Jesus continually confronts our paradigms of fairness and love.
My television volume was muted, but no sound was needed to catch my attention when I glanced up from my puzzle at the screen. Shoulder pads, jersey, undershirt, and then gloves suddenly took flight, followed by an animated endzone display before the player exited midgame. Getting noticed may not have been his primary intent, but NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown certainly did. Commentators and coaches would say over and over, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That line, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” prompted quite a different memory from some winters ago. I was eating lunch with a friend when outside the window came a colorful rush of wings. Dozens of birds descended to a feeding frenzy. Within a minute, they took flight. I’ve not seen a Cedar Waxwing since, but the sight of black-masked birds with beaks of berries has remained with me. If I knew where I could find these magnificent, red-tipped creatures, I would run to catch even a glimpse of them.
An Unexpected Story
Both these scenes bring to mind another unexpected event that is recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19. Zacchaeus’s story may be an overly familiar Sunday School lesson for some of us, but here Jesus confronts our paradigms of justice and fairness.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, and he is rich. His name means “innocent,” “pure” or “righteous one,” yet his life up to this point has been seemingly quite the opposite. Zacchaeus not only collects money for the enemy Rome from his fellow Jews but also probably profits from them by pocketing his own concocted commissions. As such, he is despised and considered a traitor.
Jesus is passing through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem hours before His triumphal entry into that city and days before He will be crucified. Zacchaeus has heard about Jesus, and Luke tells us, “He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way” (Luke 19:3-4).
Even though Zacchaeus beats the crowd to Jesus, he must still scale a tree if he hopes to see Him. The crowd’s animosity toward Zacchaeus is evident; he expects to be shoved to the back once everyone arrives. More surprising is the crowd’s attitude toward a blind beggar just outside Jericho, and his story immediately precedes Zacchaeus’s (see Luke 18: 35-43). When the blind man learns that Jesus is passing by, he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He tries to get Jesus’s attention, yet “those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent,” Luke records. “But he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (verses 38-39).
A blind beggar and a rich tax collector: one is destitute and the other powerful, and both are obstructed in their hopes to get to Jesus.
An Astonishing Invitation
The blind man’s desperation to meet the miracle worker Jesus is clear: he wants to see and believes this divine “Son of David” can heal him. Jesus does, leading him to praise God—and “When all the people saw it, they also praised God” (verses 42-43).
But what is it that propels Zacchaeus to run as fast as his short legs can fly and climb a tree for a bird’s-eye view of Jesus? “Middle Eastern adults do not run in public if they wish to avoid shame,” writes Bible scholar Ken Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for four decades. “Furthermore, powerful, rich men do not climb trees in public parades anywhere in the world. Zacchaeus knew this only too well.”
Does Zacchaeus want to be noticed by Jesus or only to get a glimpse of Him? Up a tree would be an embarrassing place to be seen by a mighty miracle worker who has just upended the laws of nature in healing a blind man. Is Zacchaeus hiding under the cloak of sycamore leaves to watch Jesus? Or is he humbling himself in plain sight to get His attention?
Whatever Zacchaeus wants, it seems he has much to lose, like the rich young ruler who “went away sad, because he had great wealth” after Jesus tells him to give it away (see Mark 10:17-27). Zacchaeus’s intent is not clear, but the opportunity to see Jesus is enough to move this powerful man to humiliate himself before the crowd of onlookers.
The story continues, “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today’” (Luke 19:5).
What an astonishing invitation! But what is Jesus thinking? Tax collectors were considered unclean, and this man has become wealthy at his neighbor’s expense. Extensive taxation under Rome was a heavy burden crushing many families struggling to make a living. Zacchaeus seems to have profited with little regard to their plight. In fact, “It is possible he was one of the most hated men in Jericho.”
Perhaps the reputation of tax collectors in biblical times could be compared to the likes of the late financier Bernie Madoff. The former chairman of the Nasdaq stock exchange stole billions of dollars over many years from his own clients, including charities, through the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Madoff was so despised that he wore a bulletproof vest to court before he was sentenced to prison. “He stole from the rich. He stole from the poor. He stole from the in between. He had no values,” asserted a former investor at the sentencing.
Similarly, the crowd declares Zacchaeus a “sinner” (verse 7). And they expect Jesus to say more: He’s going to rebuke him and demand justice for everyone he has cheated and treated unfairly! Much of Luke’s Gospel highlights Jesus’s unrelenting advocacy for the poor and marginalized. Moreover, Jesus has just told a parable of a widow before an unjust judge, concluding emphatically, “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?” (Luke 18:7).
But Jesus doesn’t censure Zacchaeus. Instead, He welcomes him and wants to be a guest in his home that very day. It is a shocking affirmation and affront to established paradigms of justice and fairness. Does Jesus not care about the welfare of Zacchaeus’s neighbors? Zacchaeus doesn’t deserve to be treated with such kindness. And who would invite themselves to this despicable man’s home for the pleasure of his company? It’s preposterous and scandalous even as the fanciful plot of a children’s fable.
Then Luke says Zacchaeus “came down at once and welcomed him gladly” (verse 6). Climbing down from the tree, he opens himself again to scorn and humiliation; the crowd murmurs against Jesus for being “the guest of a sinner” (verse 7). “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’” (verse 8).
Zacchaeus is upended unexpectedly by extravagant love, by “Love divine, all loves excelling.” He receives Jesus’s invitation not with fearful hesitation but with joyful decisiveness. Jesus’s welcome opens his eyes to a life once unimagined. If Charles Dickens needed further inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge’s overnight conversion, he might have found it here. Zacchaeus’s life is instantly transformed—and many other lives will be changed through his repentance and costly generosity. Justice is coming to Jericho.
Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (verses 9-10).
At that, some in the appalled crowd may have gasped, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” If I had been there, I might have said the same.
The tender goodness of Jesus challenges my sense of fairness; His prodigal mercy and salvation overturn my notions of justice. Short or tall, rich or poor, fraudulent or upright, no one is beyond His invitation and forgiveness. Jesus notices each of us wherever we are, up a tree or at a dead end. He beckons us to welcome Him into our lives and let His astonishing love utterly upend us.
Instead of a having comments section, we invite you to contact us here.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 177.
 “Zacchaeus” in Encyclopedia of the Bible, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Zacchaeus.
 Michael Balsamo and Tom Hays, “Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff dies in prison at 82,” Associated Press (April 14, 2021), https://apnews.com/article/bernie-madoff-dead-9d9bd8065708384e0bf0c840bd1ae711. Accessed January 9, 2022.
 Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” (1747).
Danielle Durant invites others to join her in unearthing the perpetual wonders of beauty and truth found in the ageless drama of Scripture. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) and a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). Danielle is passionate about all things running, nature, and her expressive Maine Coon cat, Simeon.