234. Jericho: Zacchaeus and the Big-and-Small in Life


19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” [Luke 19:1-10, NRSV]


Interior of the Church of the Good Shepherd, photo credit: Dr. LL Chan); Jericho pomegranate; Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Tree Awaiting the Passage of Jesus, by James Tissot

Jericho, a city within the Palestinian West Bank, enjoys a great reputation for its existence since very ancient times and is mentioned many times in the Old and New Testaments.

  • According to the Old Testament, the Lord commanded Joshua and the Israelites, as they first entered the Land of Israel after forty years in the desert, to march around the city walls once for six days, and on the seventh day to march around the city walls seven times with the priests blowing their rams’ horns. When the people heard the sound of the horns, they were to shout a great shout and the wall of the city would fall down flat. Scripture says that is exactly how the Israelite conquest of Jericho happened (See Joshua 6:1-27).
  • The Prophet Elisha was known to purify the waters of Jericho’s natural spring with salt (2 Kings 2:21).
  • Jericho is considered to be the location at which Jesus healed Bartimaeus, the blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52) and eaten with the tax collector, Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).
  • As priests and Levites working in the Temple were living in Jericho during Jesus’ time, it is believed that Jesus had the road to Jericho as the locale for the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30 – 33).

Jericho is located northeast of Jerusalem, very near the Jordan River, and about 6 miles north of the Dead Sea. Famous for the many springs surrounding the city that provide irrigation, the land surrounding Jericho produces lush vegetation, and is referred to as “the city of palm trees” (Deuteronomy 34:3; Judges 1:16; 3:13).

We had a very delightful visit to this city, buying fruits and textile, enjoying fruit juices especially those freshly extracted from great big promegranate fruits.

We also celebrated Mass at the Good Shepherd Church.


Jericho is familiar to Christians for the New Testament stories of Jesus healing Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, and dining with Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector.

The story of the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus in Jericho is food for a great deal of reflection on the reality of what are big and what are small in our lives.

Imagine, a big man has come to town. There is so much talk about this Jesus of Nazareth. He has a big name, so big crowds follow him everywhere he goes. Zacchaeus, too, wants to see him, to get to know him, to benefit from being close to him. But he just cannot get close because he is too small.

This man is small not just on account of his physical stature. He is small in his social reputation as well – a “small man”, as we would say pejoratively in Chinese, expressing disapproval and contempt. Being a tax collector for the Roman occupiers made him worse than a sinner. He was in fact a traitor. Worse still, as a publican on behalf of the hated occupying force, Zacchaeus turned greedy and selfish and enriched himself by over taxing the people and keeping lots of ill-gotten gains for himself.

This is a man who built his wealth on the miseries of his own people. He became a religious outcast, hated by his fellow countrymen. Knowing that he is not doing right by God and humans, he is often troubled by sin and guilt. He does not really like his situation altogether, but he also does not know how to get out of the rut. As things stand, he is a sinner, lost without God. And being so far away from the source of real peace and joy, how can he ever have lasting satisfaction and comfort in his ill-gotten gains?

So this small man has a big idea. He shall climb a big tree to overcome the big crowd that is blocking his view of this big man who has come to town. So the small man climbed up a big sycamore tree.

Lo and behold, Jesus not only notices him, but even calls him down with an unimaginable proposal:

  • “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 

Salvation is coming to his house, imagine that.

But make no mistake, salvation is not about keeping our heads in the clouds; we really need to come down to earth to meet Jesus the Saviour. We need to climb down from our big office, big chair, big and special “position, power and privileges” (We are the ones to decide!”), big self-importance, and be part of the common, ordinary, crowd to whom Jesus always comes and with whom Jesus always identifies.

What Jesus is doing here, Raniero Cantalamessa points out,  is to bring Zacchaeus “back to his house and there, out of the public eye, without witnesses, a miracle happens; he recognizes who Jesus truly is and finds salvation. We are often like Zacchaeus. We seek Jesus and we seek him outside in the streets, among the crowd, yet it is Jesus himself who invites us to return to the house of our hearts, where he desires to meet with us.” The heart is the “place” in which each of us can enter into contact with the living God. Scriptures call our hearts “the inner self,” “the hidden man of the heart” (See Rom 7:22; 2 Cor 4:16; 1 Pet 3:4). Jesus, Cantalamessa says, “never tires of referring to the ‘secret’ place, the heart,’ where real contact takes place with God and his living will and on which the value of every action depends.” WE may not be able to go into an external desert, but all of us can take refuge in the interior desert of our heart. “Christ dwells in the inner man,” St. Augustine said.

The rest of the story is familiar and three essences may be extracted for our instructions. They are all concrete and real, and well suited for reflection towards concrete Christian living.

First, Zacchaeus needs to come down to earth.

  • Salvation need not be about those big things in life, either real or imaginary. It’s about doing little things well, with love and care. To do so, the first thing Zacchaeus needs to do is to give up his “height”, which in practice is to give up on his inflated ideas and come down to earth. All he has to do is to be truly small in the presence of God, so as to humbly come clean on his sins. Then, salvation will come under his roof.

Second, those who feel unworthy need not worry how “small” they are.

  • Against the people’s wishes, and against the religious leaders’ characteristic grumble against Jesus for keeping sinners company and eating with them, Jesus eats with sinners and brings salvation to them. Jesus communes with people considered “small” and even “unworthy”. It is those who think too highly of themselves, of how entitled to salvation they are, who will meet with with disappointment.

Third, one can tell when people experience a true conversion.

  • From deep in their hearts, they repent of their past wayward ways.
  • They return to the way of Christ.
  • They live like they have a lot of making up to do. So Zacchaeus wants to pay back what he had unlawfully obtained and be generous at the same time.

For Jesus, the kingdom of God is his focus. He leaves us with this message, that is, he wants us to engage in works of kingdom advancement. In these works, all people and things regardless whether they are long or short, big or small, must be attended to. But once again, the Jesus we see in the Gospels makes it very clear, does he not, that special attention must be rendered to the “poor” and the “small”, the “neglected” and the “insignificant”, the “marginalized”, “rejected” and “ostracized”, for they are the ones Jesus wants to bring into the kingdom of God first. Can we render them a little bit more attention please, and stop them from having to climb and hide up in some big trees?

Luke, in this Zacchaeus story as elsewhere, is fond of the word “today” which he uses repeatedly to mean the present period of salvation brought about by Jesus (see 4:21; 5:26). Salvation is not something to be expected only in the future at the second coming of Jesus or in heaven after death. It can be experienced here and now, just as he says to Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, October 2019. All rights reserved.

You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to jeffangiegoh@gmail.com. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.