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What prevented Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus? And what is it that prevents us from following him?
In this five-part series we are going to discover what it means to be a disciple and to do this we will use the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus as our blueprint.
In this episode, we are going to explore why Zacchaeus had difficulty seeing Jesus… and it’s not necessarily because he was a short little man.
When we read the account of Zacchaeus it is common to think of this man as short, and that his lack of height made it difficult for him to see Jesus.
However you may be surprised to hear that Zacchaeus was not necessarily a short man. Let’s see if we can find the real reason why Zacchaeus couldn’t see and then implement what we learn in our own lives.
In verses 2 and 3 of Luke chapter 19 we read:
So from these two verses we discover three things about Zacchaeus:
- He is a Chief Tax Collector and is rich,
- He is seeking Jesus,
- He can’t see Jesus – because of the crowd and apparently he appears to be short.
ZACCHAEUS HAS A DESIRE
I find it interesting that it is Zacchaeus who is the one who is doing the seeking. To me this expresses the idea that, on some level, Zacchaeus is not satisfied with his current position in life. Something is missing. Even though he has great wealth he is not fulfilled. He has a desire to change, and this desire is expressed through the act of seeking to find out who this Jesus is that is passing through his town.
However Zacchaeus is unable to see him, even though he desires to… why is this?
Verse three tells us that it is because of the crowd and that he is short in stature.
This paints a picture that Zacchaeus is a short person. The crowd that is milling around, as Jesus enters Jericho, is blocking Zacchaeus’ view.
This all makes perfect sense… Zacchaeus just appears to be unlucky. He can’t see Jesus because of his height… something which he certainly has no control over… it’s genetic… his inability to see Jesus appears to be no fault of his own.
But is that really so? Or could there be another explanation?
Let’s see if Zacchaeus really was a short man.
WAS ZACCHAEUS SHORT?
The Greek word translated as stature in verse 3 is the word ἡλικία. So Zacchaeus is short in ἡλικία.
ἡλικία has three possible meanings. It can refer to:
- social standing.
Now it’s unlikely that ἡλικία in this verse would refer to Zacchaeus’ age. He would not have been a young man, given that he held the position of Chief Tax Collector.
It can indeed refer to Zacchaeus’ height, he could have been a short man.
However what appears to be a most interesting possibility is that Zacchaeus was man of low social standing.
He was a rich man. And as a rich man you would expect to be at the front of the crowd, in the place of honour. You wouldn’t expect that a man with high social standing is pushed to the back of a crowd.
But this is where we find Zacchaeus – at the back of the crowd… even though he is rich.
So what could be the cause of discrepancy? What is the scandal that has resulted in Zacchaeus’ low social status?
He is identified a Tax Collector, and not just any tax collector. He is the Chief Tax Collector – the only Chief Tax Collector that is mentioned in the entire bible.
Now tax collectors had a special place in the culture of the first century. These people were despised. They were classed amongst the sinners of society… the worst of the sinners.
This would explain Zacchaeus’ low social status, and why, despite his wealth, we find him at the back of the crowd.
SO WHY CAN’T ZACCHAEUS SEE?
We now have a clearer picture of Zacchaeus emerging.
He is a man who is dissatisfied with his current state in life. He recognises that something is missing and this expresses itself in a desire to see who Jesus is. However he is unable to see him. He can’t see who Jesus is because of what he himself is… a sinner.
Ultimately it is his sin which is separating himself from Jesus, and he is therefore unable to see Him.
But why were tax collectors considered to be such great sinners in the first century? And how does this relate to our own status as sinners today?
To answer these questions we will need to understand something about taxation in the first century.
TAXATION IN THE FIRST CENTURY
During this time Judea was under the control of the Roman Empire. The inhabitants of Judea therefore paid taxes to two separate authorities.
Firstly they would pay the Temple Tax and a tithe of their crops to the Temple in Jerusalem. These payments were mandated by the Torah and were used to maintain the country’s religious and civil administration.
In addition to these payments the people would also be required to pay taxes to Rome.
Rome itself was overpopulated and underemployed. It required the resources from its external provinces to support the Empire and survive.
Each conquered Province would be assessed according to its revenue potential, and the province’s governor would be responsible for ensuring that this revenue was collected. The governor would use a system known as tax farming to collect the revenue.
Tax farming involved putting out to tender the position of Chief Tax Collector. The successful applicant would guarantee the payment the governor required. The Chief Tax Collector would then receive Rome’s backing and would hire underlings to extract the taxes from the people. Any amount collected above the amount payable to Rome would be the tax collector’s profit. This system naturally led to corruption and a very heavy burden was laid on the people – a burden that has been estimated at between 50 to 80%.
However, even though tax collectors were oppressors, and many people suffered because of their corrupt practices, it is not oppression which lies at the core of their sin… to find that we need to dig a little deeper.
WHAT DOES ROME REPRESENT?
By collecting the taxes for Rome the authority of Rome was being validated.
But what did the authority of Rome represent, and what was the claim that the collection of taxes was validating?
Let’s take a short history lesson.
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BC and two years later he was deified by the Roman Senate. His adopted son, Octavian, became known as the “son of god” and he took to this title with gusto.
The years surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar were a period of great instability and civil war which only ended in 27BC when Octavian ascended to the throne.
Octavian’s ascension to the throne marked the end of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.
As Rome’s first Emperor he took on the title of Caesar Augustus. With no separation of powers between Church and State not only was Caesar Augustus considered to be the “son of god” he was also the “high priest”.
His rise to power inaugurated a period of stability which would last 200 years and be known as the Pax Romana… the Roman Peace.
The propaganda department of Augustus’ Court sprung into action. His historians and poets masterfully retold the story of Roman history. History had reached its climax, a new golden age had dawned with the birth of a child who would spread peace and prosperity to the entire world.
The messaging was clear… this is the good news, or the gospel, of Caesar. The age that we have all waited for and eagerly anticipated is now here… We now have an Emperor! Peace, Justice, Security and Prosperity are ours! The son of god has become the King of the World.
Octavian died in 14AD and the title of Caesar Augustus transferred to Tiberius, who was Caesar when the encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus occurred.
So the rise of the Caesars coincide with the growing expectation in Judea of the birth of a Messiah and his imminent arrival. He being the true son of God.
So we have two competing ideologies.
ZACCHAEUS THE DEFRAUDER
By being the Chief Tax Collector Zacchaeus is not only oppressing his fellow countrymen, which is bad enough, but he is also enforcing their validation of Caesar’s claim that he is God.
Zacchaeus is enforcing his countrymen’s rejection of the God of Israel, and God’s sovereign claim over His land and over His people.
By his actions Zacchaeus is seeking to validate the ideology that man, illustrated in this case by Caesar and the power of Rome, is sovereign over God. This is a sin that can trace its origin all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus not because he was short, but because his eyes were fixed on another god.
His sin, not his height, is what was separating him from Jesus. In effect his sin blinded him.
All sin separates us from God, because at its root it is a declaration of independence from God. It is a declaration of one’s own sovereignty – it is a declaration that I am my own God, that I can do things my own way.
The root of all sin is a rejection of the very first of the ten commandments… I am the Lord your God, You shall have no other gods before me.
Our sin prevents us from seeing who Jesus is, as our focus is on another god… which ultimately finds its expression in our own selves.
WITHOUT SIGHT YOU CAN’T FOLLOW
If we can’t see who Jesus is it is impossible to follow Him, and if we can’t follow Him it is impossible to become like Him.
The most difficult question we can ask ourselves is where are we placing ourselves before God? Where are we not trusting in Him and instead relying on our own ability to fix it?
We need to ask ourselves these questions at all levels of our society.
Where am I not trusting and following God with my own personal struggles?
Where am I not trusting and following God with my relationships?
Where am I not trusting and following God in interactions I have with my community?
Where I witness break down, where I witness the effects that result from a separation from God, to whom do I turn to fix it, who do I follow, and do I truly follow fully?
These are deep and incredibly hard questions to ask, but so very important – as they will highlight to us where our blindspots are in our relationship with God, and what is preventing us from being disciples of Jesus.
In our next episode we are going to see what Zacchaeus did to overcome his inability to see Jesus… he did something amazingly courageous…. He climbed into a tree.