Beckett: Zacchaeus – Not A Conversion Story, Jesus’ Ministry to the Ostracized

This Bible study was written as a term paper for the Synoptic Gospels course at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, with a few formatting revisions to fit the audience of this blog.

Text Translation (Luke 19:1-10)

1, After entering Jericho, He was passing through.

2, Now, there was a man whose name was called Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich.

3, He kept on seeking to see who Jesus is, but he was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature.

4, After running ahead, he went up on a sycamore tree in order that he might see Him, for He was about to pass that way.

5, And as He went to the place, after looking up, Jesus said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and climb down, for today it is necessary for Me to stay in your house.”

6, So, he hurried and climbed down and he welcomed Him joyfully.

7, Because they saw this, they began to complain, saying, “He went to secure lodging with a man who is a sinner!”

8, After standing up, Zacchaeus said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my wealth, O Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have extorted anyone of anything, I return fourfold.”

9, And Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he is also a son of Abraham.

10, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.”

Literary Analysis

We have here two sections: what is happening between Zacchaeus and the crowd (vv. 1-4), and what happens among Jesus, Zacchaeus, and the crowd (vv. 5-10). Verses 1-7 each begin with και (kai), so it was difficult to grammatically divide the story into sections. So, I made the divisions based on the progress of events. I cut the first section at the end of verse four because Jesus’ self-invitation is the end to Zacchaeus’ problem.

Verse 1 begins this story, verses 2-3 state Zacchaeus’ challenging situation due to his small stature and his being a tax collector, verse 4 states Zacchaeus’ strategy to overcome this obstacle, and verse 5 is Jesus’ solution to his problem. Verse 5 begins the next section, which is Jesus’ self-invitation to be with Zacchaeus, who responds in verse six. Verses 7-10 follows a dialogue occurring between Jesus, Zacchaeus, and “all” (the crowd). My literary analysis will focus largely on section two, and my historical-cultural analysis in the next section will focus largely on section one.

The events in this story make it difficult to place it into a genre. Bovon notes, “[I]t displays the characteristics of various literary genres; it can be viewed as a conversion, pardon, salvation, or controversy story” (594). Traditionally, it is interpreted as Zacchaeus’ conversion or salvation story, but there is another more likely protagonist in the story: Jesus Christ Himself. This depends largely on how one interprets δίδωμι (didōmī, “to give”) and ἀποδίδωμι (apodidōmī, “to return”) in Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus (v. 8). 

Fitzmyer asks, “Are they ‘iterative or customary’ presents or ‘futuristisc presents'” (1,220)? In other words, are they present tense verbs indicating Zacchaeus is giving his wealth and returning his unfair gain right now (“I am giving, I am returning”), or is he making a pledge to do this in the future in response to Jesus’ invitation (“I am going to give, I am going to return”)? This is an important question to ask because either interpretation has different implications. If it’s the former, Zacchaeus is self-effacing in response to the crowd’s grumbling. If it’s the latter, it implies a genuine conversion in Zacchaeus since it is something he’s doing in response to faith.

So, which is it? Bovon, though he is aware of the two interpretive choices, does not give a definite answer. He does say he is “inclined” to take the futuristic stance, but this is an ambiguous answer rather than a clear one (598). Another interpreter, Miller, defends the traditional interpretation as well, “[Zacchaeus was led] to a total change of heart. Fellowship with Jesus broke the hold riches had on him, and led him to make restitution of anything wrongfully taken (v. 8)” (132). I agree with Fitzmyer’s position, who doesn’t defend either interpretation:

Zacchaeus is not self-effacing, but he is not boasting either… [Jesus’] words are addressed to the grumbling crowd; they vindicate Zacchaeus and make it clear that even such a person can find salvation: He too is a “son of Abraham.” This does not mean that Zacchaeus has become a child of Abraham… Jesus seeks lodging from him because he is really an offspring of Abraham, a Jew, with as much claim to salvation which Jesus brings as any other Israelite (cf. 13:16). (Fitzmyer, 1,221.)

However, I do not agree with Fitzmyer that Zacchaeus is not self-effacing. When the crowd complains about Jesus securing lodging with a sinner, Zacchaeus speaks up, “and what he says, even if it is addressed to the ‘Lord,’ takes account of the spectators’ criticism” (Bovon, 592). Zacchaeus is responding to the crowd’s reaction, not to Jesus’ self-invitation. He is defending himself. Does Zacchaeus do what Jesus says? The text doesn’t say. So, did Jesus really give him salvation because he responded in faith? It is highly unlikely.

