Zacchaeus and Public Opinion

“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” I was introduced to this odd little song with accompanying gestures somewhere between my twenty-third and twenty-eighth birthday. I had never heard children’s songs like this. What a fascinating character, this wee little man.

Zacchaeus “was a chief tax collector, and he was rich” (Luke 19:2). Here was a target for public opinion to heap its scorn. He collected taxes from his countrymen for an occupying nation, the Roman Empire. He was a chief tax collector, a man with underlings to do his bidding. Being rich probably was an incentive for people to stir their scorn with envy. And, oh yes, “he was of short stature” (Luke 19:3).  When people feel powerless in the face of a grinding bureaucracy, it is tempting to seize upon any seeming advantage. Surely, it was no different in those days. A wee little man was he.

This object of public hatred had many honorable characteristics. The first one recounted in the Bible is “he sought to see who Jesus was” (Luke 19:3).  Many people are like the wayside where seed was sown. Jesus depicted this in the parable of the sower. They have no interest in Jesus. Thus, “the birds of the air came and devoured it” (Mark 4:4).  Zacchaeus, on the other hand, exerted himself to see Jesus. He compensated for being short. He climbed a tree. We can fairly say his interest in seeing Jesus was more important to him than the humiliating commentary surely generated by such a spectacle. Zacchaeus had the humility to set aside his dignity in favor of seeing Jesus. When Jesus told him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house,” Zacchaeus rejoiced. This was more than passing curiosity. He was looking for the hope of Israel.

The crowd complained about Jesus: “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner” (Luke 19:7). Zacchaeus must have felt compelled to explain himself: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19:8). Public opinion paints with a broad brushstroke. How easy it is to be blinded to the good that may exist in areas where we think that it cannot.

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector working on behalf of an occupying nation and he was rich. On the surface, it would appear he was traitorous, rapacious, and a scoundrel. Think of the Facebook memes people would generate about him if such circumstances existed in our time. How many of us would give a “like” to such a meme? In Jesus’s time, the crowd did not acknowledge that somebody had to do the dirty work of collecting taxes for Rome. How many people were spared the iron fist of the Empire because Zacchaeus was fair? He also must have governed the collectors under him in a fair manner. The fourfold restoration he spoke about would not have been for himself alone, but also for those whom he supervised. Also, with his profit, he helped to lighten the burden of the poor. The public, on the other hand, was blinded to these things. Even if they did not have access to the details of Zacchaeus’ decency, their evil speaking made it impossible to consider anything but their own opinions.

These were voices of murmuring, discontent, reviling, and fear, malleable voices able to be bent to wicked schemes: “the chief priests stirred up the crowd, so that he (Pilate) should rather release Barabbas to them” (Mark 15:11). Undoubtedly, it was opinions like those voiced against Zacchaeus which gave strength to the future rebellion against Rome. Jerusalem was destroyed, and of the temple, not one stone was left upon another.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’” (Luke 13:34-35).

And again: “For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31).

Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus for the sake of those who scorned: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). Jesus began His work among His own, the Jews. Among the Jews there were those like Zacchaeus, decent and honorable, yet scorned. Probably, there were among the scorners lost sheep who, in other areas, were decent and honorable. For the sake of Zacchaeus and the crowd, Jesus concluded, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

It is often quoted, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Yet, this truth can be undermined by public opinion. It is a big voice of generalities playing to our sense of indignation and yes, helplessness. Public opinion can blind us to this fact:  the way of Jesus is strong, not helpless. We have been given the power and the message of overcoming the world. Through Jesus, we can become like Him, the Lamb of God. There is a bigger picture than our worldly concerns: resurrection, redemption, salvation, transformation, the judgment day, the new and heavenly Jerusalem. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).