Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. 2 Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. [Luke 19:1-2]
I love this parable because there is so much depth here. Not only in content and theology, but there is so much happening in the background as far as context and bringing out the life in the passages, and that’s what I want to primarily focus on.
Verse 1. Jericho in this period was quite different from the OT city which was destroyed by God’s judgment, and had changed a fair amount. Herod the Great had obtained Jericho from Caesar Augustus and proceeded to build aqueducts, a fortress, a hippodrome [a stadium for horse racing and chariot racing], and a massive winter palace. The palace was especially monumental and contained huge pools of water. [in one of which Herod probably had his own son drowned]. Jericho boasted a tropical climate and excellent access to water for agriculture. Not only that but with how it was geographically positioned, it would have been a massive hub where many trade routes collided and converged. It was a center with highways traversing through and near the great city. The highways would go north toward Damascus, Tyre and Sidon. West to Jerusalem, headed for Caesarea and Joppa, which were also great trade centers on the Mediterranean Sea. South went to Egypt and East into Moab and the far east from which all kinds of products came and went. In short, Jericho was a major toll collection point for goods passing through, and this city would have had many, many tax collectors. Not only that, but because the city was so prosperous and had so much activity around it, It would pretty much demand that those inside and near the city would be no stranger to taxes, even inordinately high ones.
Verse 2. In the Old testament, The entire theocratic kingdom of Israel was basically functioning by a very carefully laid out taxation system in which every Jewish person paid essentially twenty-three and a third of their average income to the kingdom in order to fund the government. This was not a huge amount, but it was still significant. Because of this, Israel would have been no stranger to paying taxes, and would not have had a problem with taxation perse. Jesus never had a problem with the people who collected tax because He never had a problem with tax as such. When he was asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus responded with “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and in Romans 13 Paul would say “Custom to whom custom is due, tribute to whom tribute is due, tax to whom tax is due,” So while taxation is fair, the nature of Roman taxation was corruption, dishonesty, crime and separating people from their money illegitimately by use of physical force and cruelty, which is what the tax collectors in the ancient world did.
When Rome conquered a people, Rome did not treat the people in the same way as the Assyrians or Babylonians did. You’ll remember that the Assyrians and Babylonians carried people captive to other lands, and then brought some of their own people in to populate the conquered land. But when the Romans conquered, the left the people where they were and simply demanded two things from the population: taxes and loyalty. Rome collected its taxes through Jewish tax collectors, which had several advantages. 1] The tax collectors knew their communities better than the Romans did. 2] Because the taxes were very high and the Jews resented paying them, Rome wanted the hostility to be directed against the tax collectors rather than against the Roman government. [Though note, Tacitus, the Roman historian, said that in one community he visited, the people had an honest tax collector: and they ended up erecting a monument to his memory.]
But third and probably most importantly- simple logistics. The Roman empire collected taxes through a system called tax farming. This was the practice whereby the burden of tax collection was reassigned by the Roman State to private individuals or groups. In essence, these individuals or groups paid the taxes for a certain area and for a certain period of time and then attempted to cover their investment by collecting money or saleable goods from the people within that area. We also need to remember that tax farming is speculative, meaning that the private individual or group must invest their own money initially to pay off the tax debt, against the hope of collecting a larger sum subsequently [hence "farming”.]
So what the Romans would do is that every few years they’d auction off the right to collect taxes for a particular region, based on how much taxes they thought the region was worth. The payment to Rome was treated as a loan and the tax collectors would receive interest on their payment at the end of the collection period. In addition, any excess tax collected over their bid would be pure profit for the collector. The main risk in the tax collecting business was that the tax collected would be less than the sum bid, but the main benefit, again, was that if they were only obliged to collect a set amount, and they collected more, that was theirs to keep. This resulted in the collectors finding all sorts of shady ways to tax, and seeing as how the people didn’t know how much revenue Rome pegged their region as being worth in taxes, they didn’t know how much they were supposed to pay.
