Luke 19: Zacchaeus

I think we could benefit from a discussion of the moment in the Gospel of Luke when Zacchaeus meets the Lord.  The Pope recently used this pericope when addressing the UN delegation.  It made me scratch my head.  The Pope was advocating “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State”.

Of course you know that Zacchaeus was a publican, a tax collector, a representative of the State, the Romans.

As I read Luke, the lesson to be learned from the Zacchaeus encounter is that if even a Roman collaborator tax collector can convert and receive the kind words of the Lord, then anyone can be saved.  What I find puzzling is how this episode can bolster an argument for State redistribution of wealth.

In any event, Luke 19:1-10 has Zacchaeus telling the Lord, using Greek present tense verbs (Latin Vulgate also has present tense), about his giving to the poor and his restoration of money to those whom he cheated.

Authors are divided about whether Zacchaeus was already giving half his wealth to the poor before the Lord came along or whether he made the decision in the Lord’s presence to give to the poor in the future.

On the one hand, the language is fairly clear.  But the context suggests that Zacchaeus is making an on the spot decision.

The Greek of the dialogue in Luke 19 says in 19:8:

σταθεὶς δὲ Ζακχαῖος εἶπεν πρὸς τὸν κύριον Ἰδού, τὰ ἡμίση τῶν ὑπαρχόντων μου κύριε δίδωμι τοῖς πτωχοῖς καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα ἀποδίδωμι τετραπλοῦν

The verbs δίδωμι and ἀποδίδωμι are both “present”, though Greek present doesn’t necessarily mean that the action is exactly contemporaneous.


1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And there was a man named Zacchae’us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. 3 And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchae’us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchae’us stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”


1 And entering he walked through Jericho. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacheus, who was the chief of the publicans: and he was rich. 3 And he sought to see Jesus who he was: and he could not for the crowd, because he was low of stature. 4 And running before, he climbed up into a sycamore tree, that he might see him: for he was to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus was come to the place, looking up, he saw him and said to him: Zacheus, make haste and come down: for this day I must abide in thy house. 6 And he made haste and came down and received him with joy. 7 And when all saw it, they murmured, saying, that he was gone to be a guest with a man that was a sinner. 8 But Zacheus standing, said to the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wronged any man of any thing, I restore him fourfold. 9 Jesus said to him: This day is salvation come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.


1 et ingressus perambulabat Hiericho 2 et ecce vir nomine Zaccheus et hic erat princeps publicanorum et ipse dives 3 et quaerebat videre Iesum quis esset et non poterat prae turba quia statura pusillus erat 4 et praecurrens ascendit in arborem sycomorum ut videret illum quia inde erat transiturus 5 et cum venisset ad locum suspiciens Iesus vidit illum et dixit ad eum Zacchee festinans descende quia hodie in domo tua oportet me manere 6 et festinans descendit et excepit illum gaudens 7 et cum viderent omnes murmurabant dicentes quod ad hominem peccatorem devertisset 8 stans autem Zaccheus dixit ad Dominum ecce dimidium bonorum meorum Domine do pauperibus et si quid aliquem defraudavi reddo quadruplum 9 ait Iesus ad eum quia hodie salus domui huic facta est eo quod et ipse filius sit Abrahae 10 venit enim Filius hominis quaerere et salvum facere quod perierat

Again, the tricky part here is to determine what the Greek “present” is doing.

Once again, many commentators think that Zacchaeus already was giving to the poor and restoring to those who were defrauded.

Perhaps we can have some intelligent investigation.

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  1. Unwilling says:

    The key is in ????/ecce

    [Everyone: If you want to use Greek, use the unicode: Click HERE]

  2. Unwilling says:

    The key is in the the function of idou (ecce, “behold”, a Hebraism from hinneh). It gives the present a performative force: “hereby”.

  3. Spaniard says:

    On one hand, the text phrases the event like this:
    “People murmured, BUT, Zacchaeus said…” This can either be interpreted as Zacchaeus demonstrating his goodness after the criticism, or as him converting. The words of Jesus afterwards can also be interpreted in both ways.
    In my opinion, both interpretations give interesting teachings, although I think the former one has a flaw: it seems awkward to have someone boasting of his own good deeds in front of Jesus…

  4. Gerard Plourde says:

    I agree that the context implies an on the spot decision. The key to this, I think comes from the fact that Zaccheus is admitting that he defrauded people.