Zacchaeus is totally unlike the other conversion accounts. “He does not beg Jesus for mercy (cp. 17:13; 18:38) or express any sorrow (cp. 15:21; 18:13). Jesus makes no reference to Zacchaeus’ faith (cp. 7:50; 8:48), repentance or conversion (cp. 15:7, 10), or discipleship” (Fitzmyer, 1,220). In light of this, I believe it is right to interpret δίδωμι and ἀποδίδωμι in the futuristic sense, but not as Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus in conversion, but rather in response to the crowd’s label of him as a “sinner” in order to defend himself.

Additionally, when Jesus “speaks” to Zacchaeus in verse 10, He is not speaking to him directly. Jesus speaks to Zacchaeus in the third person singular, indicating Jesus is addressing the crowd. If Jesus were speaking directly to Zacchaeus, He would’ve used the second person singular. So, Jesus cannot be responding to Zacchaeus’ supposed faith since He does not address it. Since this is not a conversion story, this makes Jesus the true protagonist of the story, which has to be read in its proper context.

The story of Zacchaeus occurs in a major context: “the Gospel of the Outcast,” i.e. Jesus’ journey in Jerusalem from Luke 9:51-19:27 (Bovon, 592). Along with this, the story of Zacchaeus is to be understood in three separate contexts.

The first is where we find the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son (who becomes lost, Luke 15). In each of these parables, Jesus depicts Himself as the one who is searching for the lost and perishing; this concept finds its linkage to Jesus’ statement in verse 10 of the Zacchaeus text (“the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost”).

The second is Jesus’ call to Levi in 5:27-32Here is another place where a crowd—the Pharisees—complain about Jesus going to dine with a sinner, to which Jesus responds, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5:31-32). The Pharisees’ complaint is the same reaction as the crowd in verse 7. In chapter 5, Jesus tells the crowd He has come to call sinners to Himself. In chapter 19, He tells the crowd He has come to seek and to save the lost. In chapter 5, Jesus is the one who calls sinners to repentance. In chapter 19, Jesus is the one who does the seeking and the saving of the lost (i.e. sinners).

The third is the immediate context just prior to the Zacchaeus story when Jesus heals a blind beggar (18:35-43). Jesus healing this blind man is significant because “it is the beginning of Jesus’ open claim to be Messiah” (Miller, 131). Prior to this, Jesus was rather ambiguous about His Messiahship and commanded others not to tell others He is the Messiah (4:35, 41; 9:21, 36). Here, the blind man calls Jesus the “Son of David” (18:38-39), which is a uniquely Messianic title. Jesus didn’t deny this title. “In fact,” Miller says, “he seems deliberate to draw it out, by stopping to speak with the blind man, when he could well have avoided it (v. 40)” (131).

Thus, Jesus began His public affirmation of His Messiahship when He responded to the man’s Messianic faith by healing him. Jesus’ public affirmation of His Messiahship was fully demonstrated at His entrance into Jerusalem (19:28-40), most notably when the crowds began to shout praises of, “Hosanna!” Contrast this with Zacchaeus, no such confession is found in Zacchaeus’ mouth, and Jesus did not respond in healing or forgiveness of sins. Instead, Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this house,” not the man himself. In other words, Jesus is saying salvation is possible even for the house of Zacchaeus, even though he is a “sinner” and a tax collector (which were synonymous in the Jews’ eyes), because he is a child of Abraham.

In light of this major context, the overall message seems to be that Jesus is the Messiah who has come to seek and to save the lost.

Historical-Cultural Context

Joel Green also sees the linkage between 19:10 and 5:32, particularly with the historical-cultural view of “sinner.” What was a “sinner” in the first century Jewish context? Green answers, “one whose behavior departs from the norms of an identified group whose boundaries are established with reference to characteristic conduct… [i.e.] an outsider.” They were “[r]egarded as persons of lower status (due, e.g. to their perceived religious impurity and law-breaking practices), [tax collectors] were to be avoided, especially at the table” (85). A “sinner” to first century Jews had not only theological implications, but sociological implications as well.

