A Focus on Zacchaeus

The story of Zacchaeus, found only in Luke 19:1-10, is a pericope that does not get much discussion in LDS circles (in my experience at least).  In fact, this story has only been referenced in seven General Conference talks…ever.[1] More personally, I do not believe I have ever had a lesson about this story in Church, even though it has been highlighted in past lesson manuals (and is again in this week’s Come, Follow Me materials). So, consistent with what Jesus does in the Gospel of Luke’s narrative, I thought it was important to stop for a moment and pay attention to Zacchaeus.

In this story, Jesus is passing through Jericho when the narrative pauses to introduce Zacchaeus by name. On the surface, Zacchaeus may seem an unlikely individual to merit such focused attention. First, Zacchaeus is a tax collector, a group which scholars note is “portrayed negatively in almost all Greco-Roman literature” including the New Testament.[2] What’s more, Zacchaeus is the “chief tax collector” (19:2), a title which does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament (quite a distinction!). Though Luke sometimes complicates the stereotypical image of tax collectors—e.g. Luke notes that Levi, a tax collector, left his post to follow Jesus (5:28), and just one chapter earlier Jesus relays a parable contrasting a tax collector and a Pharisee in which the tax collector’s humility is held up as superior to the Pharisee’s self-righteousness (18:9-14)—it is still the case that, generally, in the Gospel of Luke tax collectors are regularly lumped in with the “sinners.”

Second, Zacchaeus is rich (19:2). Though the formulations vary slightly among Bible translations, Zacchaeus’s wealth is always a highlighted point of emphasis and a distinguishing characteristic. He is never the “wealthy chief tax collector” he is always the “chief tax collector and he was rich.” Unlike Luke’s more nuanced view of tax collectors, Luke’s portrayal of the rich can be scathing. In at least four different places[3] Luke’s Gospel attacks greed, inequality, and selfishness[4] (Michael Austin has explored some of these instances, with more nuance that I have just used, in a few different posts: see, for instance, here and here).

And, third, Zacchaeus is “short in statue,” which is why he had to climb the tree to see Jesus who was in the midst of a crowd (19:3).[5] In fact, this is such an important characteristic that an entire verse is dedicated to it. It is unclear if he was just below average in height or if he had some sort of medical condition. However, if it was the latter, then his condition could have been stigmatizing given scripture that prevents priests “blemished” in this way from approaching the Holy of Holies (Lev. 21:16-21).[6]

The point is, in almost every way possible—professionally, socially, and physically—Zacchaeus had strikes against him.

Returning to the narrative, when Jesus sees Zacchaeus in the tree Jesus initiates the conversation and says to him, “make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house” (19:5). Luke’s Gospel records that Zacchaeus “made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully” (19:6). And when he comes down from the tree, Zacchaeus does something interesting: unprovoked, Zacchaeus declares to Jesus that he gives half of his possessions to the poor[7] and makes four-fold restitution when required (19:8). That is to say: Zacchaeus does not tell Jesus about his personal piety (prayer, scripture study, offerings at the temple, etc), he recounts his efforts to care for those on the margins.  And Jesus’s response? “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (19:9-10). Not tomorrow, not next week, but “this day” salvation came to Zaccheaus. How can this be and why?

On one hand, Luke equates “salvation” with the physical presence of Jesus (2:30). So, the fact that Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house is literally salvation (i.e. Jesus) coming to Zacchaeus’s household. Taking this a step deeper, as Mark Allen Powell notes, “when Jesus tells Zacchaeus that salvation has come to his house, his main point is probably not that Zacchaeus will go to heaven… but rather that Zacchaeus has been set free from slavery and mammon and is now able to experience life as God intends.”[8] Consistent with this approach, another commentator, Brian K. Blount equates Zacchaeus’ social status to the exclusion felt by minorities and concludes that, “like the woman bent over for eighteen years (13:10-17), Zacchaeus is restored socially and racially.”[9] Indeed—and this is a message throughout Luke’s Gospel—Powell suggests that Jesus is teaching Zacchaeus that salvation is a “reality to be experienced here and now.”[10]

On another hand, in Luke’s Gospel there is a prevailing concern for the poor.[11] Scholars Jane Schabert and Sharon Ringe note, “Luke writes about ‘the poor,’ but to those whom Jesus has called to accept a special responsibility for those pushed to the margins of society.”[12] In fact, in Luke’s Gospel the focus of Jesus’s ministry is identified by Jesus himself as: “to preach the gospel to the poor… to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (4:18). And because Zacchaeus’s efforts to help those on the margins of society is in the present tense (this is not something Zacchaeus “will do” but something he “is doing”[13]) Zacchaeus’s actions, in a small way, mirror Jesus’s mission.[14] Zacchaeus becomes a model for what Jesus’s message of salvation looks like when enacted in in the lives of his followers. In fact, Blount notes that Zacchaeus’s actions were commendable precisely because “Zacchaeus understands that one’s heavenly relationship with God is connected to the good one does on earth.”[15]

