Rome had common and chief tax collectors. Chief tax collectors, like drug lords, extracted profit from the common tax collectors they supervised, who existed on a lower rung of the systemic food chain of oppression.
Comparable to white-collar criminals today, chief tax collectors’ fiscal flourishing was rooted in systemic sin.
They profited from a depraved system that ensured the rich would get richer by oppressing the public and extorting the poor.
Jews therefore despised tax collectors. It was through tax collectors that they were subject to the Roman emperor. The paying of taxes was viewed as a recognition of the emperor’s sovereignty. Biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer explains that “Jews who engaged in collecting tariffs, tolls, imposts, and customs for the Romans were under the double stigma of having bid for the office and of serving the occupying power.” Zacchaeus, as described in Luke 19:1–10, was such a stigmatized Jew.
Zacchaeus was conscripted by the Roman government to collect taxes from his fellow Jews in Jericho. As a chief tax collector, he engaged in criminal activity and became “very wealthy” because of it.
Biblical scholar Justo González writes, “That Zacchaeus was rich implies that he was not just one of many tax collectors, but an important one. A sinner among sinners!” Zacchaeus not only extorted his own people, but he also mercilessly preyed on the poor and vulnerable, charging them more than what they owed Rome to line his pockets.
Consequently, Zacchaeus’s community despised him and saw him as a traitor. He was cut off from the covenant community, and we see the effects of this when Jesus came to town. While Sunday school taught us that Zacchaeus could not see Jesus because he was a wee little man, his vertical limitation was not the only reason he was unable to see Jesus.
Zacchaeus was also unable to see Jesus because his peers were repulsed by him and saw him as their enemy. They therefore refused to assist, touch, or make room for him. Zacchaeus, because of his economic exploitation, found himself physically and socially isolated from both Jesus and his community.
Zacchaeus, consequently, took drastic measures; he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree to encounter Jesus. Jesus saw him and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately” (Luke 19:5). By calling Zacchaeus by name, Jesus signified that he knew Zacchaeus, his vocation, and everything it entailed.
Jesus then breached the purity rituals and kinship norms of ancient Near Eastern society when he said, “I must stay at your house today,” because Jesus would have become culturally unclean and disreputable by communing with an unethical renegade like Zacchaeus.
Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus is framed by a previous interaction where Jesus was criticized for interacting and eating with another tax collector. In Luke 5 Jesus saw Levi, also a tax collector, and said to him, “Follow me.” Luke 5:28 says, “Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”
Levi welcomed Jesus, his disciples, and a number of his tax collector friends into his house, and as they ate together, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began criticizing Jesus, asking his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (vv. 30–32).
Call and Response
When Jesus went to Zacchaeus’s home, he did not go just to engage in table fellowship—he went to heal the sick and to call Zacchaeus to repentance. In doing so, Jesus was bear- ing witness to the good news of the gospel, that even people like Zacchaeus who are steeped in oppression are not beyond redemption, nor are they destined to be forever defined by their past. Jesus gives anyone who comes into a revelation of their sinfulness—regardless of what they have done—an opportunity to contritely confess their sins, genuinely lament the harm they have caused, and soberly repent by turning away from their sins in order to return to God and reconcile with their neighbor.
The transformative power of the gospel frees us from having to live in shame or condemnation regarding our sins, and it also compels us to break toxic cycles of generational sin within our families (as Pharaoh’s daughter shows). We all are offered unmerited grace from God. And we are all given the opportunity to make amends for our transgressions and the sins of our ancestors that we continue to benefit from, even if only passively. Empowered by the Spirit, all prodigal children—like me, you, and Zacchaeus—have an opportunity to bear witness to repentance by keeping with it in a manner that produces kingdom fruit.
Jesus called Zacchaeus to repent, and he responded by standing up and proclaiming, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated any- body out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). This proclamation demonstrated that Zacchaeus knew he exploited the poor, and he also understood that merely saying, “I’m sorry, Lord. I’m a sinner; please forgive me,” while retaining the booty his sins commandeered, would have been insufficient.
