Reproduced from Africa Bible Commentary (published by Zondervan (2006)) with kind permission from the publishers.
Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler (18:18-30) had prompted the question ‘Who then can be saved?’ (18:26) or more particularly, ‘Can the rich be saved?’ Can a rich man really ‘sell all’ and get through the needle’s eye (18:25)? By emphasising that Zacchaeus was rich (19:2), Luke prepares the reader for a story that will answer these questions.
The name Zacchaeus literally means ‘righteous’ or ‘clean’ and is also found in the OT in the form Zaccai (Ezra 2:9; Neh 7:14). Zacchaeus is extraordinarily anxious to see Jesus (19:3-4), and Jesus abruptly asks hospitality from him (19:5). Jesus’ attitude evokes hostility from the crowd, no doubt because Zacchaeus was a puppet who was working together with the ‘enemy’; he participated in and benefited from the Roman rule. From many points of view he was neither ‘clean’ nor a good Jew (19:7). However, he was a man who was willing to take a risk.
It is clear that the question we should be asking is not ‘Can the rich be saved?’ or ‘Can such and such a person be saved?’ but ‘Who then can be saved?’ (18:26). The wealthy or the oppressors are really in no different position than any other sinner, despite the extra difficulties they face.
In the story, Zacchaeus is willing to take up his social responsibility towards his neighbours by declaring, Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount (19:8). His attitude contrasts with that of the rich ruler, who found it impossible to share his possessions and ‘became very sad; for he was a man of great wealth’ (18:23).
The presence of Jesus makes possible what is humanly impossible. A wealthy man gets through the needle’s eye because he is willing to let go of his wealth. Furthermore, from a political perspective, he is no longer viewed as a puppet of the Roman regime, but as a real brother or a son of Abraham (19:9). Thus, Zacchaeus now lives up to his name, which means ‘clean’ or ‘righteous’, and becomes a living illustration of a person who is willing to demonstrate ubuntu* toward the poor.
The story of Zacchaeus may be related to the land issue in countries such as , and , where former oppressors are not willing to share land with the landless majority. Appeals are made to landowners to be more open so that the question of land can be solved peacefully and in accordance with the laws. How wonderful it would be if there were more landowners like Zacchaeus who would voluntarily declare, ‘Look, half of my land I will give to the landless’.
* Note: ubuntu is an age-old African term for humaneness – for caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation.