Summary: So, Zacchaeus was named bright, clean or pure. Unfortunately he grew up to be the complete opposite. One of the first things we learn of Zacchaues from Luke 19 is that he is the chief tax collector in the region. He’s not just a tax collector like Matt
The Hebrew name Zacchaeus is taken from a Hebrew word Zakak which means to be bright, clean or pure. I can imagine that when Zaccheaus was a wee little baby his mom and dad had bright hopes for him. Names had significant meaning for the ancient Jew. Mary named her son Jesus the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua which means "the Lord is salvation." The names of children often were meant to steer them in a life direction or a career. Hannah named her boy Samuel, “Name of God,” or “heard by God” she promised that if God gave her a baby she would give him back to God. He grew up to be a prophet. Samuel knew what his vocation would be from the time he was a boy, so did Jesus. Names meant something back then. In a unique way, God even used the names of babies as a means of teaching His people. As in the case of Hosea, God told Hosea to name his first child Jezreel which means, “God sows”. All his life Jezreel carried the truth that God was going to sow vengeance on King Jehu for his murders and evil actions.
So, Zacchaeus was named bright, clean or pure. Unfortunately he grew up to be the complete opposite. One of the first things we learn of Zacchaues from Luke 19 is that he is the chief tax collector in the region. He’s not just a tax collector like Matthew, he’s Matthew’s boss. Jesus had already had some discussions with people about tax collectors. We don’t know if Zacchaeus was aware of what Jesus had said about his profession but it’s more than likely word had gotten around. And, I don’t know if Zacchaeus knew Matthew was a tax collector and one of the entourage of the messiah rabbi, but, it’s probable. In Luke 18 Jesus shares a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. Jesus said, “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It was no surprise to anyone that Jesus refers to tax collectors as sinners. In the minds of everyone who wasn’t a tax collector these guys were brutal thugs, the worst of sinners. The apostle Paul thought of himself as a Pharisee of Pharisees so when he proclaimed himself to be the “chief of sinners” he was bringing this parable of Jesus full circle.
The second thing we learn about Zacchaeus is that he’s very rich. We also know from his title as the chief tax collector and his profession how he became very rich. I read an article on the internet by a blogger who was trying to convince his readers that homosexual activity wasn’t any more sinful today than an IRS agent doing his job. After all Jesus considered tax collectors sinners, so would he consider an IRS agent today a sinner? He concluded that Jesus was speaking into the culture of the day that tax collectors were sinners, but what about now? Are IRS agents and tax officials sinners for doing their job today? So homosexual activity is no more sinful today than a tax official collecting taxes. I think that’s pretty creative and I give the guy an A for effort but his premise that Zaccheaus was anything like a modern tax agent is about as wrong as thinking the Indianapolis Colts are Superbowl contenders. So let’s talk about what an ancient tax collector was. According to www.bible-history.com “Tax collectors were usually Jewish and therefore they were hated by their own people. When they collected their taxes for Rome they would turn over the required amount of money, and whatever they could add on for themselves is what they kept. They were known to be extortioners of large sums of money. Because tax collectors were in relationship with Rome, who were Gentiles in the eyes of the Jews, and hated for their domination, they were treated similar to the worst kinds of sinners and prostitutes.”
So instead of comparing Zacchaeus and Matthew and others who were tax collectors, to modern tax agents, a more accurate comparison to a modern definition would be an enforcer; a guy who works for a gang, or mob, or some other illegal group who extorts money from law abiding people and businesses. And hires thugs to beat up folks or destroy property of people who don’t comply to his demands. This is more like Zacchaeus. This was the ancient tax collector.