Jesus Saves The Prince Of The Publicans

One of the more persistent charges leveled against Jesus is that he associated with the wrong sort of people. One of the best examples of the tension between the way Jesus understands the Kingdom of God and the way that his critics understood it is the story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. The old-fashioned word for tax collector is publican. It comes to us from Latin. Indeed the title of this essay comes from the Latin translation of Luke 19:2, where he is called “princeps publicanorum, translated literally as “prince of the publicans.” A publican (tax collector) was a contractor or as one reference put it, a “tax farmer.” Specifically, he probably (so J. W. Simpson, Jr s.v., “Zacchaeus,” ISBE) collected tariffs on imported goods. As a supervisor (ἀρχιτελώνης) he supervised sub-contractors. They harvested taxes from the Jews on behalf of the Roman empire and the sub-contractors got a “piece of the action” and he kept a percentage of what they collected. The Romans had conquered the Jews in 63 BC. The Jews, of course, hated their conquerors and the Romans, for their part, seemed to have thought relatively little of what they regarded as a troublesome backwater. The Jews had been paying taxes and fees to their conquerors for a little more than 90 years by the time Jesus met Zacchaeus.

For Jesus to associate with a “tax farmer” was politically incorrect. It was an affront the nationalist sensibilities. Zacchaeus, a Jew, was a traitor to his people. Still, he had a certain social (or at least economic) position. He was management not labor. This background makes Luke’s narrative all the more interesting:

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:1–10; ESV)

It must have been a comical sight to see him climb into a sycamore tree. The even more remarkable thing is that, as far as we know, Jesus sought him out. Luke does not say that he cried out to Jesus but that Jesus looked up, saw Zacchaeus, and spoke to him. This narrative is the first and only time he appears in the gospels so we infer that they had not met. Luke’s point (and the Spirit’s point) is to illustrate two different receptions of Jesus: Zacchaeus’ and that of Jesus’ opponents, the “they” of v. 7. Jesus more or less commandeered Zacchaeus’ house and Zacchaeus received him with joy. “They” (Jesus’ critics) grumbled at the company he kept. They called Zacchaeus a “sinner,” which, in this context means more than a mere transgressor of God’s law. It has a social connotation in this context. Zacchaeus was particularly dirty and, by implication, Jesus was to be regarded as tainted too. This is the definition of guilt by association—a primary weapon of the political correctness police. Jesus was “transgressive” (as folk say now) but not of God’s law. He did transgress man-made conventions but he did not come to satisfy cultural conventions but to announce the advent of a non-political, transcendent kingdom. The embassy of his Kingdom is not a grand building with guards but lowly ministers announcing the unlikely story of the obedience, suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and bodily return of Jesus of Nazareth.

While PC police were grumbling Zacchaeus was already demonstrating the fruit of his faith in Jesus. He was wealthy and he announced that he was giving half his goods to the poor. Remember, Israel is still nominally God’s national-people and the institutional church, if you will. The poor to whom he was giving half his goods were members of that subjugated state-church. As part of his tax-farming business he had presumably defrauded a great number of people. Thus, his pledge to restore to them fourfold what he had taken was an enormous promise that went beyond the requirements of the Jewish law. This is a man whose heart has been seized by grace.

In turn, not because of anything Zacchaeus had done, Jesus had a great announcement too: “Today salvation (σωτηρία) has come to your house. By “house” (οἶκος) Jesus was not referring to the building in which Zacchaeus ate and slept. He was referring to a family unit. This is a biblical (not modern American) way of thinking and speaking (Ps 98:3; Zech 12:7; Luke 1:69). God saves “houses” not just individuals. Salvation here is a broad term that encompasses deliverance from judgment and deliverance into a state of blessedness. God saved the “house of Israel” from Pharaoh and into the land of Canaan. Zacchaeus was a son of Abraham—”I will be a God to you and to your children”—in two senses: physically and spiritually. The critics were not yet sons of Abraham in both senses. They were sons outwardly but not yet inwardly. Zacchaeus, that sinner, who had done nothing to merit salvation, whose “works” could not have even the instrument of his salvation, was given salvation freely, graciously through faith alone. He climbed that tree because he wanted to see the Savior who associated with and saves dirty people, those who cannot save themselves. At some level he knew what he was and who and what Jesus was and he wanted Jesus. He wanted the salvation that only Jesus gives.

The good news is that Jesus is still saving the lost, dirty, and needy and thereby making them sons of Abraham too.

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  1. Dr Clark, one of the things you touched upon in this article was Abraham’s seed. It has only been in the last couple of months that it has clicked to me that the distinction in Abraham is not, as Baptists of all stripes say, between two different seeds, physical and spiritual, but rather with Abraham having had a single spiritual seed, with the distinction being visible/invisible, those who are outwardly his seed and the true spiritual seed. Once one accepts the Abrahamic covenant being same in substance with the New and a seed continuity peadobaptism is inevitable. A big thank you to both you and Angela for helping me realise this.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    My husband wrote a children’s song entitled ‘Zacchaeus’. I’ll send it in an email. It is one of my favorite songs because it displays saved by Grace through Faith in Jesus Christ.

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