Wealth, God and Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

In the first installment of this three part series on wealth and relationship with God, we looked at the rich young ruler who was self-reliant and reacted with sadness at the prospect of being asked to sell all he had to give to the poor and to follow Jesus. We aren’t told what the rich young ruler does in response to Jesus’ challenge. What would you do?

I’m afraid I don’t truly know the answer to that question, if I am being honest with myself. It’s not as if Jesus has confronted me with that question in person. If Jesus is talking to me and telling me to do the same, I am not hearing His voice. Has He challenged me to do that same thing and I have ignored Him or refused to listen?

These are questions we can’t just brush aside or take lightly if we want to follow Jesus. A servant cannot serve two masters; we cannot serve both God and money at the same time.[1] One must yield to one or the other. In this second part in the series on wealth and relationship with God, we will look at the more heart-warming story of Zacchaeus the tax collector.[2]

Before getting to the story, however, let’s consider how people viewed tax collectors in the 1st Century. They were largely despised by devout Jews because they were Jews who served the Roman government by collecting Roman taxes from the occupied Jews. They were considered traitors, irreligious, unrighteous sinners. But Jesus sees people differently than we do:

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”[3]

In the eyes of Jesus, a Pharisee is no better than a tax collector. In fact, the point of the short parable Jesus told just before the stories of the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus, is that God looks at the heart, and the admittedly sinful tax collector in the parable was exalted in Jesus’ eyes for his humility over the Pharisees who felt exalted in his own eyes.

Compared to God, no one is righteous.[4] Only God alone is good.[5] God doesn’t look at us from the outside; He looks at us from the inside,[6] which is both terrifying and comforting.

It is terrifying because God knows exactly what we are thinking and the attitudes of our hearts, as ugly as they can be. It is comforting because Jesus is the physician of the heart. Jesus came for sinners, and He came to heal us of our sick and sinful hearts.[7]

We are told that Zacchaeus wasn’t just any tax collector. He was the chief tax collector, and he was rich. Unlike the rich young ruler, who thought he knew who Jesus was (a good teacher)[8], Zacchaeus was “seeking to see who Jesus was”. He made no assumptions and, therefore, had an open mind. Unlike the rich young ruler who sought Jesus out, thinking he knew who Jesus was, Zacchaeus sought to know who Jesus was.

I can imagine the rich young ruler thinking hard about asking the right question, wanting to impress Jesus, the popular teacher He pushed himself to the front of the crowd to ask it: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I imagine him going over all the commandments in his mind beforehand, checking them off, convincing himself that he has kept them all. But, Jesus didn’t call him on it directly. Instead, He went right to the heart, telling the young, rich man he needed to sell all he had and give it to the poor and follow Him.[9]

Zacchaeus, on the other hand, didn’t push to the front of the crowd. Because he was “small in stature”, he couldn’t even see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view. When Jesus saw him, He told Zacchaeus to hurry down from the tree “for I must stay at your house today.”

Zacchaeus wasn’t presumptuous like the rich young ruler, but he was committed to seeing Jesus and finding out who He was. Jesus identified Zacchaeus, invited Himself to the tax collector’s house, and Zacchaeus responded immediately, hurrying down from the tree to receive Jesus “joyfully”. This is the way to receive Jesus!

Without any prompting or urging, Zacchaeus offered half of his goods to the poor. He also committed to restoring fourfold anything he may have taken by fraud.

After the story of the rich young ruler, we might be thinking, but that isn’t enough! Jesus required the rich young ruler to give away all of his possessions. Yet, Jesus responds to Zacchaeus by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house….”

Wait a minute!

He is only giving half of his goods to the poor?! Jesus told the rich young ruler he must give it all! This is a guy who admittedly defrauded people! No wonder the people grumbled about Jesus inviting Himself to dinner with this guy! Doesn’t Jesus know who he is dealing with? Doesn’t he have any sense of decency?

Why did the rich young ruler have to give away all of his wealth to the poor in order to earn eternal life, but Zacchaeus only gave away half?!

The answers to these questions give us valuable insight into the way God sees us, what God expects of us and how we relate to God..

We need to understand that Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. He knew the heart of the rich young ruler, and He knew the heart of Zacchaeus.  Therefore, God knew the rich young ruler was a self-reliant and self-righteous person who sought to justify himself. Jesus knew the rich young ruler was unwilling to part with his wealth or to follow Jesus. He knew the rich young ruler did not see Jesus as God, Himself, but merely as a good teacher.

Jesus knew the rich young ruler’s thinking, heart and motivation were wrong. He gave him an impossible task, one Jesus knew he would be able to embrace, to reveal the state of his heart.

Zacchaeus, on the other hand, knew that he was a sinner. There was no pretense. Zacchaeus didn’t presume to know who Jesus was, but he sought to know Jesus. When Jesus engaged him, Zacchaeus instantly and enthusiastically engaged Jesus back. Zacchaeus responded to Jesus the way we should respond to God.

In the end, it isn’t about how many commandments we keep, how much money we give to the poor or how many wrongs we right.

The issue is the condition and attitude of our hearts toward God. How do we respond to God when he calls us out? How do we respond to God when he invites Himself in?

The rich young ruler wanted to earn his inheritance, and he was sad when he learned the cost. The truth is that we can’t earn our inheritance. The cost is always too much.  It is always more than we can give. This is why Jesus answered his disciples when they asked, “Then who can be saved?”

 “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”[10]

So, we have compared the stories of the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus the tax collector, but there is one more story to consider – the story of Ananias and Sapphira. This is a very sobering story, but one that needs to be considered as we look at wealth and how we relate to God.


[1] Luke 16:13

[2] Luke 19:1-10 (“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.”)

[3] Luke 18:9-14

[4] Romans 3:10

[5] Luke 18:19

[6] Psalm 139

[7] Mark 2:17

[8] Luke 18:18

[9] Luke 18:20-22

[10] Luke 18:27

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