Now in all fairness there were a few foundational taxes. They paid a large tax to the Roman government. They paid a provincial tax. There was a “ground” tax of sorts, where they had to give one tenth of all grain or something the equivalent of grain, one fifth of wine, and one fifth of oil. There was a kind of income tax which was about one percent of a person’s income, and on top of that, they also paid a temple tax levied by the priests. [though that would not have been very high]. So while there were some fixed taxes, which even then the collectors would take more than they owed, the tax collectors could go further and could tax anything that they could get away with taxing. They would tax everyone’s commerce by taxing every wheel, every axle on their cart, taxing every animal pulling the cart, taxing every product that they bought and sold, every way imaginable. And so tax collectors became rich because what they paid Rome was only a portion of what they actually collected. To break it down into even simpler terms and use low figures, it’s like they bid 110 dollars for the right to collect 100 dollars from a certain region, and they would collect 140 dollars from a region, give 100 to Rome, and keep the other 40 for themselves, with a profit of 30 dollars.
They also became despised and hated. Not only for their greed, but because they were helping the conquering armies brutalize and profit off of their people. As such, they couldn’t attend the synagogue. They couldn’t have any social relationships with people because the people wouldn’t get near them because they were considered unclean and anybody who came near one of them would be polluted. The only people they could associate were the people who were also unclean, and so they were the collection of people called the tax collectors and sinners that we meet so often in Jesus’ ministry, the very people that God loves to save. “He came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” [Luke 5:32] In fact, Jesus spent so much time with the scum and the riff-raff, the tax gatherers and their assorted criminals, that they called Him in “a friend of tax gatherers and sinners” In Luke 7:34.
There was a general attitude that publicans were a special breed of sinners, far worse and far filthier than lepers. They would have said that with such disdain you couldn’t imagine it. And it’s also why these people thought that Jesus represented Satan because He spent so much time with the people that they thought belonged to Satan. And lastly, Interestingly enough, the name Zaccheus means clean, innocent, pure and righteous. It was a custom in ancient times to name your child what you hoped he would become, or according to the circumstances surrounding his birth. His parents hoped that he would live up to his name, and yet in his life he defies the intent of his parents and becomes unclean, guilty, impure and unrighteous.
So that’s the setup. A despised, hated man, in a rich and prosperous city, who made himself wealthy beyond compare by breaking the backs of others and by unjustly heaping upon his own people burdens that they could not bear. That’s the context and background for Jesus coming, and doing a miraculous work in the life of this man. In later chapters, when the people were grumbling and upset that Jesus was hanging out with sinners, it wasn’t just…like…an average sinner. And by that I mean that Zaccheus wasn’t just a bad guy who was unsaved and who was the town drunk who only hurt himself, or a prostitute who wiled away the willing, or even a Samaritan. But rather a man who in his greedy, selfish, depraved darkened heart, purposefully and deliberately chose to steal the livelihood and lifeblood of tens of thousands of people. By a man who bled people dry at the expense of their own businesses- of the health and safety and provisions of their families. By a man whose insatiable desire for wealth caused many to go hungry and starve to death; people who were worn down and killed from exposure to the elements because they couldn’t afford both a home and the taxes. Not only this, but this man utilized the Roman soldiers who would be commissioned to accompany him and protect him, and used force and cruelty to ensure that all paid whatever he deemed, all in the name of a pagan empire that had crushed and dominated and subjugated their nation. I don’t want to overstate the fact, but I know of no modern equivalent to the social status and stigmas that would be associated with this man. The closest thing I could think of that would be socially comparable would be a serial child molester who was living next door.
This would be the man that the Father loved, and whom Jesus would go out of his way to save and to redeem. This would be the man whom the Father would in his infinite mercy choose to love. This would be the man whom the Father would give to his Son to save, though this man had nothing in his life to commend him to Christ. This passage is a beautiful example of absolute sovereignty of Christ to pick the worst sinner from a crowd of even more sinners, and say “You. I am saving you today.” I love the book of Luke, and I love this little story, and I cannot wait to unpack and expound on the rest of these verses in this chapter over the week