Zacchaeus understood that repentance required more than words. His repentant heart inspired him not only to give half of his possessions to the poor but also to calculate the cumulative effect his oppression had on families and the community and then commit himself to paying reparations accordingly.
Zacchaeus understood that his sins had created communal trauma and constructed a perpetual underclass. He knew that his economic exploitation harmed more individuals than the people he directly extorted. Zacchaeus acknowledged that the depraved system of tax collection generated oppressive patterns of debt, poverty, and abuse that had to be atoned for.
When we are spiritually mature enough to soberly assess our sins and the collective impact they have had on our neighbors, the Spirit leads us to discern what true reconciliation requires.
For Zacchaeus, repentance and reconciliation required reparations.
Zacchaeus paid a steep price to atone for the social impact of the systemic sin he supervised and engaged in. As a fruit of his repentance, Zacchaeus committed to doing his part to end the generational cycles of poverty and trauma his sins created and exacerbated, and he did so by enacting economic transformation within the community he robbed.
It was only after Zacchaeus committed to bearing fruit in keeping with repentance that Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house.” The salvation Jesus enacted in Zacchaeus’s life was not purely personal. Salvation was not solely about Zacchaeus establishing a personal relationship with Jesus or about God restoring Zacchaeus’s sense of peace and self-worth.
Instead, through Zacchaeus’s response to Jesus’ call to repentance, we see that salvation requires repentance and repentance necessitates providing reparations to those harmed by our sins. As Jesus chose to bind himself to Zacchaeus in relationship, Zacchaeus had to reconcile himself to God and neighbor by choosing to bind himself to those he stole from by offering restitution for his sins.
Biblical scholar Elsa Tamez writes,
In the New Testament there are very few instances in which the term metanoia means simply remorse. In the majority of the texts the meaning of metanoia is a radical change of outlook (accompanied, of course, by concrete actions). In its religious and ethical meaning the term is in the line of the Old Testament and Jewish concept of conversion. At the same time, however, the word in its New Testament usage conveys some ideas not found in the Old Testament. One of these is the pressing need of conversion to the kingdom of God, which is already at hand: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Jesus affirmed Zacchaeus’s repentance by declaring that he was “a son of Abraham.” Biblical scholar Dennis Hamm writes, “Zacchaeus shows himself to be a true son of Abraham in just the sort of conversion John the Baptist calls for in Luke 3:10–14. In his conversion he shows himself to be, like Abraham, one who shows his righteousness in deeds of hospitality.”
As a son of Abraham, Zacchaeus was no longer defined by the oppression he enacted; he was now known as one who made reparations for his sins. He was no longer shunned by his peers, destined to exist in isolation, but was invited to become an active participant in covenant community. He was no longer an active participant in, or an unethical beneficiary of, an unjust system.
He was now one who was sacramentally bound to the poor. Jesus transformed a person who oppressively violated community into an advocate of justice and an indispensable member of God’s family. This is what the gospel has the power to do when we engage in biblically based repentance.
To produce fruit in keeping with repentance, Zacchaeus had to soberly examine his rich legacy of economic exploitation, explore his ledger to identify everyone he robbed, expand this list to include not only those he robbed but also those affected by his sins, and then confess the specificity of his sins. After lamenting the social injustice and communal oppression his sins caused, he went out and faced his victims, acknowledging every person harmed by his economic exploitation. Zacchaeus therefore became a beautiful model of Christian repentance.
After encountering Jesus, Zacchaeus knew that he must turn away from sin and return to God. He understood that oral confession alone was inadequate. Zacchaeus did not try to absolve himself of his sins by saying, “I was just doing my job,” or “There is no way I could know all of the people impacted by my sins beyond the people I directly defrauded.” He was spiritually mature enough to realize that repentance is inconvenient and takes work.
While the entire system is guilty, as we work to transform broken systems, we also need eyes to see the people of God within these systems who need to be called to repentance.
As the people of God who are integrated within broken systems and structures awaken to their sinful complicity and follow Zacchaeus’s model, we establish kingdom pressure points that help us topple oppressive systems that counteract the will of God.