Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. Luke 19:1-2 (NLT)
In first century Palestine, few people were hated more than the tax collector. While even today most people are not particularly pleased to pay taxes (especially if they are told they must pay more than what they already paid), the situation in Palestine was exacerbated even more.
In the first century, during the time of Christ, Palestine was an occupied nation under Rome. Contrary to what you may see in the movies, the Roman empire was in deep trouble. It had expanded across a good portion of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. While it had conquered all of these nations, it was now left with the problem of managing them. That cost money. In addition to that, the aristocracy insisted on living extremely lavish life-styles such as the world had never seen before. It is estimated that about one out of every four people living in the Roman Empire were slaves.
When it came to collecting taxes, Rome did not care how much non-Roman citizens were charged. They were more strict when it came to the taxing of Roman citizens, however. As long as a sufficient amount was sent to Rome, the government was satisfied. If the tax collector wanted to include a "tip" for himself in the amount he collected, that was fine.
With the nonchalance of the Roman government, you can well imagine the opportunities for corruption within the puppet governments of these occupied lands. Those employed and supported by Rome simply took what they wanted and no one could stop them. The tax collectors were notorious for this sort of practice. So were the priests but that is for another blog.
Zacchaeus was the head tax collector in the region and the Bible tells us that he'd become very rich. By his own admission we learn further on in this chapter that Zacchaeus had acquired his great wealth by demanding that more taxes than what they owed. This was common knowledge but the victims had absolutely no legal recourse. He was a wolf locked in a pen with the sheep and he'd been locked in there by a grinning shepherd.
As a Jewish tax collector, Zacchaeus was not only hated by his own people, he was despised by the Romans as well. First of all, simply because he was a Jew. Secondly, while he was working for them they knew what he was, an opportunist who would not think twice about robbing his own people. He was a nasty character!
One day, this man heard that Jesus was in the area. We can only speculate as to why Zacchaeus wanted to see him. Perhaps he just wanted to see the man he'd heard so much about... sort of like going to see a celebrity but perhaps his heart was indeed crying out for something more.
When Zacchaeus arrived he was unable to see Jesus. The Bible tells us he was a small man, unable to look over the crowd. This is where the story takes an interesting turn.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. Luke 19:4 (NLT)
Now you have to understand the culture of the Middle East at this point in order to fully grasp what was going on. Slaves wore tunics; wealthy, important men did not. They wore full-length robes. This told everyone what their social status was. They were men who commanded respect. Slaves ran; wealthy, important men did not. Others ran for them. Oh, and they certainly did not climb trees either.
So, here we have this wealthy, important man wearing a full-length robe... running and then climbing up into a tree so that he could get a glimpse of Jesus. Do you get the picture? Zacchaeus, a rich and powerful man did not command Jesus to stop for him. Instead he got himself into a position where he could see Jesus.
A man's life was forever changed that day. We hear nothing more about Zacchaeus but I have no doubt he followed through. I believe his story was included in the Gospels for a reason. He demonstrates what happens to a person who longs to encounter Jesus so much that they are willing to do whatever it takes.
What a testimony this man had! What an stirring there must have been in the community. The thief, the greedy, selfish, hard-hearted man they all feared made restitution with his victims. He not only did that, he generously gave a way a large portion of his wealth to help others. The selfish, greedy heart and been transformed into a loving, giving heart. Only God can do this.
Here was a man who was clearly demonstrating that he had only one desire. He didn't care what people thought about him. He didn't care about the rules of society. He didn't care about his position. He wanted to see Jesus and he would do whatever he had to do in order to get a glimpse of Him! Would we?