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ZACCHAEUS (ză-kē'ŭs, Gr. Zakchaios, from the Hebrew zakkay, pure). A publican, referred to only in Luke. He resided at Jericho and is described as a “chief” tax collector. When Jesus was passing through Jericho on one occasion, Zacchaeus wished very much to see him. Being short, he climbed a tree by the side of the path. He must have been quite surprised, therefore, when Jesus paused in his journey beneath this very tree and, looking up, urged Zacchaeus to come down, for he had decided to stay at his house (Luke.19.6). Zacchaeus hurried down gladly and invited Jesus to his home. From that day on his life was changed (Luke.19.8).

ZACCHAEUS ză ke’ əs (Ζακχαι̂ος, G2405, derived from the Heb. זַכָּ֔י, meaning “pure or righteous one”). A wealthy Jewish tax-collector of Jericho, known for his short stature, who became a disciple of Jesus under most unusual circumstances (Luke 19:1-10).

Luke is the only evangelist who records the exciting Zacchaeus pericope. One is amazed that the story is not included in the gospel according to Matthew, the publican’s gospel written for Jews, but the episode fits the dominant note of Luke’s “Gospel for the Gentiles” very well and no doubt Luke included it to show that the Gospel is for all those estranged from God. Luke makes a special point that Zacchaeus was a chief or head tax-collector (architelones) and that “he was rich.” No doubt he was sort of a district tax commissioner who had purchased the Jericho tax franchise from the Rom. or provincial government which he then farmed out to subordinate tax agents who did the actual tax collecting, all of them reaping huge commissions and getting rich off poor and rich alike. Jericho was known for its palm groves and balsam (Jos., Antiq., xv, 4. 2.) and was on the main load of traffic between Joppa, Jerusalem and the country E of Jordan. It was easy to amass a fortune there. It is possible he was one of the most hated men in Jericho and it was natural that the people who witnessed the incident murmured against Jesus: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

When Jesus, His disciples, and a crowd of followers, the sick and the curious, came through Jericho on the way to the Passover in Jerusalem, it must have formed quite a commotion. Perhaps on that day Zacchaeus happened to be walking in the street or his place of business which was nearby, and he wondered who could be attracting such a crowd during the middle of the day. There is no indication that he had personally met Jesus before, because “he tried to see who Jesus was.” Because of his short build he could not see over the multitude. He anticipated that Jesus, who was moving slowly along with the crowd, would pass along his street, so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree common in the Jordan Valley. Zacchaeus certainly must have been surprised—and, one should comment, a bit embarrassed with the whole crowd looking up in amazement at the chief tax collector of Jericho up in a tree—when Jesus stopped, looked up, and called out to him over the noise of the crowd. What He said is part of the divine prerogative of knowledge and purpose which permeates the entire story: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down: for I must stay at your house today.” The omniscient Lord knew the heart of Zacchaeus as He once knew Nathanael’s (John 1:48).

The conversion which followed must have caused quite a stir in Jericho. A hated tax collector, a collaborator with the oppressive Romans, had become a disciple of Jesus. Thousands of conversions during Jesus’ ministry are not recorded, but that of Zacchaeus will always be remembered. Here great opposites met, the chief of sinners and the Chief of Love, and love is triumphant. This is the message and thrust of the Gospel: “The Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The conversion of the little Jew is exemplary of all true Christian re-birth; he scrambled with haste down the tree and stood before Jesus with great joy of faith, and immediately began to show tangible evidence of his faith and repentance. His life was completely transformed through Christ. Spontaneously he openly confesses the sins of his evil life. His words reveal what his sin was: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.” Now he would do the opposite of what he once did, showing that all believers rich and poor are one in Christ. Jewish custom was that one fifth of man’s annual income should be given for works of love, but Zacchaeus went far beyond this. Secondly, because he knew that he had not gotten all his wealth through just means—and how much had not his henchmen stolen from the people through misrepresentation, pressure and extortion?—he said: “And if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Bible students have noted that he did not say “When I die,” but now I give it (didomi). According to the law he offered twice the restitution which thieves must make under Jewish law (Exod 22:1; Num 5:6).

Jesus’ pronouncement of remission, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9), included not only Zacchaeus himself but all the members of his household. The expression finds its meaning in the Jewish concept of the family under the Old Covenant. Now Zacchaeus was a true son of Abraham, a child of the promise, and the blessings of Abraham were fulfilled for him in the forgiving Christ, even those who by their profession were considered heathen (Matt 18:17).

The Clementine Homilies (3:63) state that Zacchaeus later became a companion of Peter and bishop at Caesarea but the remark is not based upon fact.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(Zakchaios, from zakkay, "pure"):

(1) A publican with whom Jesus lodged during His stay in Jericho (Lu 19:1-10). He is not mentioned in the other Gospels. Being a chief publican, or overseer, among the tax-gatherers, Zaccheus had additional opportunity, by farming the taxes, of increasing that wealth for which his class was famous. Yet his mind was not entirely engrossed by material considerations, for he joined the throng which gathered to see Jesus on His entrance into the city. Of little stature, he was unable either to see over or to make his way through the press, and therefore scaled a sycomore tree. There he was singled out by Jesus, who said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to-day I must abide at thy house" (Lu 19:5). The offer thus frankly made by Jesus was accepted eagerly and gladly by Zaccheus; and the murmurings of the crowd marred the happiness of neither. How completely the new birth was accomplished in Zaccheus is testified by his vow to give half of his goods to the poor, and to make fourfold restitution where he had wrongfully exacted. The incident reveals the Christian truth that just as the publican Zaccheus was regarded by the rest of the Jews as a sinner and renegade who was unworthy to be numbered among the sons of Abraham, and was yet chosen by our Lord to be His host, so the social outcast of modern life is still a son of God, within whose heart the spirit of Christ is longing to make its abode. "For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost" (Lu 19:10).

(2) An officer of Judas Maccabeus (2 Macc 10:19). (3) A Zaccheus is mentioned in the Clementine Homilies (iii.63) as having been a companion of Peter and appointed bishop of Caesarea.

(4) According to the Gospel of the Childhood, by Thomas, Zaccheus was also the name of the teacher of the boy Jesus.