    At the same time I think that too much is being read into Pope Francis’s words. On the simplest level it reflects the fact that citizens pay taxes to the government out of the money they earn (their “economic benefits”). The government then distributes it (ideally) in a way that ameliorates poverty and aids the economic advancement of the broadest number of its people. This kind of non-voluntary payment is referred to in both the Old and New Testaments and is not condemned. An examination of tax policy and a readjustment of the rates of taxation occur in times like these in which large segments of the population have seen their savings decimated, their earnings reduced and their ability to maintain their standard of living impacted by the economic downturn that began in the Fall of 2008. The facts seem pretty clear that those at the top have either not suffered as much as their fellow citizens or, in some cases have actually benefitted. It does not seem unjust that they be asked at this time to dig a little deeper into their pockets to repair infrastructure from which they also benefit and to help fund programs that assist those displaced by economic retrenchment (for example, the long-term unemployed, many of whom were displaced by the contraction of businesses due to the economy). They are, after all, members of the society. Private charity is and has been unable to meet these broad needs in a large and complex society and is recognized in the principal of subsidiarity (this was even true in Ancient Israel if the Scriptures are to be believed).

  5. LHollwedel says:

    When parsing yields ambiguous results (which seems like most of the time in NT Greek), look to the context for clarity. I find it more likely that Zacchaeus is making an on-the-spot decision in response to Jesus’ call based on Jesus’ response in the next verse:

    9 ????? ?? ???? ????? ? ?????? ??? ??????? ??????? ?? ???? ????? ???????, ?????? ??? ????? ???? ?????? ?????·

    “???????” means “today,” and “???????” is aorist – indicating a one-time, completed action. Taken together, these two time-indicators imply that the salvation (???????) occurs instantaneously, not ongoing. If Zacchaeus has been giving charitably for a long time, that seems to imply that the immediate occasion for his salvation is not his charity but his public announcement of his charity – an uncomfortable thought. If, however, his declaration is a moment of conversion and his charity is just beginning, then this conversion provides the occasion for the aoristic salvation, which seems more appropriate.

    I recognize that this is a less-than-comprehensive argument; it is just what occurs to me most likely based on a very quick glance at the Greek.

    [Everyone: If you want to use Greek, use the unicode: Click HERE]

  6. Priam1184 says:

    I know enough Greek to know that the present tense can be tricky, but I will let more learned scholars comment on the grammatical aspects of this encounter. The context seems to imply that he is making the decision on the spot to restore those whom he has robbed otherwise St. Luke’s description of this scene doesn’t really make any sense.

    That said I don’t have a clue what Zacchaeus has to do with the UN and ‘redistribution of wealth.’

  7. PA mom says:

    So interesting that there is disagreement over this story. It is taught so matter of fact in the children’s textbook, a clear conversion story, that the words really did not strike me as to the tense before.

    Makes for a very different lesson, from my perspective. Instead of it being another story about someone choosing to give up their belongings and follow Him, it would seem to balance the usual with the Lord’s joyful and open acceptance of Zacchaeus, despite his occupation and wealth, because he is living within the Gospel. The lesson then more naturally becomes a discouragement of class warfare and an encouragement for affluent Christians that they too have a path to follow.

    This is a message that could use more discussion in our Faith.

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    On my way home. Not much time. Genomai is in the aorist…salvation has come (genomai) to this house, but in this context the aorist can indicate an action begun in the past before the start of the story that is bring reported or as a sequential time order in a narrative sequence. It is difficult to exclude either case.

    The Chicken

  9. donadrian says:

    This is interesting – I was surprised to find how many commentators do in fact settle for an continuous or iterative present for ??????. One problem with this to my mind is that the two main verbs of Zaccheus’s sentence (‘I give …’, ‘I restore …’) are by way of being a doublet, Luke being the stylist that he is, so we ought to translate them similarly. ‘I (always) give half of my goods to the poor’ makes some sense (i.e. when I tot up my accounts at the end of each month I always give half of what is there to the poor); but ‘ If I have defrauded any one of anything I (always) restore it fourfold’ sounds decidedly peculiar behaviour. On the other hand, if Zaccheus is making a declaration of intent (or actually executing the legal process by which he strips himself of his ‘dimidium bonorum’ there and then), the balanced verbs retain their symmetry.
    I am particularly taken by Unwilling’s suggestion above that ???? gives the sentence a performative force – I just do not know enough to judge if it is strong enough.

