At public auction, wealthy individuals purchased the right to collect taxes on imports, exports, and goods that merchants transported through a particular region. This meant that the highest bidders received the authorization to collect taxes in a specific territory. They then arranged for subcontractors to collect the taxes in various parts of their region, profiting from the tax receipts that exceeded their bids. The subcontractors would commonly inflate the tax rate and thereby make dishonest gain for themselves. Thus the tax system in the Roman Empire gave rise to many abuses.
Among those living in Jericho when Jesus passed through the city was wealthy Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector. The designation “chief tax collector (architelónes) may mean that he had other tax collectors working under him or that he was the principal tax collector in Jericho and the vicinity. In his position, he had amassed great wealth through dishonest means. (Luke 19:1, 2)
Possibly on the basis of what he had heard about Jesus, Zacchaeus wanted to see him. The manner in which Jesus responded to him suggests that more was involved than mere curiosity. Because of what he had come to know, Zacchaeus appears to have been genuinely drawn to the Son of God. At the time Jesus passed through Jericho, many people surrounded him. Being of short stature, Zacchaeus could not see him. He then ran ahead and climbed a “sycamore” tree growing alongside the road. This likely was a fig-mulberry tree (Ficus sycomorus), an evergreen with branches close to the ground. (Luke 19:3, 4)
For a wealthy man to climb a tree to see someone would have been something out of the ordinary. Zacchaeus positioned himself where he would be sure to see Jesus, who was about to approach. In his desire, Zacchaeus seems to have been so focused that he did not think about how unusual it might appear to others for him to have climbed a tree.
Jesus saw in Zacchaeus a man who had been drawn to him and who would prove himself to be a genuine disciple. When he came near the tree, Jesus looked up and told him quickly to come down, as he would be staying in his home. Zacchaeus immediately got down and was overjoyed in being able to welcome Jesus as his guest. (Luke 19:5, 6) In the crowd, there were those who began to grumble, finding fault with Jesus’ willingness to enter the home of a “sinner,” a man known for being dishonest. (Luke 19:7)
Zacchaeus, however, revealed himself to be a changed, repentant man, saying to Jesus, “See, half of my possessions, Lord, I am giving to the poor, and whatever I have obtained dishonestly, I am restoring fourfold.” (Luke 19:8; see the Notes section for additional comments.) According to the Mosaic law, he would only have had to make double compensation. (Compare Exodus 22:7.)
Jesus then said, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he [Zacchaeus] also is a son of Abraham.” In view of his determination to use half of his possessions to help needy fellow Israelites and to make restitution for past wrongs, Zacchaeus had brought salvation to his house. He was saved or delivered from his past record of sin, benefiting all who were part of his household. As a true “son of Abraham,” one who demonstrated that he desired to conduct himself like Abraham the man of faith, Zacchaeus would share in all the blessings meant for God’s people. The way in which Jesus responded to him demonstrated that he, the “Son of Man,” had come to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:9, 10)
Jesus’ compassionate response to Bartimaeus and his companion, miraculously granting them sight, may have been a significant factor in motivating Zacchaeus to want to see Jesus.
In Luke 19:8, the Greek verb that conveys the sense of obtaining dishonestly, extorting, or making false accusations is a form of sykophantéo, which literally means “fig showing.” An ancient view (though unconfirmed) for the origin of the term is that it referred to being denounced for unlawfully exporting figs from Athens.