Zacchaeus, the Epitome of Repentance
Rabbi Yehudah ben Shomeyr
Exodus 22:1 If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.
Most of us who grew up in church and went to Sunday School know about Zacchaeus and as the well know song goes, “A wee little man was he. HE climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed that way He looked up in the tree, and He said, “Zacchaeus! You come down! For I’m going to your house today!”
Zacchaeus in the Greek and Zakkai is the Hebew and it means, “Pure.” He was seen as anything but pure by his fellow Jews because he was employed by the Roman government who ruthlessly occupied Israel and beyond by their military. Zakkai was hired as a chief tax collector for the Roman Empire and thus was viewed as a traitor to Israel and the Jewish people and was seen and treated as an impure, unclean leper. Often his Roman title, “publican” was often thrown in the same sentence mentioning other classes of people considered to be of a sully or shady character, such as “prostitute” and “sinner.” The people hated Roman employed Jewish tax collectors because they were seen as crooks and thieves, stealing their own peoples livelihood. Zacchaeus was seen as someone who’d sell his own mother to a slave trader or pimp to make a pretty penny. He apparently became rich by taking advantage of his authority and exploiting the people. If they hated him and called him traitor he’d milk them for all they were worth. His actions may also have been compensation for his short stature which we call today the Napoleon Complex.
Zacchaeus lived and worked in Jericho. History and Archeology tells us there were three Jericho’s, the Jericho of the Tanak (O.T.) is usually associated with the mound of Tell es-Sultan, approximately two kilometers or over one mile from the village called er-Riha. Er-Riha is now the modern day Jericho which lies close to 27 kilometers of 17 miles northeast of Jerusalem. The Jericho mentioned here in Luke 19 is associated with the mounds of Tulul Abu el-Alayiq which is about two kilometers or barely over a mile west of the modern day Jericho.
According to the narrative in the Besorah (Gospel) of Luke, Yeshua was scheduled to pass that way in route to Jerusalem and Zakkai, who, like Darth Vader, must still had some “purity” in him as he was attracted by the accounts he heard regarding this Rabbi who was reported to be a “friend of publicans and sinners (Luke 7:34)” and had to at least see him. Zakkai, being the opposite of King Saul and likely being a head and shoulder shorter than most everyone else, his only chance to see this Rabbi was to go ahead on the route He’d be taking on His way to Jerusalem and climb a sycamore fig tree and get a bird’s eye view of this man. I find it very interesting that a sycamore tree is specifically mentioned. Why not just say “a tree”? I think it was Luke’s way of hinting to his readers just how utterly sinful and hated this man was, that he had such an evil reputation. Because Zacchaeus being in a species of fig called a sycamore, gives us a picture of the devil himself who is seen in Genesis popping his head out of a fig tree in the form of a serpent to tempt Eve. You may wonder where the Genesis account labels the Tree of Knowledge a fig tree. It doesn’t, but it is well known in Judaism and Luke being a Jewish convert would know that the tree of Life is associated with an almond tree and the tree of Knowledge is associated with the fig tree. Because the fig tree was the only plant willing to give up its leaves to cover Adam and Eve after they sinned. I find it equally as intriguing that later in Luke chapter 13 verses 6-9 Yeshua teaches a parable about a fig tree and in Matthew 21:18-22 He curses a fig tree.
So we have this curious Zakkai, up in a fig tree because his short stature, so as to see Messiah when He came by, but also to stay out of arms reach because if he was out in public without his Roma Centurion escorts, the people may mob and kill him.
