Tax collectors were despised by patriotic Jews in the first century. Tax collectors, or “publicans,” were viewed as collaborators with Roman tyrants at best, and merciless parasites or outright thieves at worst!
The Roman Empire was supported by heavy taxation which was used to fund not only the Roman army but also the various public projects of the empire, such as the extensive road system, hefty government salaries, the bread dole (a public welfare system), and even various public entertainments in the theaters. Rather than taxing the population directly, the Roman government imposed regional taxes. Different regions of the empire were evaluated as to how much tax could be imposed, and a yearly sum was demanded from each province.
To obtain the tax funds, government officials hired private contractors to collect the tax. In fact, enterprising entrepreneurs could bid on an area, promising to collect from that area’s residents a certain yearly sum for the government. Thus, the Romans would award the contract to the highest bidder. Rome allowed these contractors to collect the tax by whatever means necessary. The rulers did not bother with how much was collected as long as the government received its promised share.
Tax collectors were free to do whatever they wanted with the extra “profit” they obtained. These hires for the Roman government were notoriously unjust in their collection practices. Often, they charged more tax when they suspected they could get it. These men, in carrying out their employment, were known to be lenient with their friends but heavy-handed with other folks. Tax collectors schemed, lied, and threatened in order to greedily line their pockets with excess income.
In Luke’s Gospel, we are introduced to a specific publican named Zacchaeus. At this particular time, Jesus had steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem. He was making His final trip down the Jordan valley to ascend up to Jerusalem to keep the Passover. Blind Bartimaeus had recently been healed just outside of Jericho, and now Jesus entered into the city of Jericho itself.
“And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich” (Luke 19:1–2). The fact that Zacchaeus was a “chief publican” implies that he was at the top of a local pyramid scheme; subsequently, he had other “subcontractors” working for him. Jews hated all tax collectors, but especially ones who were also Jewish! While Zacchaeus’s Hebrew name means “purity,” as a Jew, he would have been deemed as unclean as well as a traitor to his own people by collaborating with the foreign occupation.
Why Zacchaeus, the Jewish chief publican, had a great desire to see Jesus, the Teacher from Nazareth, is an intriguing situation. “And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature. And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycomore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way” (Luke 19:3–4). One of Jesus’ disciples was Matthew, who was a former tax collector. Earlier in the Gospel record, John the Baptist had baptized some publicans near Jericho. It is highly possible that these repentant publicans were colleagues, and perhaps even employees, of Zacchaeus. Maybe because he had seen their changed lives, he wanted to see Jesus for himself. Regardless, his desire was so great that he unceremoniously climbed a sycamore tree (a species of wild fig that still grows today in that area) to see Jesus. This tree has large leaves that would hide the despised, short-in-stature man from view, allowing him to see Jesus but no one else to see him!
But no man can hide from the gaze of the Son of God. “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house. And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner” (Luke 19:5–7).
Jesus knew exactly the condition of Zacchaeus’s heart. He knew of the man’s intense curiosity. The Lord knew of Zacchaeus’s shameful, sinful past. He knew he was hiding in the tree. And yet Jesus purposely and publicly called out to the chief publican and invited Himself to abide at Zacchaeus’s house. The fact that Zacchaeus received Jesus “joyfully” indicates that he already had a longing to see the Master but was perhaps ashamed of his own sins and embarrassed by the multitude which no doubt hated and despised him. Yet his heart rejoiced that Jesus was coming to him and his house!
“And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:8). Zacchaeus promised to follow the Old Testament regulation for restitution given in Exodus Chapter 22. He not only promised to cease his unlawful and unjust business practices, but he also offered generous restitution—with interest—of the money that had been stolen.
The Gospel passage ends this special episode in Zacchaeus’s life with a gracious statement of the Master: “And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9–10).
Have you ever “taken any thing from any man,” even in the days before you became a Christian? You have an opportunity and an obligation to make amends and appropriate restitution. Ask the Holy Spirit to search your heart. Yield to His promptings to clear your conscience and gain a good name. The Lord sees you in your “sycamore tree” as surely as He saw Zacchaeus! He desires to abide with you, to bring salvation to your house, and to accomplish His purposes for your life. May you joyfully receive Jesus’ welcome today!