So, what is the lesson from Zacchaeus? At least one lesson is that our professional, social, or physical situations are less important than the concrete, real-world steps we are taking to be connected to Jesus by being part of Jesus’s ministry to the poor, brokenhearted, captive, blind, and bruised. This story reinforces the truth that Zacchaeus’s actions to help the marginalized serve as Zacchaeus’s link(s!) to salvation: Zacchaeus’s actions (1) bring salvation into his life and (2) allows him to enact Jesus’s message of salvation in the lives of others. Even more importantly, in the end, Zacchaeus’s story shows us that these two things are really the same thing. In fact, Zacchaeus’s work with the marginalized anticipates the situation in Acts (a book to which Luke’s Gospel was originally connected) where believers (even tax collectors) lived with all things in common and held nothing back (see Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35), a vision of Zion-like living that is echoed in in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price which all include a strong social ethic, including addressing socio-economic disparity, as an marker of and requirement for living the life God intends (see Alma 1:30, 4 Nephi 1:3, Moses 7:18, D&C 104:18, for example). The story of Zacchaeus seems to suggest that since Jesus is ushering in salvation for the marginalized today, the only question is whether we, like Zacchaeus be both recipients of, and partners in, that effort.

[1] This is based searching for the term “Zacchaeus” on the Scripture Citation Index, the LDS General Conference Corpus, and the LDS church’s website.

[2] “Tax Collectors,” Society of Bible Literature, https://www.bibleodyssey.org/glossary/tax-collectors/

[3] The identification of these four specific instances–Luke 12:13-21; 16:1-13; 16:14-31; 18:18-43–comes from Brian K. Blount (ed). True to our Native Land. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN (2007). Pgs. 172, 175, 176, 178.

[4] See Patte, Daniel (ed). Global Bible Commentary. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. (2004) pgs.396-397.

[5] As a fun tidbit, the Greek is actually a little unclear on this point: though readers generally assign the “shortness” which prevents Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus in the crowd to Zacchaeus, there is ambiguity in the syntax. The phrase could also be read that Jesus was short and that is why it was hard to see him in the crowd. However, it is because Jesus’s height is never mentioned as a defining characteristic (good or bad) anywhere else in the New Testament that the shortness is most often ascribed to Zacchaeus.

[6] For a thoughtful analysis of the implications of Zacchaeus’ “shortness” see, Amos Young, “Zacchaeus: Short and Un-seen.” Christian Reflection Project: Disability. Baylor University. Available at: https://www.baylor.edu/ifl/christianreflection/index.php?id=92612

[7] Mark Allen Powell notes that in Luke “‘the poor’ [is] a category of people that seems to refer primarily to those who are economically deprived… [or] lacking in honor.” Powell, Mark Allan. Introducing the New Testament. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Pg. 159.

[8] Ibid. Pg. 163.

[9] Blount (ed). True to our Native Land. pg. 179.

[10] Powell. Introducing the New Testament. Pg. 161. Powell points to Luke 2:11, 4:21, 5:26, 19:5, and 19:10.

[11] Powell,. Introducing the New Testament. Pg. 159.

[12]  Schaberg, Jane D. and Sharon H. Ringe. “Gospel of Luke.” In Newsome, Carol A., Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley (eds). Women’s Bible Commentary (10th Ed). Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville, KY. (2012). Pg. 494. Emphasis original.

[13] διδωμι—the word in Luke—is present tense meaning “I give;” the future tense would be δώσω, meaning “I will give.” See Verbix 2023, Greek, Ancient verb ‘δίδωμι’ conjugated, <https://www.verbix.com/webverbix/go.php?D1=206&T1=δίδωμι&gt;

[14] In this sense, Zacchaeus stands in stark contrast to the rich man in Jesus met earlier in Luke (apparently, an obedient Jew) did not give to the poor.

[15] Blount (ed). True to our Native Land. Pg. 179.


  1. I know that the old, cheesy Living Scriptures cartoons have long fallen out of favor, but I distinctly remember that Zacchaeus features prominently in one of them; “Treasures in Heaven” I think it was, which also dramatizes the rich young man. I was raised on those cartoons as a small child in the late-80s/early-90s, so I was definitely drilled on the story of Zacchaeus. In fact, it wasn’t till I just now read this blog that I realized I’d never heard of Zacchaeus in literally any other context, so kudos. I agree that it’s an important story that merits wider circulation.

  2. What I find interesting is the parable that Jesus tells this rich tax collector. The parable of the wealthy lord who doesn’t “work” for his money, gathering where he hasn’t sewn and holding others accountable for not increasing the money they had received.

    I can’t help but wonder where Zacchaeus saw himself in this parable? As the Lord collecting taxes and assigning penalty to those who didn’t have enough? As one who was able to show a productive use of his assets?

    Surely the Lord wasn’t just referring to money here in this parable, but equally its no coincidence the parable was giving to one who lived a life around money.

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