    With regard to the larger question, my feeling is that this pericope is (pace the Holy Father) less to do with ameliorating the condition of the poor than with discipleship and renunciation. Luke 19 1-10 should be read in parallel with ch 18 18-25, the Rich Ruler who cannot bring himself to give up his riches (entirely by the by, I notice that when the ruler says he has kept the commandments, he uses an aorist, ???????). With elegant chiaroscuro, Luke places the Ruler, who cannot see past his own wealth, on one side of the blind beggar given his sight in 18 35-43, and Zaccheus, who does suddenly see what he has to do, on the other.

  10. Tamquam says:

    Clearly Zacchaeus is meeting Jesus for the first time, but Jesus is known to Zacchaeus by reputation. At this time Israel seethed with the expectation of a Messiah, they were undergoing a kind of Great Awakening. So Jesus was generating a lot of buzz among Israelites of all stripes. It is not improbable that Zacchaeus would have heard fragments of Jesus’ proclamation second hand hand been moved by them, possibly even to the extent of reforming his ways. Whether or not he was mending his ways to the extent that he declared to Jesus is unknowable from the text, but he was moved to see the man about whom so much was being said, else he would likely not have climbed that sycamore.

    It has been argued above that Zacchaeus’ declaration of giving half his belonging to the poor, etc. would be a form of boasting incompatible with humility if he was already doing it. The ancient world, however, did not regard humility as a virtue, on the contrary. A man was expected to do and be as much as he could and receive honor for it. Christian humility was only just being introduced into the world by He Who humbled Himself by accepting death on a cross – still in the future at the time of this meeting. In declaring his generosity he is not only defending himself against his detractors in the crowd (surrounded by a hostile crowd was a far more dangerous place to be than today, given the rapidity with which Jewish crowds of the time were known to go from crowd to mob to riot to lynching; even Pilate surrounded by his soldiers was nervous.) but making known the points on which he was due honor. Indeed, Jesus does so, and the Gospel writer makes note of it.

  11. donadrian says:

    Bother – I cannot get the Greek alphabet for some reason. In order: didomi, idou, ephylaxa. Sorry about that.

    [Everyone: If you want to use Greek, use the unicode: Click HERE]

  12. Elizabeth D says:

    I don’t know Greek, but I definitely have always interpreted that Zacchaeus had in the past been unjust, and now admits he defrauded people, and Jesus says “this day salvation has come to your house.” The conversion and firm resolution to give half his goods to the poor and repay those he defrauded 4x logically was made this day as fruit of his saving encounter with Jesus that stirred in him an intense new hunger for righteousness. Giving half his goods in particular is something that logically has to happen at a particular time, ie now, not ongoing, if I give half my bank account one day, and half again the next day, etc then in not too long I will have one cent left, certainly not be rich as the Gospel says Zacchaeus is when he meets the Lord.

    I did not feel like Pope Francis was saying anything surprising or different from what other Popes have said. Gerard Plourde’s comment is very reasonable. I am a poor person and have been helped largely by government “redistribution of wealth” (which meets basic needs, certainly does not mean I possess much wealth) and very little by private charity. Even private charity today prefers that you first go and get all you can from the government then come see them if you are still in need. For instance the St Vincent de Paul food pantry queries if you have foodstamps and wants to suggest you to sign up for it. I myself quit $148/mo foodstamps voluntarily. I feel slightly weird like SVDP would be displeased with me if I came to them instead of to the government. I do get some bread from them since they always have extra bread and I am a SVDP volunteer so they let me have some bread.

  13. msc says:

    It is a passage that has given commentators much trouble, and even the church fathers disagree about it. I have no doubt that didomi and apodidomi are proper presents. The futurist present is used in Luke, but so are true futures. The Greek lacks any temporal particle or adv. that one would expect with the futurist present, but they are not always there in the NT. Unwilling is right that idou is used that way, but, again, not always. I find it the fact that Jesus says nothing or does nothing that one would expect in a conversion narrative persuasive. The apodidomi bit makes more sense to me if he is saying that he repays fourfold if he has exacted a wrong amount from someone: he is an honest tax collector. It makes less sense for him to say “and if in the future I will have exacted a wrong amount, I will pay it back fourfold”–that is very specific and odd. Someone would be more likely to say “I will take extra care never to exact a wrong amount.”

