Latter-day Saint Life

What we may have missed in Jesus’s loving response to a despised man in the Bible

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus, by James Tissot.
Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on in November 2017.

Not far from the ancient remains of Jericho stands a large and solitary sycamore tree. Undoubtedly old, this sycamore tree is one of several in the area that have been the magnet for centuries of pilgrims seeking to experience the stories of Jesus. These religious tourists are seeking to experience something like what Zacchaeus did so many years ago when Jesus visited Jericho.

Let’s review the story, found in Luke 19:1–10.

On the way to His last visit to Jerusalem that ended with His death and resurrection, Jesus passed through Jericho, the last major city or town on the road from Galilee up to Jerusalem. This oasis city from ancient times has been fed by a never-ending flow of fresh water that bubbles up from the ground, bringing miraculous life and rich prosperity to the area.

Zacchaeus was one of the chief tax-collectors, or Publicans, of Jericho. During this period of Roman domination, enterprising individuals could receive contracts to collect taxes from the people on behalf of the Roman Empire. The contract allowed the tax-collector to keep the excess taxes collected. Taxes and tax collectors are considered odious in all time periods, so, it is no surprise that the Jews of Jericho disliked their fellow Jew, Zacchaeus, who benefited from the hated Roman occupation.

As Jesus entered the city, a crowd of people thronged the miracle worker. Zacchaeus was small in stature and wanted to see Jesus but could not because of the crowds. Ever the entrepreneur seeking for unexpected solutions, he climbed a nearby Sycamore tree and waited for Jesus to pass beneath.
From this vantage point, Zacchaeus saw Jesus, and Jesus saw Zacchaeus. Looking up, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house” (Luke 19:5).

Surprised at Jesus’s words and actions, the crowd “all murmured, saying, That [Jesus] was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).

Because Zacchaeus was a tax-collector the people judged him through a very narrow lens, but God sees people differently. He taught this lesson to the prophet Samuel when He said, “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature…for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

In Hebrew, Zacchaeus’s name means “pure” or “innocent.” Luke used a wordplay with Zacchaeus’s name to highlight his inner qualities, which were overlooked by his countrymen. But, Jesus saw the pure Zacchaeus who sought to keep the commandments, live in love and faithfulness, and who eagerly sought the coming of the Lord.

In this story we see the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise, delivered at the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).

Zacchaeus in name and in reality was “the pure in heart,” and he was accordingly blessed to “see God.”

Do we see others as God sees them? Or do we judge them based on limited labels of human construction? How do we see ourselves? Are we willing to see ourselves as God see us? Or do we succumb to the temptation to believe the labels and trappings the fallen world places on us? Do we assume the identity that others give us or that our fallen natures seem to suggest for us? Or do we remember the truths that, as children of God, we are Gods in embryo, that our hearts can be pure before the Lord, and that we will see His face again, as the temple promises confirm?

Zacchaeus didn’t give up easily. He was proactive with his wish to see Jesus. What are we doing to actively seek God?

As Jesus testified at the end of this story, He will find the pure in heart and they will see God, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

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