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Zacchaeus was a tax collector in Jericho at the time of Jesus. He is described as short, active, industrious, and even canny. His name meant “innocent, righteous, upright.” Unfortunately Roman tax systems, especially in the provinces, were known to be proverbially unjust. The poor and vulnerable were made to pay life crushing taxes, while the rich aristocracy found their way to avoid taxes altogether and some even benefitted from the corrupt system.
In this encounter, Zacchaeus was completely transformed and made a marvelous promise: “Lord, I will give half of my wealth to the poor, and to those from whom I have extorted unjust taxes, I will give back four times as much!” Finally his name made sense, he became righteous and upright!
The story of Zacchaeus as it appears in the Bible, in the Gospel of Luke (19:1-10):
Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the town and suddenly a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance; he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He kept trying to see which Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd; so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I am to stay at your house today.’ And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house,’ they said. But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’