Zacchaeus, a poor rich man

JerichoToJerusalem“Joshua fit the battle of Jericho…” Remember that song? I learned it in Sunday School many years ago. This article isn’t about Joshua, though, it’s about someone who lived and worked in Jericho at the time of Christ, perhaps the richest man in town. Chief tax collector, Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus is an interesting character. Reading Luke 19:1-10, this short passage about Jesus meeting Zacchaeus struck me as worthy of more study. It looked to me like Jesus may have gone to Jericho just to meet this little man, sort of like he went to Samaria to meet the woman at the well. After all, he told Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today.” And when the crowd complained about that, Jesus commented “The son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

As I investigated Zacchaeus and Jericho a bit further, I had several questions. Here are some of the answers I found.

What does his name mean? It’s derived from a word meaning “pure,” which he certainly wasn’t before Jesus got hold of him. I wonder if people made jokes about his name…

What was his job? Chief tax collector; he probably supervised several other tax collectors and all of them worked for Rome. Their own income came from overcharging the people – they pocketed the difference. He may have been acquainted with Jesus’ disciple Matthew (Levi), who had the same job.

What was his position then in the community? Wealth, influence with Rome, reputation as an astute businessman, since he’d been elevated to “chief” tax collector, employees and servants, influence and/or friendship with other Jews who had a vested interest in seeing that Rome stayed happy. We aren’t told if he had a wife and children. He was despised by the ordinary citizens since he cooperated with their enemy and took advantage of his own people.

Ethics / morals? On a par with his job, no doubt. He knew the Jewish law but going by his own words he didn’t really keep it. He really couldn’t keep the law and his job, and we know which one he kept.

sycamore-tree-panoTraditional Tree of Zacchaeus in Jericho, said to be approximately 2000 years old.

Spiritual condition? Hungry for something more. Zacchaeus was aware that Jesus was in town. Perhaps he’d heard gossip from underlings or house servants, but somehow he’d heard about Jesus. His curiosity wasn’t the only thing that took him into the street. No businessman would climb a tree in public! What would people think? Of course, he didn’t really care what the ordinary people thought. He had everything any man could want and wasn’t happy with it. He wanted to see this Jesus person.

Being short, Zacchaeus couldn’t see over the people in front of him, but the crowd didn’t respect him enough to give him space. They wouldn’t let him get close enough to the street. I think Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus. What were people saying about Jesus? He raised the dead! He healed the sick! He turned water into wine!

Who wouldn’t want to see a man like that? But I don’t think many would climb a tree to do it, unless they were desperate.

What did it cost Zacchaeus? Everything he had. After his meeting with Jesus, he couldn’t be a tax collector any longer. And he himself promised to do more than the current religious leaders required, he promised restitution more in line with the actual law, even better than the actual law. He had to have counted the cost. If he meant it, he would have been giving back a great deal of money and cutting off his livelihood and his relationship with the Romans. But what he gained was worth it; eternal life, starting now.

Where and what kind of place was Jericho? For this, I went to the internet and did a little research. I knew some of the Old Testament stories about things that happened there, and Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan takes place near Jericho. It was a prominent city in the days of Joshua before the “walls came a-tumbling down,” put under a curse by God and deserted for all practical purposes.

JerichoHerodWinterPalace3By the time of Jesus the city had been rebuilt and was prominent again. Herod even had a palace there, overlooking the city. Thieves and robbers had a wonderful time of plying their criminal trade along the steep and dangerous route down from Jerusalem. Fascinating story about Zacchaeus, and a fascinating town he lived in.

If you’re interested in learning a little more about the place, keep reading. The following notes came from an internet Bible study site:

“Jericho is located near the southern end of the Jordan Valley about eight hundred twenty-five feet below the level of the Mediterranean Sea and about two hundred feet above the surface of the Dead Sea. The area around it is watered by springs and small streams, and since 7000 B.C. Jericho has been an oasis and a population center in the otherwise mostly barren valley. Some scholars think Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and it was called the city of palm trees in Judges 1.16. Intersecting there since historic times have been a major road that comes down the Jordan Valley, one that crosses the Jordan River (five miles east of Jericho), and one that leads up through the steep, barren hills to Jerusalem, which is fifteen miles to the southwest and more than two thousand feet higher than Jericho.

Jericho had high walls and protective towers in ancient times, as it did when Joshua led the people of Israel across the Jordan River on their way to occupy what became their land. But the city was built of sun-dried mud bricks, so it was often invaded and captured by enemies. These ancient bricks have mostly washed away, and so archaeologists are not sure which part of the city was standing when Joshua captured it (Josh 6).

Elijah went through Jericho and met fifty prophets, who followed him to the Jordan River just before he was taken up to heaven (2 Kgs 4.4–12). Elisha began his work as a prophet in Jericho (2 Kgs 4.13–22). When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586/587 B.C., King Zedekiah tried to run away, but the Babylonians caught him and put out his eyes on the plains near Jericho (Jer 52.1–11). After the Jews were allowed by the Persians to come back from Babylonia to their land, a number of those whose families were originally from Jericho returned (Ezra 2.34), and some of the workers who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem came from Jericho (Neh 3.2).

The Romans made Herod king of the Jews in 37 B.C., and he then built a winter palace for himself and a Roman-style city just northwest of ancient Jericho. Water was brought in from the Jordan River by an irrigation system. Herod’s new Jericho included a city center, a theater, and a stadium, and the city was surrounded by groves of evergreen and palm trees with flower gardens, fountains, and pools. It was the winter residence for Herod, his staff, and a large group of servants and supporters.

East of Jericho along the Jordan River was the place where John the Baptist stayed to baptize those who heard his message and were preparing themselves for the coming of God’s new kingdom. Jesus was also baptized there (Luke 3.1–22), and later he visited Jericho—apparently the old city, not the palace of Herod. In Jericho Jesus healed a blind man (Luke 18.35–43), and he met and stayed with Zacchaeus, the rich chief tax collector for the Romans (Luke 19.1–10). Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan tells a story that takes place on the steep and rocky road that led down from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10.25–37).”

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