Yesterday, I posted a link to a passage of Scripture that even most nominal Christians are very familiar with. We know it so well, that it is easy to miss the subtexts, deeper truths, and present day implication to those us claiming to seek truth in a world where the majority of people blissfully live with willful blindness.
Generally speaking, I cringe at the tendency of many modern day believers to look metaphorically at Scripture where there are not metaphorical implications, and it’s something we should all be careful about. However, when you do a little research and background study into the culture, circumstances, and characters in any given Biblical occurrence, things come into focus that we would be hard pressed to dismiss as something the Writer didn’t expect any serious student of the Bible to notice.
When you’ve spent your life, from diapers to Depends in a church, certain Scriptural narratives lose their punch. That is, they do unless you or someone else helps you remember to never stop looking and praying for the thing you need to learn today from the passage, rather than resting on the laurels of what you think you know. for example, the story of Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore tree to get a look at Jesus. Even one of our children, after taking the time to ruminate on the incident yesterday, admitted that for a bit, she had to disconnect her mind from this as her primary way of processing the story:
I spent a fair amount of time yesterday simply looking up information on the status, reputation, and life of a man in Zacchaeus’ position during the time in which he encountered Jesus.
The text is clear on the fact that Zaachaeus was a chief tax collector for the Roman Empire in Jehrico, which at the time was ruled by Herod, the governor placed their by the Roman government. One of the places I found as I did research described Zacchaeus’ position:
Zacchaeus was “the chief among the publicans” (Luke 19:2, KJV) – “a chief tax collector” (NKJV). This doesn’t just mean that Zacchaeus was that hated man from the Internal Revenue Service. It was far worse than that. In Israel, the tax collectors were viewed as traitors and thieves.
Why was that? The publicans in Israel collected the taxes for the hated Roman Empire, the empire of the Caesars who ruled Palestine at the time. Publicans were Jews who bought tax collection franchises from the Roman government. Any amount that they collected over and above what Rome required, they could keep for themselves. So if you really owed the Roman government a thousand dollars, the publican might tell you that you owed fifteen hundred. And so the publican would send the thousand you really owed on to the Roman government, and keep the extra five hundred for himself.
In this way many publicans became wealthy at the expense of their own people. They gained their income by treachery and theft. In Luke 3:8, when some of the publicans came to John to be baptized and asked him what they should do as a matter of repentance, he said, “Collect only the amount of taxes that you are supposed to.” And when Zacchaeus came to faith in Christ, he restored fourfold that which he had collected falsely (Luke 19:8).
Zacchaeus would have been the most hated of this hated profession, because he was the chief tax collector. To put it in modern terms, tax collection in Israel was sort of a cross between a pyramid scheme and a protection racket. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus had other tax collectors working for him. As those men collected money for the Roman government, they would take a cut off the top for themselves. The men who worked for Zacchaeus would also have to pay Zacchaeus a part of the money that they cheated out of the people, in addition to the dishonest money that Zacchaeus collected directly from the people himself.
In other words, this was a guy who was hated, feared, and very rich. Such men are usually fairly full of themselves, although that’s is purely my assumption rather than anything inferred from the text. However, with this understanding of Zacchaeus in mind, picture him running ahead of the crowd -who blocked his view of Jesus- climbing up a sycamore tree for perchance even a glimpse of the truth.
Consider further his response when he was blessed to see Jesus, and experience a glancing gaze at God in the flesh:
Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
Now, contrast him with the rich young ruler whose encounter with Jesus can be found in Luke 18:
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. 2 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”[a]
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.
Zacchaeus was looking for the Truth, and when he found it, he was willing to give up everything in exchange for it. The rich young ruler was interested in talking about the “truth”. Or at least, his understanding of it, since he was quite smug and sure that there was nothing about him or who he was that needed to change. All he wanted was for Jesus to pat him on the back and confirm what he already believed about himself. Namely, that he had met the requirements for eternal life. As a result, when the Truth was presented, he rejected it outright, because in reality, it was not what he was after.
This is getting a little long, so for now, I’ll leave you with this other tidbit I discovered yesterday during my research into this remarkable story:
Zacchaeus’ name: In Hebrew it is translated: