And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich.
So, who was this man Zacchaus, really? Was he the wee little, warm fuzzy fellow we saw from the children’s song in the previous post? Well, it seems fairly certain that that depiction does not really capture the essence of just who Zacchaeus really was. Not only that, but understanding some about who he was, and what his nature likely was, does a great deal to help us understand what was really happening in this passage.
To help us understand a bit about Zacchaeus, it helps to understand a some about exactly how he earned his living. Zacchaeus was a publican. As I try to describe this, I am piecing it together from various things I read, so I may not get all the particulars exactly correct, but the point will be made.
The Romans were quite efficient in their rule of the areas which they had conquered an place under their rule; one way they often did this was to utilize the indigenous peoples of an are to basically rule and administrate on behalf of them, under their authority of course. In this case, Publicans would have been Jews appointed by the Roman to fulfill certain roles. Often Publicans would oversee certain types of public works projects, such as various infrastructure projects. One very important role, especially in the days of Jesus, was the role of tax collector for the Roman Empire.
Tax collection then was different than what we think of now. The Romans didn’t establish tax levies and then wait expectantly for those who owed to file tax returns. What we see is what I have seen referred to as “tax farming.” The Romans would establish a certain level of income they expected from a particular area, and solicit bids from certain men, those interested in being tax collectors. Upon acceptance of a bid, the bidder would prepay the agreed upon income to the Romans, and then the “fun” would begin.
If any collector retained failed to collect his already paid levy to the government, he went broke. If he only collected what was required, he simply broke even. I hope we can see here, how this all shapes up now. The Romans did not care how much a publican collected from the ones who paid; they only cared about their predetermined levy. How did publicans make money? Obviously by collecting above and beyond the required levy. Zacchaeus would have been no more then the Jewish Mafia of the day. Protection rackets are NOT a recent development!
Maybe I read too much into the nature of this man, but I really don’t think so. I think understanding just who he was will help us to better understand later events as we move through this passage.
So, who was he? Zacchaeus was likely are hard, tough, ruthless man with no qualms concerning what he had to do or say to accomplish his goals. He must have been very good at what he did, as he was the “chief.” He certainly did not rise to the top of the particular heap by being a nice guy. Publicans in general were hated by fellow Jews, as they were considered traitorous lackeys of the Romans, on an equal level with prostitutes. It seem likely Zacchaeus didn’t care even a little about all of that.
So, rather than a happy, wee little fellow, what me most likely see here is a man who was selfish, greedy, ruthless, and only out for himself.
Why does this matter? Stay tune to find out!