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Luke 19:1-10

Jesus went on into Jericho and was passing through. There was a chief tax collector there named Zacchaeus, who was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he was a little man and could not see Jesus because of the crowd. So he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, who was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to Zacchaeus, “Hurry down, Zacchaeus, because I must stay in your house today”.

Zacchaeus hurried down and welcomed him with great joy. All the people who saw it started grumbling, “This man has gone as a guest to the house of a sinner!”

Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Listen, Sir! I will give half my belongings to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times as much.”

Jesus said to him, “Salvation has come to this house today, for this man, also, is a descendant of Abraham. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

The Jericho in which this incident took place was a compact almost new city, constructed using classical Graeco-Roman architecture by Herod the Great during the period around 30-10 BC. This was situated half a kilometer away from the ruins of ancient Jericho, which were comprehensively excavated by Dame Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950's. The lowest strata of ancient Jericho dates to around 7,000 BC (about twice as old as the earliest pyramid at Saqquara in Egypt). The ancient walls were constructed of cement and stone with circular corner towers.

Herod's Jericho was situated much closer to the cliffs which mark the edge of the Jordan valley: the cliffs rise several hundred metres and provide the habitat for the bird described in the Old Testament as “the eagle” – known today as the Griffon Vulture. Warm air trapped in the valley rises in contact with the cold air of the surrounding hills, and creates thermal currents which rise over 10,000 metres into the air. These enormous birds can step off their nests high up on the crags, stretch out their great wings, and catch a lift upwards over 7,000 metres. Pilots of airliners, flying over the Middle East, were astonished to see these birds soaring at the same level as they were, without apparent effort. The “eagles” were noted as a hazard in air navigation directives to the world's major airlines! Isaiah saw them, too, and drew inspiration from their effortless flight in his famous verse, Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

In more recent history Jericho had the sad distinction of being the main holding centre for the thousands of Palestinian refugees, displaced in 1948 as a consequence of the creation of the State of Israel. The awful squalor of these holding centres was alleviated by the City Council in Jerusalem. In 1958 I assisted in the Engineers' Department there for several days, designing a huge septic tank and filter system to provide proper sanitation for all these people. The spring at Jericho, (made drinkable by Elisha's miraculous intervention, 2 Kings 2:21) still provides plenty of water for this settlement. Now, nearly 60 years later, the oil-rich nations of the Arab world continue to do very little for these refugees. This has given rise to the Syrian organisation Hamas, which has earned enormous support amongst local people as a result of its humanitarian aid.

So that's what Jericho looks like today – an untidy and unhappy place. In Jesus' day it was a superb, brand new city with thick ashlar (see glossary)stone walls and magnificent buildings, particularly the palace, the hall of justice, and the civic centre. The spring meant that even in this arid landscape, well developed farming systems produced olives, various fruits and grapes. The winding road up the narrow defile on to the plateau where Jerusalem is situated used to take an hour on my Norton motorcycle, but was probably about a day's journey from Jerusalem on foot (about 18 miles).

Luke's account of the events surrounding Jesus' visit on this, his final, fatal journey up to Jerusalem, shows a detailed understanding of the niceties of rabbinical etiquette, as we shall see in this Chapter. This is one of the reasons I myself am pretty sure Luke must have been a Jew. The name “Zacchaeus” is a delightful pun on the name Zakkai, which means literally “Mr. Righteous”, which, applied to a character well-known for being unrighteous, was particularly entertaining.47

The other issue I found very interesting is the reason for his trip up the tree, which we are told was “because he was very short, and he wanted to see Jesus”. Bear in mind that this man was probably one of the most hated in the district, and that there were Zealots (Glossary) who were out to kill people like him. So why was he up the tree? Could it possibly be that it was the only way he could survive public exposure? The crowd were agitating to get as close as they could to the action, and in a state of high excitement. Could it possibly be a Jewish joke? Let's consider the situation:

The position of Chief Tax Collector meant that the Romans had granted Zacchaeus the job of collecting their deeply-resented tax from each individual in the town. He probably hired a group of men to extract what the Jews regarded as an unlawful tax. He was very much a traitor, working for the occupying forces. A bodyguard of Roman soldiers would have accompanied him – and his men – and they would have had no compunction about the use of force to extract additional corrupt payments to enrich themselves. Although this was illegal in both Jewish and Roman law, it was nevertheless common practice in the Ancient World: tax collectors were renowned for becoming rich on the proceeds of overcharging. Individuals unable to pay could have their goods confiscated or even be themselves sold in the slave market – so people in Jericho may well have had relatives who had lost their goods or freedom through the actions of this man.

So why was Zacchaeus up the tree? Well, he's terribly short you know, he couldn't see..! it could be a very humorous statement to a Jew at that time – they would all have liked to wring his neck, and everybody knew it!

In the culture of the time, anyone accepting hospitality from such a person would become tainted by that individual's misdeeds. Even to enter his house would be seen as approving his actions. To accept food or drink from him would identify one as a partner in crime and subject to the same penalty. In Jewish eyes, if you eat a thief's food, you are a thief too. The big objection by strict Jews (such as the Pharisees) to Jesus eating with tax collectors and prostitutes was that in accepting their hospitality he was receiving benefits gained through their sinful lifestyle, and thus he became totally associated with them in their sin. A Rabbi doing so would be seen as ritually “unclean”.

In fact, a Rabbi,especially this extremely popular one, famous for the miracles he had performed, approaching a city like Jericho with a large band of followers , would normally be extremely careful whose home he would enter. A leader from one of the rabbinical schools would usually make arrangements in advance through his representative, to be received in the home of a particularly important host. The arrival of Jesus in Jericho that day would have been a very big event in the city. The population would want to be there, hoping to witness some of the miraculous events they had heard about. We know that on his way up to the town, Jesus healed a blind man called Bartimaeus – so as he approached the city there would have been rising anticipation – particularly as Bartimaeus was following along, excitedly telling everybody what had just taken place.

It would be normal for the Jewish religious authorities in a city to hold their Council meetings at the city gates. Legal hearings would take place there, from time to time, as would business transactions almost every day. The approach of a famous rabbi with a large retinue would be a notable event and all the most significant Jewish leaders would be expected to greet him. There would be a large open space for the gathering of a large crowd of onlookers who would want to witness the occasion, and it is the only place where one could expect to find a tree big enough for Zacchaeus to climb, to be a safe distance from the crowd. Large trees were not usually found in classical cities due to the likelihood of root damage to the fine stonework, and also the fact that Jericho was so new it would be unlikely for a tree to have grown to a substantial size within the time available within the city itself.

The local Roman governor and possibly the Centurion in charge of the likely detachment of troops billeted there would normally extend their welcome to an important dignitary from the steps of the city hall in the city centre.

So Jesus arrives. The crowds are huge. Some have brought sick relatives for him to heal. They are all wondering who will have the honour of receiving this important visitor. Probably the Jewish officials are feeling rather nervous, knowing Jesus' reputation for doing the unexpected. None of them are quite sure what will happen. The Rabbi would be expected to choose hospitality from the man he considers the most righteous person in the town.

Jesus looks up into the tree, and sees this strange little man. Somehow he must be aware of this man's history – he calls him by name – or perhaps he wore some kind of identifying clothing. This undesirable little man looks down at Jesus, totally overcome by his person and his own sense of isolation and guilt. He may have expected to be condemned and ridiculed.

In this extraordinary situation Jesus' next act is surprising and makes no sense at all to those present. He says “Zacchaeus, come down – I am coming to your house today!”. To all those standing around it was totally unacceptable that a man of God could do such a thing. It was also a total rejection of the local religious leaders – about the biggest insult that they could have received. The implication is that this evil little man is more acceptable to God than they, the Law-abiding, God-fearing ones. Even the crowd becomes angry “Doesn't he know who this man is?” Several times in my travels in the Middle East, I have heard crowds, when they are really angry, grind their teeth. It creates a most horrible, loud grating noise, like an old car without oil in its engine.

Zacchaeus comes down from the tree: he is not going to let Jesus down. He welcomes Jesus “with great joy”. He then makes a public announcement which the locals would never expect anyone like him to make: he says:

  1. I will give half my belongings to the poor.

  2. To anyone I have cheated, (at this point you can imagine a queue forming...)
    I will pay back four times as much.

These two statements constituted the restitution which Jewish Law required. Legally his situation was totally transformed by what he had just said. It meant that the half of the goods of which he still retained ownership at that moment was no longer tainted by his sinful past. He was therefore forgiven, and his goods were perfectly acceptable for Jesus to partake of, lawfully and correctly. Accepting his hospitality now would not taint Jesus. Also in a practical way Zacchaeus would now be rescued from the condemnation and rejection of the city. Jesus sums this up by saying “Today salvation has come to this house.

Zacchaeus' act of repentance is similar to that of prostitutes who poured oil over Jesus. Both are rejecting their past sinful life and both are accepted by Jesus. It is the act of repentance that is the legal qualification for justification (Glossary) in the eyes of God. Sanctification is putting into effect the contract that justification implies, and actually carrying out the promise to lead a new life. In Zacchaeus' case this was to give half his goods to the poor, and restore four times the amounts wrongfully taken.

Hasidic Judaism simply could not accept that entry into the Kingdom of God could possibly be by means of table fellowship with Jesus and his followers, rather than through the Temple cult. Always their objection, we read in the Gospels, was that “he eats with tax collectors and sinners”. For a rabbi to eat with them, implied acceptance by God and this acceptance could only be offered after many years of compliance with their version of the Law. To Hasidic Jews, God's acceptance had to be earned. Jesus however taught that acceptance by God, and therefore membership of His Kingdom, was a legal declaration which implied an undertaking by the convert to lead a holy life in accordance with God's Laws.

This is the fundamental distinction between Christianity and Judaism. Judaism required a proselyte (a convert to the faith) to lead a blameless life complying with all the requirements of the synagogue for a 4 year period, and then for a further 3 years for his whole household to follow the same course of action. At the end of that time, the Leader of the Synagogue or a Rabbi would enter his house, eat dinner and drink wine with him. That signifed the formal acceptance of the candidate and his household as members of the Jewish Faith.

