Zacchaeus was a wealthy man from the city of Jericho whose name in Hebrew actually means “righteous.”
However, for many in Zacchaeus’ community, righteous was the absolute last word they would have used to describe him. Zacchaeus worked as a tax collector for the Roman Government in a city that was exclusively Jewish. Now the empire of Rome had conquered the Jewish people, and were ruling over them and occupying their neighborhoods with armed soldiers. Now since Zacchaeus himself was also Jewish, his community saw him as a traitor to his own people. As if the ethnic and political tension of the situation weren’t enough to make people hate him, like many collectors he also cheated people out of their money by overcharging them on their taxes. That’s actually how he became wealthy. And his position of being a chief tax collector, meant he was in upper management. In all of Jericho, it would have been hard to find someone more disliked than Zacchaeus. He would have been seen as nothing short of a wealthy, dishonest, disloyal leader of traitors.
But all of that changes with one look from the Savior of the world. One day Jesus was passing through the city of Jericho. As was common, a large crowd followed Jesus as he was traveling. Word was spreading that Jesus was someone who could perform miracles and heal the sick and preach with authority. So everyone wanted to be near him. Now Zacchaeus was a part of the crowd that day and wanted to see who Jesus was for himself. The only problem was that the crowd was so large, and Zacchaeus wasn’t very tall so he couldn’t actually see Jesus. So he decides to climb a tree in order to get a good look.
Now imagine everyone’s surprise when Jesus stops, looks up at Zacchaeus in the tree, and says he wants to stay in his home. Jesus, a miracle working preacher and healer, wants to spend time with one of the most despised people in the city.
The crowd is so shocked that they start to mutter and complain among themselves saying “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Zacchaeus is undeterred by the comments of the crowd, and is so blown away by Jesus’ kindness that he completely changes his mind about everything he’s ever done to cheat and defraud people. He says boldly, “I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”