Anyway, we have Zakkai up in this sycamore fig tree and either by Yeshua’s divine nature He was able to perceive Zakkai up there in the tree, just as He knew power went out from Him when by faith the woman with the issue of blood touched the tzitzit (fringe/hem) of his robe, or He just felt someone watching Him like all of us mortals sense from time to time. Regardless, Yeshua knew Zakkai was up there and He invited Himself to his house which one; gave Zakkai the courage to come down without fear of the crowd lynching him and two; Yeshua was extending the hand of friendship to Zakkai. Not just, “Hi, How are you? Nice to make your acquaintance.” But n intimate hand of friendship that said, “I know all about you Zakkai.” Because were not talking a business man style power lunch. We are talking an intimate dinner date in Zakkai’s home. To be invited to a persons home and sharing a meal meant hospitality, fellowship and friendship. We may in our society think it is rude and impositious to invite ourselves over to someone’s house, but it was considered a great honor to entertain a Rabbi, it carried with it a certain sense of clout and credibility for the host. Which Zakkai needed more than most other people. How could one turn that down? Again, like Luke Skywalker telling his father Darth Vader, “I still sense good in you.” Yeshua was saying to Zacchaeus, “You know, you’re not as bad as you or others think you are. Down deep you’re actually a pretty good guy.” Maybe through the rough Napoleon-esque exterior, Zakkai was yearning for someone to see that good Jewish boy he may have been before Rome took over. His actions cried out for some one to still see good in him. He wanted some one to see that he wasn’t a monster or a traitor.
Yeshua’s words joyfully shocked and excited Zakkai, like he couldn’t believe it, like your favorite movie star telling you they were going to stop by your house for coffee and cake. It would be like the President of the United States or the Queen of England inviting themselves over to a sanitation workers house. Yeshua was publicly affirming that Zakkai was still a Jew and that he was not unclean or an untouchable. The self righteous religious folk were all up in arms over the situation, “How could He even associate or ben seen with such a turn coat!?” They may have even talked amongst themselves that associating with such a Jew made Yeshua unclean too. Guilty by association. Even though being unclean is not a sin, being unclean did prevent one from worshiping at the Temple until they take a mikvah (immerse ritually in water) and wait until evening, the start in Judaism of a new day.
Zakkai was so touched by Yeshua’s love and acceptance and his utter lack of self righteous airs that other Rabbi’s had, that he repented. He didn’t just say, “I’m sorry, forgive me.” I mean he TRULY repented in the Jewish definition of the word, which is teshuvah, meaning to go down one path, stop and do a 180 and go back in the opposite direction, the direction one started from; returning to the point of origin. But Zakkai actively proceeded to right the wrongs, to correct the errors of his ways. To “tikkun,” to fix what he broke, not only that, but to do so with interest! Zakkai being a Jew knew just how much to compensate according to the Torah which is four fold. Zakkai did this at the risk of his job and quite possibly his life!
Luke 19:8 And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.Exodus 22:1 If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.
This is TRUE repentance, not words or alligator tears, but actions which speak louder than words or tears. It is the proof and fruit of the genuineness of ones repentance. The charity he spoke of, giving to the poor which is called “tzedakah” is a well known Jewish practice in connection with repentance. Zakkai did what the “rich young ruler” of just a chapter before could not do (Luke 18:18-25). It’s almost as if Yeshua prophesied of Zakkai’s repentance and the disapproval of the crowds a chapter prior also.
Luke 18:1-14 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth? And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
With Zacchaeus’ conversion and vow, Yeshua confirmed the genuineness of his repentance and reconfirmed his status as a Jew in good standing, calling him a “Son of Abraham,” alluding to the great hospitality Zakkai showed Yeshua in his home.
Zakkai lost his way on the road of life, forgot who he was and where he came from and Yeshua met him as a lost traveler on that road and showed him the way back home. Yeshua was able to rescue Zacchaeus from himself.
An interesting Christian tradition tells us that Zacchaeus’ surname was Matthias and according to Clemet of Alexandria in his book Stromata, he is the one who replaced Judas Iscariot after his suicide and Yeshua’s ascension (Acts 1:18-26).
So this brings to mind Ecclesiastical con men who rip off believers for money or are caught in a sin and publicly apologize and cry a river, but do they really repent? Do they really try to make things right as Zacchaeus did? Again, the proof is in the pudding, actions speak louder than words. I’d like to see the day a fallen TV Evangelist gives back what he stole four fold.