Paul says (Romans 14:17) that the eating and drinking is of no great significance – it is righteousness, peace and joy in being led by the Holy Spirit that are the important features of a life recognised as acceptable to God. Being counted as “righteous” is a state which cannot be earned. It is graciously offered by a loving God to those who will repent and receive it. John repeats this in Revelation 3:20 indicating that already by AD 68 when Revelation was written (Robinson, 1976) nominalism was already a problem in the church: that is to say, for many, church membership had become no more than a social gathering of people who had not yet found faith in Jesus – hence their need to “open the door” so that Jesus could eat with them and they could be justified before God.

I have occasionally met this attitude amongst Christian missionaries who are not prepared to recognise the difference between justification and sanctification. They may require really major lifestyle changes in converts before they are prepared to accept them as such.

One Friday evening I landed by jet at Zaragossa, and was introduced to the church fellowship, had a cup of coffee, and gave a 45 minute teaching session on open air evangelism before leading a team out on the street in an hour's time. I had shown them how to present a Gospel message and paint the key words on the sketchboard, and asked who would like to preach that evening (thinking they would want me to do everything). A young woman aged about 20 put up her hand: she said she wanted to do it. I could see she was very keen to play a part in the church's ministry, but this caused great embarrassment and concern to her Brethren leadership where women were not normally allowed to take part in any teaching or preaching. However, I felt that she should be allowed to share her message and we went out into the local park.

The fellowship had wanted the meeting to be held on the steps of their hall, in a side street where people rarely passed. I managed to persuade them to come with me to the park, where there were quite a lot of people about that evening. I preached the first message myself, with translation. The young woman preached the second message, very fluently, and it was absolutely dynamic. It was not difficult to see God's hand at work. At the end a young Spanish Air Force officer in uniform, very smart, came up to me: he was in tears, the message was so relevant to him. He spoke excellent English and I was able to lead him to the Lord. His name was Angel. He was to become a staunch member of the local fellowship. However, when I first introduced him to their pastor, that first evening in the park, soon after he had prayed to receive Christ, Angel was presented with a set of rules to comply with. He was told that he would know whether he was a Christian or not in about five years' time.

The brother of this missionary had the same problem. Within 7 days, any convert from his preaching had to stop drinking alcohol, separate from his/her live-in partner and stop smoking, if he or she wanted to become a member of the local fellowship. I have been very surprised to meet this attitude and can only assume they are products of dysfunctional sending churches in their home country, most likely the United States (though as I said earlier, some of my most inspiring missionary friends are from the U.S.A.) In my opinion there has never been a greater need for sound Bible teaching than exists in the Christian Church today. A surprising number of pastors, youth workers, and evangelists with fellowships I know in the United Kingdom have little or no serious theological training.


Salvation for Zacchaeus was a very costly process indeed, both financially and in enduring the public disgrace and notoriety which his encounter with Jesus involved. Very few people in Zacchaeus' position were prepared to pay the price. In fact. Jesus himself described in colourful terms the practical impossibility of many rich people making such a sacrifice:

Luke 18: 18-27

A Jewish leader asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery; do not commit murder; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; respect your father and your mother.'”

The man replied, “Ever since I was young, I have obeyed all these commandments.”

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one more thing you need to do. Sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me”. But when the man heard this, he became very sad, because he was very rich. Jesus saw that he was sad, and said, “How hard it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God! It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle”. The people who heard him asked, “Who, then, can be saved?” Jesus answered, “What is humanly impossible, is possible for God”. GNB.

Commentators down the ages have puzzled over these verses and ingenious proposals have been suggested about what Jesus meant by referring to the “eye of the needle”. Some have suggested there may have been a low gate through the wall of the city of Jerusalem, that would allow a camel to enter once its load had been removed and it could be dragged through on its knees. There is a low door for pedestrians to enter the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem (erected by Queen Helena in the 4th Century, the idea being that individuals are thereby forced to enter such a holy place in an attitude of humility). Al Taib – one of the very early Christian commentators referred to often in Kenneth Bailey's books – asserted that the camel was the four-legged animal and the needle's eye was a needle for sewing as we know it, and that therefore the conversion of rich people was impossible. Bailey, however, comes up with a much more likely solution, in my view.

There are two words in the text, kamelon (which is the four footed animal) and kamilon (which is apparently a very thick thread which might well have been used for the manufacture of tents etc.). Bailey thinks that there may have been confusion, therefore, in the translation as we have it – but I think it is far more likely that it was a wonderful pun on two very similar words, implying great difficulty but not outright impossibility. One could imagine a big enough needle being threaded with cord, with great difficulty – and I think this is far more like what Jesus had in mind. Bailey takes the opposite view48

47 Derrett, J. Duncan. M. (1970): Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p. 280

48 Bailey, Kenneth. E. (1983): Poet & Peasant. Eerdmans. p 165ff)