12.04.06 Lk. 19:1-10 The New Testament Era Jericho
ZACCHAEUS RECEIVES JESUS
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 There was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but he was not able because of the crowd, since he was a short man. 4 So running ahead, he climbed up a sycamore tree to see Jesus, since He was about to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down because today I must stay at your house.”
6 So he quickly came down and welcomed Him joyfully. 7 All who saw it began to complain, “He’s gone to lodge with a sinful man!”
8 But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, I’ll give half of my possessions to the poor, Lord! And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I’ll pay back four times as much!”
9 “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus told him, “because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”
“Crowd.” Luke did not describe these people as an ordinary crowd. Evidently the expectation and tension was high because he used the Greek word ochlos (3793), meaning a confused throng. The fact many present were pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem who expected Jesus to announce His Messiahship at the temple simply added to the dynamics of the moment.
The “sycamore tree,” a/k/a the “sycamore-fig tree,” (Gk. sukomorea 4809) is, in fact, an Egyptian fig tree (Ficus sycomorus L). It has leaves like a mulberry tree but fruit like a fig tree. It is not related to the American sycamore or English maple, although both are at times identified to be this biblical tree. A point of interest is that the gospel writer indicated that Zacchaeus was of short stature and, therefore, had to climb a tree to see Jesus. The sycamore normally pictured with this verse has high branches, which would have been impossible for any short person to climb. The Egyptian fig tree, however, has low branches, permitting an easy climb.
Few things in Israel are as weird as this tree. While it originated in Egypt, it grows well in Israel but has a little problem – it is handicapped and needs help to pollinate its fruit. This is primarily because the bee needed to pollinate does not live in Israel. Therefore, the fruit does not become edible until a bee makes a hole in the fruit to lay its eggs. The eggs hatch and the young bees fly away. Only then will the fruit ripen. But because the bee does not live in this land, for centuries people like the prophet Amos had to climb Egyptian-fig trees (Amos 7:14) and prick small holes in thousands of little green figs so that other local bees could lay their eggs in the holes of the fruit. That process enabled the figs to ripen. Now that’s weird!
“I’ll pay back four times the amount.” This was far more than the twenty percent the Law of Moses required (Lev. 5:16; Num. 5:7). Clearly, he had the “fruit of repentance” John the Baptist preached about (Lk. 3:8). The name “Zacchaeus” means pure, just, or innocent and he may not have lived up to his name until he met Jesus. But he said that he would give up to half of his possessions to the poor and pay a four-fold restoration (see 12.04.06.Q1 below) to anyone whom he had cheated. There are two points to consider here.
- It is well understood from New Testament context that salvation comes only by faith, not by the gifts given to the poor or to any other acceptable cause. Yet anyone who has experienced a sincere transformation of life will immediately be concerned for the welfare of others, as was demonstrated by Zacchaeus.
- Since the tax collector was willing to restore up to four times any ill-gotten gains, he evidently had made a number of honest and wise financial investments or he would quickly have been bankrupt. Therefore, the negative attitude toward all tax collectors may be one of jealousy as well as the corruption of many (most?) tax collectors.
The four times payment for having done wrong may have been a cultural standard at the time, since Josephus mentioned it.
The thief shall restore fourfold, and that if he had not so much, he shall be sold indeed, but not to foreigners, not so that he be under perpetual slavery, for he must have been released after six years. But this [new] law [by Herod], thus enacted in order to introduce a severe and illegal punishment seemed to be a piece of insolence in Herod, when he did not act as a king but as a tyrant.
Josephus, Antiquities 16.1.1 (3-4)
12.04.06.Q1 On what biblical principle did Zacchaeus offer to pay back four times anything he may have taken unjustly (Lk. 19:8)?
Most Bible readers would consider his offer to be quite generous; going far above and beyond what was required. However, Zacchaeus was doing precisely what the Old Testament law required. There were three levels of restitution for wrongs committed:
- When a person confessed to having committed fraud, he was to make full restitution plus
add twenty percent to his victim (Lev. 6:1-5; Num. 5:5-7).
- If a thief was apprehended, he had to pay double of what he stole (Ex. 22:4, 7).
- However, if a man stole what was essential and demonstrated no pity to his victim, he was
required to pay back fourfold (Ex. 22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6). His decision reflects his passion to obey God’s Word literally, and he lived up to the meaning of his name.
Whether Zacchaeus demonstrated pity to his victims may not be the point here as much as the fact that the general public perceived tax collectors as having no pity and dedicated to greed. He not only desired to be right with God, but also right with his neighbors. Jesus affirmed his decision that was based on an Old Testament law. The greater question might be, what does that mean for us today?
“Today salvation has come to this house.” This phrase is typical of the puns or word plays found in the Bible. Not only did the message of Jesus proclaim salvation, but His name, Yeshua, in Hebrew means salvation. The irony is that before Zacchaeus had any opportunity to repent or to invite Jesus, Jesus invited Himself to the home of the tax collector – and that was without showing any kind of concern for Zacchaeus’s traitorous lifestyle, his reputation and possible immoral behavior. The gospel narrative leaves the reader wondering what their conversation was about.
“For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.” This is the theme of the life of Jesus. It never changed, but was presented through parables, miracles, teachings, His lifestyle, and finally, His death and resurrection. The theme of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus came to redeem humanity from the ravages of sin. It is noteworthy that the term seek is from the Hebrew word daras, which means more than to search, but to search with care and diligence.
12.04.06.A. AN EGYPTIAN FIG, OR “SYCAMORE” TREE. This fig tree is also known as a sycamore tree, although the two species are not at all related. In fact, the sycamore does not even grow in Israel and the Egyptian fig seeds were planted in Israel by migrating birds. Zacchaeus, who was a man of small stature, could not have climbed the tall American or European sycamore tree because the lowest branches would have been beyond his reach. However, he had no problem climbing the Egyptian fig tree. Photograph by the author.
. Vine, “Crowd.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:139.
. Hareuveni, Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage. 41, 83.
. Vine, “Sycamore.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:614.
. Bees that have been brought into Israel from Egypt and Africa for pollination died, making the insect relocation a failure.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:408.
. Mills and Michael, Messiah and His Hebrew Alphabet. 7.
. Levy, The Ruin and Restoration of Israel. 134.