and one was expected to show respect to those whose station was considered above yours. In Fiddler on the Roof, in the opening song Tradition, they emphasis how important that was to the stability of their village. Part of the chaos of tzarist Russia was the destabilization of that social order that we witness as each of the girls progressively challenge the status quo when they marry and at the end of the show, the entire village, including family units, breaks apart when they are forced to leave. That world existed in many places up until the Industrial Revolution and World War I, but is very foreign to most of us today. That world was seen as having limited goods and to advance above your station in life was assumed to be at the expense of others and was frowned upon. They was puttin’ on aires.
Something that has not changed too much is taxes. There were all sorts of taxes in the Roman provinces. There were poll taxes, land taxes, import and export taxes, just to name a few. There were temple taxes which a portion of ended up in Rome for the Empire. How they were collected was different. Instead of an IRS and payroll deductions, there were two layers of tax collectors who set up booths – sort of like our highway toll booths. The publicani paid Rome for the right to set up these booths and to collect taxes and they got rent or a cut of the total amount collected. These were usually Romans but a few wealthy Jews, like Zacchaeus, apparently did the same. Then there were the people who manned the booths, actually collecting the taxes like the Apostle Matthew before Jesus called him ,who worked for the publicani. The tax collectors also took a cut of the total amount collected and probably had some control over how much was collected. As long as it was enough to pay Roman and the publicani, the rest was theirs. These people were hated by their fellow Jews and considered to be thieves and sinners.
Zacchaeus is an outsider in many ways. He is small in stature, easily overlooked or dismissed just because of his physical appearance. He is very rich, putting him in that 2% upper class, already distrusted by the local peasants. He is a Jew who has made his money collecting taxes for the Roman Empire, and he is a chief tax collector, probably a publicani, to whom the tax collectors owed either rent or a cut for the right to collect in certain locations. He was probably not readily accepted by the Roman elite because of his ethnic and religious identification, and hated by his own people as a traitor and a thief.
Zacchaeus has heard about Jesus and has heard that Jesus is in his own town of Jericho. Zacchaeus may have already had his life changed because of the teachings of Jesus, which we will talk about more in a minute, but he desperately wants to see Jesus in person and there are many roadblocks in his way. He is too short to see over the crowd and probably no one in the crowd is going out of their way to help him. Zacchaeus this wealthy, powerful, but very short man runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree just to get a glimpse of Jesus as he passes by. This is real humility and dedication.
Jesus stops and calls Zacchaeus by name. Isaiah 43:1b says “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine.” Jesus told Zacchaeus, who was just hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus, to hurry up and get out of the tree because I “must stay” at your house today. Jesus didn’t wait for an invitation, he invited himself in, he just needed Zacchaeus to open the door. We are told Zacchaeus “hurried down and was happy to welcome him. “ (Luke 19:9).
N.T. Wright points out in his Luke for Everyman that the story is often told as though Jesus calling Zacchaeus out of the tree was the moment of transformation. But the Greek verb translated as “will give” is in the Present Active Indicative. It is a fact that is currently happening. Many scholars today translate it as “am giving”. Very probably Zacchaeus has already started giving away half of his possessions and following the Jewish law for providing restitution to those from whom he has stollen by repaying them four times what he stole. There are numerous verses in the Torah which determine different terms for restitution in different circumstances probably based on the affect the theft has on the quality of life of the individual.
Those in the crowd who witnessed this exchange between the two of them grumbled, complaining because Jesus associated with a person like Zacchaeus. Obviously, the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son did not get through to them.
This story also stands in stark contrast to the parable about the rich ruler which is told earlier in chapter 18. In that story, the man declares that he has obeyed the Ten Commandments his whole life, but when Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and follow him, he is saddened and walks away. Zacchaeus, who was regarded as a “sinner” has of his own accord already started doing what Jesus called the socially “righteous” man to do; the man who had obeyed the letter of the law, but could not give up his stuff, even for the kingdom of God.
Jesus affirms Zacchaeus who has truly repented and is seeking to be the kind of person Jesus says inherits the kingdom of heaven. In fact, Jesus tells this man that has spent, much, maybe all of his life feeling like an outsider among his own people that , “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”(Luke 19:10). Zacchaeus is an inheritor of the promise, affirmed and declared so by Jesus.
Are there any obstacles that seem to be getting in the way of you seeing where Jesus is walking? No obstacle can block your view of Jesus if you really want to see him. In fact, Jesus is actively looking for those that struggle to see him. He said, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)