In Jewish society of first century Palestine, if you’re a sinner according to the Law, you’re ostracised. Today, “sinner” just means a person who sins. We are all sinners. So, lest we misinterpret Scripture, when we read of “sinners” from the Jews’ cultural perspective, they are not only those who are guilty of sin (i.e. open rebellion against God), but also those whom the Jews have ostracised because of their sin—they were social outcasts. So, here with Zacchaeus, Jesus is attempting to reverse the crowd’s cultural understanding: though Zacchaeus is a social outcast, he is still a Jew with access to salvation and therefore one of the lost whom Jesus is seeking to save.

The Broader Biblical and Historical Confession

One other possible theme in the Zacchaeus story is the second use of the Law as a mirror. Luther writes, “[The law] reveals inherited sin and its fruit. It shows human beings into what utter depths their nature has fallen and how completely corrupt it is… Thus, they are terrified, humbled, despondent, and despairing. They anxiously desire help but do not know where to find it; they start to become enemies of God, to murmur, etc.” (SA III.II.4). At “murmur,” Kolb and Wengert footnote Luke 19:7, “All who saw this began to complain…” 

Obviously, Jesus was preaching the Law to the crowd. To them, Zacchaeus was a sinner unworthy of Jesus’ invitation (or anyone else’s for that matter). When Jesus turns their murmuring against them, perhaps He was trying to force them to look at themselves. They, too, are unworthy and lost. But He has come to seek them and save them.

This leads to another possible doctrine: repentance (especially in light of this text’s connection to 5:31-32). This doctrine just so happens to immediately follow the second article of the Smalcald Articles. Now that Jesus flipped the mirror on the crowd, there are two possible responses: repentance or ignorance. The proper response in facing the mirror of the Law is to repent of our filthy, sinful grime, not to walk away and be ignorant of it (cf. James 1:22-24). When confronted with the Law, we are forced to see our filthy sin and can only trust Him who has the power to take it away.

Personal and Pastoral Application

I have always taken the story of Zacchaeus quite personally. Like Zacchaeus, throughout most of my life I have been a social outcast. All throughout elementary school, middle school, and part of high school, my peers ostracised me. I was bullied for most of my educational career. Growing up, I was also quite small in stature (though that is certainly not true now!). I was always looked down on for my small stature, even to the point that my “friends” tried convincing me that because of my small stature, I wouldn’t make it past basic training in the Army and that I would die when I deploy. As it turned out, I was one of the top PT studs in my basic training company and obviously I didn’t die when I deployed. As my father told me when I was struggling with this discouragement, they were pushing their weaknesses and insecurities onto me.

Even today, I feel like a social outcast because I suffer with social anxiety. As a Christian, our society certainly considers me an outcast! The story of Zacchaeus and the overall Lucan theme of Jesus seeking and saving the ostracised of society and reversing their status in God’s sight has always been a deep, personal reminder to me of God’s grace. Sure, I might always be an outcast in some ways, but God has called me His own in Christ. Jesus came to save the whole world, even the ostracised—even me.

As a pastor, I could preach a sermon on this theme of marginalisation. The world could certainly relate to a sermon on this text. Our culture has called homosexuals and transgenders the marginalised of society. So, this text could speak to them as well. Although they won’t like it much because Jesus calls us to renounce such sins. Still, though, as the marginalised, salvation is offered to them, too.

Within my future congregation, this would be a sermon to the “little man” in the room—those members who feel God has forgotten them or feel left out by society. I can draw on low socioeconomic statuses. Society ostracises the McDonald’s worker, the janitor, the garbage truck man, the construction man, and other “inferior” jobs. The elderly also feel ostracised and forgotten by society and even their family. Society says if you don’t have a college degree or if you don’t dress in today’s trending fashion, you don’t belong here. Society says if you’re not young, forget about you.

Jesus says otherwise. Jesus doesn’t care about your socioeconomic status and what culture says about you. He cares about your sin, which is why He died and rose for you, even you who are ostracised!


Bovon, François. Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51-19:27. Edited by Helmut Koester. Translated by Donald S. Deer. Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.

Danker, Frederic William, and Kathryn Krug. The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV). New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Green, Joel B. New Testament Theology: The Theology of the Gospel of Luke. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, Charles Arand, Eric Gritsch, William Russel, James Schaaf, and Jane Strohl. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000.

Miller, Donald G. The Gospel According to Luke. Vol. 18. The Layman’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Balmer H. Kelly, Donald G. Miller, Arnold B. Rhodes, and Dwight M. Chalmers. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1959.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996,


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