Who Was Zacchaeus in the Bible?

Zacchaeus should be remembered, not as a corrupt tax collector, but as a broken man who responded to his encounter with Christ with the kind of radical repentance that all followers of Christ should strive for.

Lucas Hagen
Zacchaeus in the tree

Zacchaeus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he! You may have grown up in Sunday school singing that song. I know I did! However, for many of us, that is all we know about Zacchaeus. 

You may know that he was a short man who climbed up into a sycamore tree, and Jesus called him down and went to his house. However, why is this important? What else is known about Zacchaeus that merits him having his own song? 

This article will explore all that we know about Zacchaeus and why it is important for Christians to know about him. 

The Text

The story that we know of Zacchaeus is found in Luke 19, and he is never mentioned again in the Bible. Here is the short passage in Luke that shows us all that we know about Zacchaeus:

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, 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 in 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). 

Who Zacchaeus Was

 The most important detail about Zacchaeus given by Luke is that he was a tax collector and he was rich. Why is this important? 

Tax collectors were among the most hated of all people in ancient Israel. Tax collectors were Jewish men who worked for the Roman Empire and collected taxes from their fellow Israelites. 

They were viewed as traitors for working for the Romans to steal money from Israel. They were also hated because they were notorious for taking significantly more money than the Romans required. 

Not only was Zacchaeus viewed by his fellow Israelites as a traitor, but also as an unapologetic thief, consistently stealing vast amounts of money from his neighbors. 

Note that Zacchaeus is described as being rich. Every tax collector was rich, but Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. 

Zacchaeus is the only person in the New Testament to hold this title. It likely means that he oversaw a large area in Jericho, a major trading city, and many other tax collectors. 

He likely took a cut from the tax collectors working for him, giving him even more money from his neighbors than he would have received in the first place. 

He was a leader among the most hated group of people in Israel, and, at this point, he had accumulated great wealth by stealing from his fellow men. 

What People Thought about Him

Given his occupation, it is no surprise that the people in Jericho hated him. Take note of how Luke describes Zacchaeus’ interactions with the crowds in the city. When Zacchaeus tried to get closer to Jesus to see him, he could not get through. 

While this is partially due to Zacchaeus’ small stature, it is reasonable to think that the crowds of people who also wanted to get closer to Jesus would go out of their way to keep Zacchaeus from seeing him. 

With all of the people there who hated him, it is easy to imagine the crowds pushing him back when he tried to get through to Jesus. If he were not so widely despised, he may have been able to work his way through the crowd and get close to Jesus. 

However, people knew him, and they probably went out of their way to prevent him from getting past. With Zacchaeus’ only option being the sycamore tree, he made his way up, and Jesus saw him! Not only did he see him, but he called him out by name, inviting Himself over to Zacchaeus’ home. 

Notice the reaction of the crowds. Luke says, “And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner’” (Luke 2:7). The whole crowd was complaining because they all knew who Zacchaeus was and figured that He was not worthy of Jesus’ time and attention.

It is possible that Luke even sugarcoated the reaction of the crowds. It is certain that there would have been Pharisees and other religious elite among the crowds. In their pride, they could not understand why Jesus would choose to be with a man who was so clearly broken and sinful. They were likely furious! 

The crowds were not wrong that Zacchaeus was a sinner. However, it seems that they had a double-standard because everyone in the crowd was also a sinner. Yet they viewed Zacchaeus as such a horrible sinner as to not be worthy to be with Jesus. They entirely missed that Jesus may have had an intentional purpose for choosing Zacchaeus out of the crowd. 

The Gospel and Zacchaeus

Jesus never did anything by accident. His choosing to spend time with Zacchaeus is a prime example of Jesus not doing what people wanted Him to do but doing what must be done.

No one would have thought that Jesus would want to spend time with a chief tax collector in a major city. However, Jesus’ message for the crowds was not what they anticipated. 

Jesus chose Zacchaeus to demonstrate His focus, not on those who are thriving spiritually and are fully following God already, but on those who are in desperate need of grace. 

Jesus famously said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). 

Jesus chose to be with Zacchaeus not because He deserved Jesus’ time and attention, but because he desperately needed an experience with the love and grace of God. 

As Jesus says to the confused and frustrated crowds, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). 

Zacchaeus is a remarkable example of true repentance. Many confess sins and claim to be followers of Christ, but their life does not show the changes that denote someone who is truly born-again. Zacchaeus is not one of these people. 

While he was known for his custom of stealing money from his neighbors and getting rich by exploiting people, he now showed radical repentance through his willingness to give to those from whom he had taken. 

Zacchaeus vowed to give half of his belongings to the poor and to return what he had stolen fourfold. 

This is not empty repentance! This is the result of a genuine encounter with grace and is evidence of a man who is born again in Christ. 

Zacchaeus should be remembered, not as a corrupt tax collector, but as a broken man who responded to his encounter with Christ with the kind of radical repentance that all followers of Christ should strive for. 

Zacchaeus is an example of humility to us all, and he is well-deserving of having a catchy song written about him.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/rudall30

headshot of author Lucas HagenLucas Hagen is a freelance writer, recently graduated from Taylor University with majors in Biblical Literature and Youth Ministries. When he is not writing for Crosswalk, you can find him reading great books, playing guitar, competing in professional disc golf tournaments, and spending quality time with his lovely wife, Natalie, and their fluffy cat, Woodward. You can read more of his writing at habitsofholiness.com.

Originally published November 19, 2020.