In Luke 19:1-10 we find the well-known story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Unable to see because of the crowd, the tax collector climbs up into a sycamore tree to get a better look at Jesus. To the surprise of the people gathered there, Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he must spend time at his house that day. The crowd grumbles in response. Zacchaeus then tells Jesus that he will offer restitution to those whom he has defrauded, up to four times the original amount. Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Did Zacchaeus purchase his salvation?
Because of the promise he makes, some might be tempted to interpret the text to mean that Zacchaeus’ monetary gifts saved him. By donating his goods to the poor—and perhaps also to Jesus’ ministry—Zacchaeus’ charity has put him in good standing with God (cf. Luke 18:24; 1 Timothy 6:18-19). But is this what Zacchaeus intended?
The text seems to be telling us that Zacchaeus promises to remedy his past wrongs. The minimum for restitution included an additional 20 percent penalty (Leviticus 5:16; Numbers 5:7), with a maximum of 400 percent or 500 percent when the theft involved sheep and oxen, respectively (Exodus 22:1; see also 2 Samuel 12:6). Zacchaeus is offering many times more than the recommended amount of restitution, nearing the maximum level the law prescribed.
It appears that the reason for Zacchaeus’ commendation from Christ is not due to the value of the possessions he would give away, but the change in his heart. We gather this from Jesus’ own words: “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Scholars see this story as one of genuine conversion. We might interpret Zacchaeus’ promise to return his ill-gotten gain as a public repudiation of the past wickedness that would have separated him from God (see 1 Timothy 6:6-10).
A despicable man, his life changed by Christ, makes a public confession and promises to rectify his past wrongs. Zacchaeus—whose name means “clean” or “pure”—
offers us a great example to imitate.