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Summer 2004, Vol. 1, No. 1

Part 1

The Church as a Transformational Agent in Society: The Story of Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10

James D. Hernando, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary

This is the first of a series of vignettes from the New Testament that illustrate the power of personal faith in Christ to change people and the society around them.

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The story of Zaccheus is one of the most intriguing in Luke’s gospel—a literary masterpiece filled with vivid imagery, drama, and biting irony. It is the story of the conversion of an arch villain in Jewish society who has a transforming encounter with the Lord. But it also offers marvelous insight into how the church transforms society one converted sinner at a time.

Enter the Villain

Luke quickly opens his story by introducing the main character in the briefest fashion. However, English readers seldom catch the innuendo of the Greek syntax. “There was a man called by name Zaccheus.” Luke is undoubtedly calling attention to the man’s name, which is derived from the Hebrew root1 meaning “pure” or “acquitted one.” The irony leaps out from Luke’s pen with the ensuing words, “and he was a chief tax collector”. Tax collectors (Gk. telonai) were locals hired by cities and towns to collect taxes for the Romans. Zaccheus was a “chief” tax collector (Gk. architelones), which meant he probably had supervision over a region and number of tax collectors. Luke’s words “and he was rich” would certainly not go unnoticed by Jews in Jesus’ day. The privilege of collecting taxes was offered at a steep price and those who held that job set tax rates that often exceeded by far any quotas demanded by Rome. While tax-collectors had no authority to confiscate funds or property, they held great leverage over the people as they could exact severe penalties by reporting tax delinquency to the Romans. This they often did whether the charge were true or not.2 And so here Luke presents an arch villain who is ironically named. He was anything but someone of pure or blameless character; he was, in fact, the exact opposite of his name.  Keep in mind also that “tax-collectors” were notorious for their corruption and the mere mention of their profession aligned them with “sinners.” (See Matt. 9:11; Mark 2:15f; Luke 5:30).

The Action of Zaccheus

But this notorious sinner is soon found to be in a seeking mode. How and when he heard about Jesus we do not know.  What kind of report sparked his desire to see Jesus is also unknown.  However, what we read paints an ironic and even comical picture. Zaccheus was obviously well-known in the area (v.7) at least by reputation. His position and wealth would have placed him at the highest echelon of societal status. But this “big” man in society was woefully lacking in physical stature. He who often looked down at people from his pinnacle of societal power could not see Jesus over the crowd. Although left unstated, I cannot help but conclude that only an unseen and desperate spiritual need could have forced a man of his status to take up the humiliating posture of an adolescent “tree-climber.”

The Call and Invitation of Jesus

The irony continues when Jesus stops under this “sycamore” tree and calls him to come down. If as some scholars suggest the tree was a variety of “fig” tree (mulberry),3 the irony soars. The great “shake down” artist who could extort excessive taxes by falsely accusing people of tax delinquency is now is “shook down” down out of the fig tree!4 But Jesus does not berate him or add to his obvious humiliating posture.  Instead he honors him by calling him by name and declaring his intent to be a guest at his house.

The Transforming Fellowship

What Luke leaves out in this story screams for completion.  Except for the peoples’ complaint that Jesus was going as a guest to the home of a sinner,5 Luke says nothing about what happened next. Instead we find Zacchaeus stopping6 and saying to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded7 anyone of anything, I will give them back four times as much.” Embedded in these words are all the marks of true repentance: a recognition of sin, a willingness to make restitution, and a commitment to embark on a path of righteousness. Somehow, perhaps while fellowshipping with Jesus in his home, the taker was transformed into a giver. The greedy cheat who defrauded people was given a benevolent and just heart. Zacchaeus even adopts the spirit of the Law when he commits to making restitution for past sins (See Exod. 22:1-4).  Nothing can account for this dramatic change, except the grace of God that produces repentance.

