The interaction of Jesus with a known tax collector, one of the most abhorred people in Jewish society, can teach us valuable lessons about his character and the meaning of true repentance.
The Jericho visited by Jesus was a border town lying just west of the Jordan River. As the second wealthiest city in Palestine (next to Jerusalem), it was a major generator of Roman tax income. As such, the Empire was keen to employ a local Jewish collector like Zacchaeus to insure a steady stream of revenue. Most of the money collected was in customs, as the city was situated along a major trade route running from Egypt to lands east of the Jordan River.
Zacchaeus (whose name, ironically, means "just" or "pure") the tax collector was a short (possibly less than five feet or 1.5 meters tall) but quite wealthy (Luke 19:2) and well known person in Jericho. He was the city's chief gatherer of customs fees and likely employed others as well. As Jesus and most people were well aware, the great riches possessed by such people was achieved through extortion and theft (Luke 3:12 - 13, 19:7 - 8).
It is therefore not unusual, given the sinful ways by which their carried out their responsibilities, that tax collectors were some of the most despised people in the New Testament (see Luke 18:11). Jesus even used them, in his Sermon on the Mount, as an example of those who severely lacked love and concern for other people (Matthew 5:46 - 47).
As Jesus travels through the city Zacchaeus, whom the Bible calls "a man of small stature" (Luke 19:3), is unable to see him through the large crowd that congregates near the street. His reputation as a greedy tax collector also means that people are not inclined to do him any favors and make a way for him to view Christ. Determined to see him at all costs, he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs up a sycamore tree (verse 4).
As Jesus passes under the sycamore he surprises Zacchaeus by not only calling him by name but also declaring he will be staying at his house (verse 5)! The announcement brings joy to the notorious collector of taxes but derision from the crowd (verses 6 - 7).
Zacchaeus responds to Christ's merciful offer to spend time with him by publically declaring he will give half of his vast wealth to the poor. He also promises to return his ill-gotten riches fourfold to those he cheated (Luke 19:8)! Jesus then declares that salvation has come to him and that reaching out to those who are "lost" is one of the primary goals of his ministry.
And Jesus said to him, "Today, salvation has come to this house . . . For the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost" (Luke 19:9 - 10, HBFV).
What did we learn?
The encounter Jesus had with Zacchaeus the tax collector shows his willingness to interact with even the most despised and hated members of society despite what others think (Matthew 9:10 - 11, 11:19, Luke 5:29 - 30). His compassion and mercy towards sinners is something all Christians need to emulate.
Diligence and perseverance matter to God! Zacchaeus was determined to see Christ and his efforts were rewarded beyond what he expected. Our willingness to pursue, steadfastly, what is right can make all the difference in the world (see Luke 18:1 - 8).
While it is difficult for a rich man to enter God's Kingdom (see our article on the "camel through the eye of the needle" parable), it is not impossible. The mercy Jesus extended toward Jericho's chief tax collector (and thief) shows that even the most hated person could change and turn their lives around.
Repentance, if it is genuine, must be followed by tangible acts that show a willingness to change one's life and obey God. Unlike the rich young man who was unwilling to part with his wealth (Matthew 19:16 - 26), Zacchaeus the tax collector pledged to use his money for righteous goals. Merely "accepting Jesus in your heart" or feeling sorry for what one has done is not enough!