  14. Patruus says:

    There’s a handy Greek keyboard here –

    Let us see if text typed there comes through here – ???????

    (Note: the dropdown box gives access to keyboards in many other languages, including Hebrew and Sanskrit.)

    [Everyone: If you want to use Greek, use the unicode: Click HERE]

  15. MrTipsNZ says:

    This discussion could become a micro-cosm of the problem Jesus was identifying and correcting in the text.

    The Jews got disgruntled because our Lord went to a tax collectors house; as Fr Z says, in this context, if tax collectors are saved then anyone could be saved. The analogy would be Christ turning up to Pelosi’s house I guess.

    The business about the timing of the decision, IMHO, is irrelevant. The public declaration is the key. And this folds back to the beauty of our Lord’s gift of salvation – open to all of good will and sincerity.

    This was reinforced at the cross with St Dismas.

    As for the state distribution – someone’s playing “pick up sticks” with policy.

  16. StWinefride says:

    Fr Haydock in his Bible commentary has this for Zaccheus in Luke 19:

    Behold here the three steps of his conversion: 1. an ardent desire of seeing Jesus; 2. the honourable reception he gave him in his house; 3. the complete restitution of all ill-acquired property.

    I’m happy with that.

  17. Lutgardis says:

    What’s interesting is that the instruction for the sacrament of Reconciliation at my kids’ school (and in some other programs I just found with a quick Google search) is focused on the story of Zacchaeus and how he had committed specific bad deeds for which he needed to be forgiven.

    As my child experienced it, this program was extremely focused on how one needs to reconcile with the community around oneself, which one has harmed through one’s sins (and not at all about how one receives grace through confession or the steps for a valid confession or anything other than a vague apology for undefined wrongs, which is a whole other story), but the interpretation of the tale was definitely not that he was a nice guy who needed to convert and be saved, but that he was a sinner and cheat who had been doing bad unloving things that hurt other people.

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    Many excellent points.

    I have a working hypothesis of what might be going on and it hinges on the Hebrew notion of salvation. In Luke 19:9, Jesus says:

    “And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.'”

    The word, salvation, in this particular passage is, soteria (from which we get soteriology), but, although this is a Greek word, it would have been understood with Hebrew ears. Using the analogy of the debtor’s prison, which is where many Hebrews would have used the term, when a person was in debt and gone against in the law and lost, he was thrown into debtor’s prison until the debt could be paid back, but the person was not allowed to pay back the debt, himself, even if he came into money after he were in prison. Debtor’s prison was not only about restitution, it was, also, about humiliation. A relative (which would, eventually morph into the bails bondsman of today) had to come and pay the debt. This phase of the prisoner’s liberation is called redemption (although the term is used loosely in the New Testament, it had a more precise meaning in the Old Testament, including among the people in the Zaccheus scene). Once the redemption was paid, the relative acquired the right to go back to the prison cell and escort the prisoner out. This was the salvation part of the process. Thus, salvation required an acknowledgement on the part of the prisoner that he could not release himself and that he had to be guided out of the prison cell (and, eventually, the entire jail building) by following the relative. There are three steps in the salvation process: 1) opening the cell, 2) taking the hand of the prisoner, 3) escorting him, amidst the taunts and jeers of the jailers, until he is official out of the building, which marks the full meaning of salvation. Thus, salvation is something that begins in the past, continues in the present, and achieves an end in the future. Greek thinking is somewhat loose about the time element when referring to salvation (partially, because they have a different conception of time than we do in the West), leading to innumerable fights about when salvation is actually accomplished. Technically, it only after the door to the outside of the jail building is crossed over that salvation is said to be complete. By analogy, full salvation only occurs at the moment of entering Heaven, but it is not wrong to speak of salvation having a past, present, and future dimension, so that salvation can be said to have begun in this life.

    Now, salvation is always accomplished through a relationship with Jesus, whether merely remote or intimate, since he has to be recognized as the relative who is coming to get you. How can he get you out of the prison cell if you refuse to recognize him as your kin? The Church has recognized this, from the beginning. It realizes that those who have no opportunity to know Jesus may yet be saved in a way unknown by a type of remote relationship in this life which will become intimate after death.

    In any case, where Jesus talks about the salvation of another person, the salvation is always expressed as being activated when the person recognizes Jesus as the one who saves him and reaches for it. At the Crucifixion, the man on the cross who turns towards Jesus and recognizes him for what he is and reaches out to him in relationship is the one who is saved. Notice, that when Jesus says, “This day (today), you will be with me in paradise,” he is precisely expressing the final phase of salvation to the man.

    This is not the case with Zaccheus. The soteria mentioned is the first phase of salvation. In context, Zaccheus hears about Jesus and wants to see him. This is like preveniant grace, the grace that prepares one for salvation. Jesus calls him, by name (and I think he does this not because he has heard of Zaccheus, before, but by Divine knowledge), and says that he must (the Divine imperative) stay with him. At Zaccheus’s house, the crowd comments that Jesus has gone to the house of a sinner. In the Hebrew mind, sinners could not be saved until the sin was repented of, because sin separated one from the tribe, thereby denying one the access to relatives who might come and pay the debt owed due to the sin.

    Zaccheus does not speak in the language of repentance, to indicate that he is turning away from a sin. Rather, he defends himself against the charge of being a sinner by declaring what he actually does, but take note, he does not turn to the crowd to plead his case. He turns to Jesus, because he recognizes that it is Jesus he must convince, not the crowd. This is the point at which Zaccheus has recognition of what Jesus’s purpose is – to be the relative who leads his kin to salvation. This recognition of who Jesus truly is starts the process of salvation for Zaccheus. The second step would be to continue following Jesus until out of the prison cell of this world until death. This is not a conversion story, per se, where a man turns away from his evil ways, but, rather, a recognition story, where the man takes what he already does and places it at the feet of Jesus. It is a way of showing Christ not that his ways have or will change, but that his recognition has changed. Now, he knows that what he has been doing is the right thing to be doing in Jesus’s eyes. This is confirmation for Zaccheus and the crowd that his actions with the poor and those who defraud him is the correct one.

    It is the turning to Jesus that causes salvation to come to this house, the starting of an active relationship, but that is not a conversion of ways or manners, but a conversion of sight, at best. Zaccheus is already doing the right thing, but not for an informed reason. As donadrian mentioned, above, the rich young man kept all of the commandments, but he would not go beyond them and so backed out of a relationship with Jesus, whereas Zaccheus already gave away half of his money to the poor and out of the rest paid back anyone he defrauded four-fold, so he didn’t have much money, one assumes, but he was willing to face Jesus with a passion that might have allowed him to go even beyond that amount of giving. The refusal to back down from the crowd and only be solicitous of Jesus’s opinion marks the beginning of his salvation, and Jesus notes and approves of it. What else would one expect from a true son of Abraham, when Abraham set the example by being so generous and solicitous to the three men in the desert.

    Thus, Zaccheus could have been giving his money to the poor and still not have achieved salvation, as St. Paul mentions in 1Corinthians, but it is the desire in Zaccheus’s heart for Jesus that marks his entry into salvation. When Jesus says that salvation has come to this house, he does not mean it in the final sense as he does with the man on the cross, but, rather, as the first of the three steps of initiation, propagation, and arrival. Jesus says that he came to seek (go into the prison and find the prisoner) and save (walk him out of the prison, in three steps) the lost.

    With regards to the use of this pericope in economic terms, it can be used in a sense of telling someone to give more to the poor, as Zaccheus did, but it is a very roundabout ways of talking about redistributing wealth, since I can live on less money than a family of eight, so, if money is redistributed evenly, I would be well-off, while they might still be poor. Clearly, the purpose of the pericope is not to teach about economics in a direct sense. If the people from the UN would turn to Jesus and recognize him as the only means of salvation, they would then do what is required by love, not economics, and the results would be far better, since love has a more sophisticated means of calculating true need than economics.

    If one wanted to make the point about redistributing wealth, I might have gone with Luke 3: 10 – 14:

    [And the multitudes asked him [John the Baptist], “What then shall we do?
    And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”

    Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”
    And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.”

    Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”]

    Anyways, thats my current hypothesis.

    The Chicken

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    Quick. call your Protestant friends. Catholics discussing Scripture on the Internet!

    The Chicken

  20. pseudomodo says:

    I am in agreement with The Chicken that Zaccheus is admitting his (already) good deeds to Christ. It ties in nicely with St. James – Works without Faith are dead works, Faith without works is dead faith. Zaccheus works are rendered alive with faith in Christ.

  21. Franko says:

    I’m definitely enjoying the fact that the NAB isn’t even entering into this discussion.

    I have to admit I found the Pope’s use of scripture to justify state-run redistribution to be both confusing, embarrassing and frankly, insulting.

  22. KevinSymonds says:

    It may be helpful to have a sense of the scene here before getting to the passage (and words) in question.

    Luke’s narrative demonstrates a question about the placement and passing of time. Clearly, Jesus and Zacchaeus spoke outside somewhere. But what happens afterward?

    The Latin verb “devertisset” in verse 7 indicates an action done further in the past than an already past event. This makes sense because the crowd saw (viderent) what had transpired and was murmuring (murmurabant) about the action of Jesus having chosen to lodge at Zacchaeus’ house.

    The Greek is a bit simpler:
    “…hoti para hamartolo andri eiselthen katalusai….” (…that he went in [the house] with a sinful man to stay….” In more correct English, “…that he went in [the house] to stay with a sinful man….”).

    From the grammar, it seems to me that Zacchaeus joyfully received Jesus into his (Z’s) home. After seeing this, the people murmured about it. It does not appear that Zacchaeus would have heard the murmuring if he was already inside the house with Jesus. Therefore, he would not have been compelled by the crowd to say what he did. There was something else going on with this man which we shall get to momentarily.

    At this point, is seems as if Luke glosses over some historical markers. He next says “Zacchaeus standing” (Gk: statheis; Lt: stans). If Zacchaeus and Jesus already moved inside, what happened that required Z to stand? Something clearly was going on in the house if Z is described as “standing” as opposed to sitting or reclining. It is quite possible that Z was entertaining Jesus, a guest, like any other good middle-eastern man of first century Jewish culture.

    Why, then would Luke present such a short narrative and leave out convenient historical markers that indicative the passage of time? I suggest that Luke is hurrying through in order to get to the point of the story, which is the vindication or redemption (depending on one’s interpretation) of Zacchaeus.

    From here, I think the Masked Chicken offers a compelling discussion and I would like to build upon his points.

    Let me pose a question: was Zacchaeus truly the “sinner” as stated/understood by the crowd?
    Let us consider that if Zacchaeus was an unrepentant sinner, why does Luke mention that Z seemed so eager to see Jesus? Luke says Z sought to see (Gk: “idein”; Lt: “videre”) Jesus “who he was” (Gk: “tis estin”; Lt: “quis esset”). The literal answer to this question can be found in Luke 18:35-43 (just before the passage in question). Jesus healed the blind beggar near Jericho. Clearly, word must have spread about Jesus from the environs of Jericho and Zacchaeus heard the news in Jericho. This is followed up by Luke with the peculiar words “quis esset” (“who [Jesus] would be” or “who [Jesus] was”) almost as an afterthought.

    Secondly, being a tax collector was a horrible thing in first century Palestine. The Jews did not like them as they were viewed as traitors to their own kind. Thus it makes perfect sense for the Jews to call Zacchaeus a sinner and shun him and his home.

    Is that, however, the whole story with Zacchaeus? Could it be that he was misunderstood and his true activities went unnoticed/unrecognized by an otherwise blinded local populace? Think of the many Saints throughout history who have endured slanders against them and come out innocent in the end, or have done charitable works and told people not to tell what was done. Does not Jesus Himself tell people such?

    Third, notice that Luke presents his narrative as if the scene is a courtroom. The crowd serves as the prosecution, Jesus as judge, and Zacchaeus the defense. Now, if Zacchaeus is being accused of being a terrible sinner simply by virtue of his being the chief of the tax collectors (publicans), that is not much of an accusation of sin by virtue of one’s job, position or wealth. Zacchaeus, knowing this, is essentially appealing to Jesus by revealing the righteousness of his actions.

    The above interpretation addresses the confusion over the present tense of the verbs “give” (Gk: “didomi”; Lt: “do”) and “restore” (Gk: “apodidomi”; Lt: “reddo”). Otherwise, there is a legitimate expectation of the future tense of these verbs that people normally employ to speak of what they are going to do after having repented. If Zacchaeus truly was robbing and defrauding people and then had a conversion, one could expect the future tense of verbs that indicate righting the wrong.

    If the above is accurate, then the visit of Christ gave Zacchaeus a golden moment to vindicate himself in front of the Just Judge. Z says that he gives to the poor and restores fourfold anything that he defrauds people. This word, defraud, seems harsh at first to the ear but consider that nowhere does St. Luke say that Zacchaeus defrauded willingly or maliciously.

    Again, if all of the above is correct, then the Zacchaeus story would be more about good people who are slandered against and have their characters distorted. This then takes on an eschatological/teleological theme as Christ judges people and separates the good (benedicti) from the cursed (maledicti).

    I submit the above to the scrutiny and opinions of others. It is not reflective of my opinion and is only meant as an academic exercise.

  23. Imrahil says:

    Just for a chime-in, Zachaeus need not necessarily have defrauded with evil intent. He is usually called a publican, but he was not simply a tax-collector but a chief tax-collector, who employed other tax-collectors. It was the custom to say “I do” if one does something through a deputy, as Herod said “I have decapitated John” despite not personally committing the act.

    Then, though, from the little information we got in history and Latin, the concept of a fixed tax was rather foreign to Roman law at the time. Acc. to my information, the right to collect taxes was sold to the highest bidder, who thus acquired the recognized right to milk his district as much as he could or would.

    Of course: the way I’ve been repeatedly told this parable was suchlike that I never even thought it could involve something different than Zachaeus (seeking, indeed, Our Lord beforehand due to some faint hope, or aiding grace as the theologians would call it) being called by Our Lord, converting, and then making a promise in reparation for his misdeeds. Interesting.

  24. Imrahil says:

    I’ve even heard a comment that according to a supposed tradition, by giving half + four times the frauds, Zachaeus went out a poor man (possibly burdening himself, driven by our Lords always excessive grace or along these lines, with even more debts than his entire fortune). The comment was from charismatics if you’re interested.

  25. mburn16 says:

    “I have to admit I found the Pope’s use of scripture to justify state-run redistribution to be both confusing, embarrassing and frankly, insulting”

    The main problem I have is that he seems to be going beyond the traditional expectations that all should have food, shelter, and the other essentials….into arguing that we should seek to equal out the “extra” material accumulations of various members of society. Partnered against preachings against the “idolatry of money” and a “throw away culture”, and I get an aura of hypocrisy. What is it, exactly, the Pope thinks the poor are being deprived of? Calls to feed the hungry and clothe the naked can best be made using direct quotes from scripture. At least in this country, going further than that comes out sounding like he wants to make sure the poorer elements of society can have cell phones and cable TV.

    I sometimes have serious doubts as to whether this Holy Father truly has an understanding of the developed world and how his speeches play here.

  26. slainewe says:


    Thank you. I really like your interpretation of the Zacchaeus story as a journey towards salvation.


    I never noticed the incongruity of Zacchaeus standing (when the context would indicate that he was already standing) because I thought it meant “standing his ground” against the murmuring of the crowd. Does the Greek allow for this?

  27. Mariana2 says:

    I Know enough of the uses of tense in Greek to know that I don’t know anything, but in the Swedish translations the older one says “I give…” and the two newer ones, “I am giving…” and “I shall give…”

    Surely the whole thing makes most sense if Zachhaeus decided then and there in his joy to give half to the poor?

  28. mrshopey says:

    This is very interesting.
    I had never given this story more thought than sinner/repentance with the assumption that tax collector was synonymous with sinner-defrauding people.

  29. Blas says:

    No matter the interpreation you choose, Zacchaeus gives his wealth to save his soul, not to solve the problem of the poors. Jesus ask us to give to the poors for our wealth.

  30. The Masked Chicken says:

    To build in KevinSymonds notion of the scene in Zacceus’s house being akin to a courtroom, Zaccheus stands in the same manner that one would stand before a sitting judge on the bench to plead ones case, with as Kevin mentions, the crowd serving as the prosecutor. I suppose, one might call this scene, The Trial of Zaccheus. If, as Imrahil suggests, the chief tax collector were responsible for the actions of those under him, then the defraud remark might not directly apply to Zaccheus, at all. A little later in this scene, the parable of the ten talents occurs, which, in addition to having eschatological implications, could have applied to Zaccheus, when Jesus says, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.”

    It would be so nice if we, as Catholics, could spend this sort of time analyzing Scripture. The opportunity doesn’t come up, much.

    The Chicken

  31. KevinSymonds says:

    @slainewe: Both the Greek and the Latin employ a participle. It does not necessarily imply “standing” in the sense of standing one’s ground.

  32. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Father Z,

    Thank you for making a separate post about this, and thank you to all the thoughtful and knowledgeable commenters!

    I am especially grateful to The Masked Chicken and KevinSymonds.

    In St. Luke, we have already had (as The Chicken notes) the tax collectors of 3:12-13, not rejected in principle by St. John; we have also had Levi in 5:27-32, again not clearly rejected in principle, and the parable of 18:9-14. Zacchaeus giving (perhaps half his income: could ‘hyparchonton’ mean this?) and being ready to rectify factual instances of ‘esychophantesa’ fourfold, resembles the Pharisee there in his works, but seems to contrast entirely in not exalting himself or trusting in himself as just and despising others. Does he not further, as the tax collector there, look humbly for mercy beyond his proper good deeds?

  33. KevinSymonds says:

    @Masked Chicken: I am always game for a good intellectual conversation!

  34. KevinSymonds says:

    Also, what I would like to know is why St. Jerome rendered the Greek “estin”(3rd person singular present active indicative) in verse 3 as “esset” (3rd person singular imperfect active subjunctive) in Latin. It is also quite clear from his Latin that he did not see “katalusai” in verse 7 as an aorist infinitive and instead went for “devertisset” (which is pluperfect active subjunctive).

    Anyone care to venture a guess? My thought is the “historic present” but am not sure.

    The Nova Vulgata text is here:

  35. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Also, what I would like to know is why St. Jerome rendered the Greek “estin”(3rd person singular present active indicative) in verse 3 as “esset” (3rd person singular imperfect active subjunctive) in Latin.”

    Because Zaccheus wanted to see Jesus, but could not. Wishes or contrary to fact assertions are both put in the subjunctive in Latin.

    “It is also quite clear from his Latin that he did not see “katalusai” in verse 7 as an aorist infinitive and instead went for “devertisset” (which is pluperfect active subjunctive).”

    Subjunctive, again, for possibly verbal continuity as well because this is the statement of an action that was supposed to be contrary to fact or good action – Jesus, in the crowd’s opinion, ought not to have gone in.

    The Chicken

  36. slainewe says:

    I think another reason I prefer the “continuing conversion” interpretation rather than the “radical conversion” one is because I usually hear this passage in connection with the Mass for the Dedication of a Church. The choice of this Gospel for this occasion makes more sense to me as a continuing conversion story.

    Like Zacchaeus (if he, in fact, was already giving half to the poor and 4-fold reparation to those he discovered that he taxed unjustly), those involved in the funding and construction of a church building have already experienced a decisive conversion. They are generous and moral people. Like Zacchaeus, and the church being dedicated, what they lack is that abiding Presence of God for which we all hope and in which we will be able to say with St. Paul, “Not I, but Christ in me.”


    Also, why did Our Lord say, “I MUST abide in thy house,” unless Zacchaeus’ righteousness was already compelling Him? And how could Zacchaeus have so readily received the Lord (and not, like Peter, begged Him to depart) if he were not already practicing virtue above that required by the law?

  37. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Before I came to read this post today, I saw an interesting article about a work I do not recall ever hearing of: St. Cyprian’s De Opere et Eleemosynis.

    Now, finally taking time to go to see if a translation of this is at New Advent, I find it is: among the Treatises as Treatise VIII. Reading it, I have arrived at:

    8. In fine, He calls those the children of Abraham whom He sees to be laborious in aiding and nourishing the poor. For when Zacchaeus said, “Behold, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have done any wrong to any man, I restore fourfold,” Jesus answered and said, “That salvation has this day come to this house, for that he also is a son of Abraham.” Luke 19:8-9 For if Abraham believed in God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness, certainly he who gives alms according to God’s precept believes in God, and he who has the truth of faith maintains the fear of God; moreover, he who maintains the fear of God considers God in showing mercy to the poor. For he labours thus because he believes— because he knows that what is foretold by God’s word is true, and that the Holy Scripture cannot lie— that unfruitful trees, that is, unproductive men, are cut off and cast into the fire, but that the merciful are called into the kingdom. He also, in another place, calls laborious and fruitful men faithful; but He denies faith to unfruitful and barren ones, saying, “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to you that which is true? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? ” Luke 16:11-12

    I have not yet gone to look online for the text (where the quotation from ch. 19 may be compared with the Vulgate, as St. Cyprian lived before St. Jerome). But the Treatise up to this point has been well worth reading, as I am confident the rest will be.

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