The story of Zacchaeus is one of many stories that speak to the mission Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4:18–19. Luke continues his central theme that Jesus is the one who is sent to express God’s salvation for all people. Simply, Jesus is the one who saves. But even more, Jesus’ mission becomes clearly directed to the poor and outsiders who need to hear about God’s love and acceptance for them. The story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus focuses on one who is an outcast among his people. It is a story that reflects the Enduring Principle Worth of All Persons. Redemption and salvation transform the life of Zacchaeus and release in him radical generosity for the welfare of others.
As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was likely one of the most despised people in town; despised because he profited by collecting taxes from the Jews for the Roman government. Jews who worked for the invaders, the occupying Romans, were viewed as traitors. Tax collectors often took advantage of the citizenry in ways that had a crushing impact on their lives and continued the cycle of poverty.
In his enthusiasm to meet Jesus, Zacchaeus puts his self-image at risk as he runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree. Grown men typically do not run or climb trees. Why was he willing to make a spectacle of himself? Zacchaeus is yearning for something more in his life than what he had. The story reaches a critical point of tension when both Zacchaeus and Jesus make themselves vulnerable to each other when Jesus makes the public statement that he will go to Zacchaeus’ home. This is a powerful moment when Jesus lives his mission as he engages in a relationship with one considered a sinner.
In this expression of love and acceptance, Zacchaeus encounters the divine redemption and grace Jesus reflects. The wealthy, but empty life Zacchaeus lived is transformed and a new expression of radical generosity is born. The one who contributed to oppressing the Jews is now living generously and engaging in acts of justice for the poor. His life-changing discovery with Jesus breaks open Zacchaeus’ heart and genuine generosity flows.
The custom of providing voluntary compensation was to return the original amount plus 20 percent. Compulsory compensation called for doubling the original amount. But Zacchaeus would do more. He would return four times the amount. Instead of giving 10 percent, Zacchaeus offers 50 percent of his wealth.
This story is a living example of Jesus’ mission that made it possible for people to experience healing, wholeness, and a new way of belonging. The story challenges the social mindset that having money is what makes one happy, or is a sign of success. It is about God’s grace and acceptance, which make it possible for all people to discover their fullest potential in Christ. When we live from this place of growing awareness, our generosity is released and we join in the mission Jesus lived for us. And when all people discover who they are in Christ, then salvation in all of its dimensions—present and future, social and spiritual—has the potential to become real.