Concluding Thoughts and Application

The transforming effect that the Church brings to society is only possible through individuals who have had a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ.  At conversion sinners experience an inner transformation that reorients their entire lives. In a very real sense, all things become new (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Regeneration (“being born again”) and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit initiate the process of   transformation into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:28f; 2 Cor. 3:18; Titus 3:5). However, all too often Christians think about this work of transformation exclusively in a personal spiritual sense. Seldom do we “think outside the soul,” to borrow a cliché.

I contend that God has always intended that our personal spiritual transformation have a societal impact (Matt. 5:15-16), because people are not saved in a vacuum but as those who are  in the world but no longer of the world.  They become subjects and citizens of a new Kingdom (see Col. 1:13; Phil 3:20). The Kingdom of God is a spiritual reality, the effects of which are intended by God to grow pervasively in the world (Matt. 13:31-33; Luke 13:20-21). Let me ask a simple question. After reading our story does anyone think of Zacchaeus went back to tax-collecting “as usual?” One can only imagine the radical nature of the instructions he gave to his subordinate tax-gatherers.  Did he admonish them after the words of John the Baptist not to collect more taxes than they were ordered (Luke 3:13)? What impact did his own personal example have on those who had present and would have future dealings with him? Luke remains enticingly silent and invites our imaginative speculation.

The Church can become a transformational agent in society when people, who are daily being transformed into the image of Christ, determine to live out “Kingdom” principles in the various arenas of their personal lives.  The effect is magnified when these same individuals collectively ask how those principles might inform and transform the business of being “in this world,” but not “of this world.” This life is made possible by the enabling presence and power of the Holy Spirit who has been given to us as a pledge of the fullness to come (Eph. 1:13-14; 2 Cor. 1:22).

A few practical suggestions rise from our study. First, pastors and spiritual leaders can facilitate this process by starting, encouraging, and supporting discipleship through relational mentoring. Jesus took the time to be with Zacchaeus in his home. The home was the site of intimate personal interaction and fellowship, and it was in this context that Zacchaeus had his transforming encounter with Jesus. Second, the so-called “friendship” model of evangelism finds merit in our story, not only because it has scriptural precedent, but because it provides a natural bridge and vehicle for mentoring new believers.8 However, relational discipleship must make an effort to include “non-believers.” Home cells, “Koinonia” groups and Bible studies, get cozy and comfortable with only Christians in attendance, but can also become exclusive. Such groups need to find, as Jesus did, common ground upon which to relate and have meaningful interaction, a setting where unbelievers have access to the Christian faith lived out and proclaimed by authentic Christians.  Finally, as our story illustrates, faith must be made relevant to the practical issues of life. Salvation is the entrance into the kingdom of God, where God’s reign extends over the totality of our earthly as well as spiritual existence. It was our Lord Jesus who taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, KJV).


1. If Frederick Danker is correct and Zachaios is derived from the Hebrew Zakkai then his name points to the moral character of purity or uprightness. See F. Danker, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University Press, 2000), 214. Cf. R. L. Harris, G.L. Archer and B.K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 548.

2. Everett Ferguson points out that the word translated “defrauded” in 19:8 (Gk. sukophanteo) actually means to “bring false charges.” See E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co., 2nd ed., 1993), 88.

3. See sukomorea in DBAG Lexicon, 955.

4. Thanks goes to my colleague and Academic Dean at the AG Theological Seminary, Joseph Castleberry, for this illuminating metaphor.

5. This undoubtedly they regarded as a gross social and religious indiscretion.

6. Whether this happened on the way to Zacchaeus’ house, or in the house some time during their visit is not certain, although the latter is more probable.

7. The Greek syntax indicates that what is described in the “if” clause of this conditional sentence is assumed to be “true.”

8. The author is not endorsing “friendship” evangelism over all other modes of evangelism, only pointing out the validity and effectiveness of this model to combine the aims of evangelism and discipleship. Recently, a friend of mine shared with me his joy over a friend who had come to Christ, after several years of meeting regularly for coffee and conversation. His friend is now a brother in Christ, attends church and continues to be mentored and discipled. As far as I know, their weekly coffee meetings continue.

Updated: Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM