Zacchaeus’ parents had high hopes for their little boy. The name they gave him means, in Hebrew, “pure one.” It can mean “innocent” or “righteous.” It may be a combination with the shortened form of the Hebrew name for the God of Israel. So, little Zacchy’s parents named him “Yahweh is righteous.” Levine and Witherington title this section of their commentary as “Zacchaeus, ‘Mr. Righteous’” (page 510).
That’s a lot for anyone to live up to. On first glance this appears similar to calling Al Capone “Mr. Compassion.” The neighbors must have shaken their heads often at the bitter irony of it all. The one whom they regarded as a “sinner” had a name that meant anything but that. I suspect the Lukan audience would have reacted in a similar way on the first hearing. The character’s name would have prepared them to laugh sardonically at the unrighteous behavior of “Mr. Righteous.”
Except, the joke was on all those who jumped to conclusions. The Lukan author devotes six Greek words to the identification of this character – “And, look, there was a man who was called by the name of Zacchaeus” (Luke 19:2a, my translation). This is more words than required to get the point across. I don’t know if I’m over-reading the text (well, that never happens!), but it seems to me that the Lukan author wants to get our attention by inserting the participle for “called” in this phrase.
“Mr. Righteous” was more than Zacchaeus’ name. It was his “calling,” his vocation.
Zacchy was an “architelones.” The NRSV translates this as “chief tax collector.” That’s fine, but it’s not based on much. This is the only place the term appears in the New Testament. It doesn’t appear outside the New Testament in Roman imperial documents that we have. It’s not an official administrative title or political position. Jesus, or the Lukan author, makes it up. The Lukan audience would certainly know that from daily experience. Here’s another signal that something unusual is happening at this point.
The made-up title is a combination of the Greek words for “ruler” and “tax collector.” Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to steal anything personally. He had people for that. “The tax collectors familiar in the Synoptic tradition were for the most part employees of the chief tax collector and were often rootless persons unable to find other work,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “Evidence from the late imperial period suggests that cheating or extortion on their part would be less likely to benefit them than the chief tax collector for whom they worked” (pages 387-388).
Zacchaeus was in charge of an organized system of tax collection. He may have had rules against extortion and fraud. However, he didn’t control the day-to-day behavior of the small-time contractors who worked for him. They may well have engaged in the extortion and fraud which is mentioned in our text. Zacchaeus, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note, was the one who benefitted most from that criminal behavior. He was also the one in the best position to do something about it. He was the “ruler” of that system.
Zacchaeus, as head of the regional tax system and rich, occupied an “in-between” social position. Solevag notes that, on the one hand, Zacchaeus was rich. This wealth certainly came from his work as the head tax collector. Therefore, his wealth was “new” money, not connected to land or inheritance. Therefore, the old money people would have regarded Zacchaeus as a gauche social climber (yes, that pun was intentional) who deserved ridicule rather than respect.
On the other hand, his fellow Jews would have seen him as a collaborator with the Romans. He was probably perceived as a traitor and was thus despised. This gives us some concrete data to deal with the language, for example, of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee may not regard all other people as beneath contempt. But in the parable, that’s certainly how the Pharisee regards the tax collector (one of the little fish in that extractive pool) who has come to the Temple to pray.
“Zacchaeus, then, is cast as a character whose social location is quite complex,” Solevag writes, “On the one hand, he is as an outsider, belonging to the generally despised category of tax collectors. On the other, he is powerful and privileged as a rich man and a leader within his guild” (page 12). Yet, as she notes, Jesus doesn’t treat Zacchaeus as the crowd expects. Jesus welcomes tax collectors and eats with them. In fact, “tax collectors are among those most responsive to Jesus’s ‘good news’ in the Gospel” (page 12).
Zacchaeus faces another obstacle in his quest to see Jesus. “And he sought to see who Jesus was, and he was not able to do so on account of the crowd because he was of small stature” (Luke 19:3, my translation). Long-time church people will find it hard not to hum the children’s song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Yet, the word translated as “stature” rarely refers to physical height. It more often refers to age. Zacchaeus was of “small span.”
I’m not suggesting that the Lukan author portrays Zacchaeus as young, although that may be part of the intent. Instead, I think we are dealing, as is so often the case in Luke, with an intentional double entendre. Zacchaeus is reduced in social stature, as far as both his Greco-Roman and Jewish neighbors are concerned. He is regarded by them as “less than.” The crowd grumbles because Jesus is going to share a table with this notorious “man who is a sinner” (see Luke 19:7).
The Lukan author also makes clear that Zacchaeus is a physically short man. Solevag argues that, in fact, the Lukan author portrays Zacchaeus as a dwarf. She does not draw that as a firm conclusion since the language in verse three is not that typically used in ancient literature to identify dwarfs. However, she points to a number of recognizable literary conventions in the story that would have led listeners to conclude that Zacchaeus was in fact a dwarf.
First, Zacchaeus is portrayed as a comic figure in the story. He runs ahead and climbs a tree. Zacchaeus doesn’t embody the self-control and measured gait of an honorable man in the ancient world. He more closely resembles the “running slave,” a stock figure in Roman comedy. Such a character was stereotyped as infantile and unable to manage even simple tasks. Of course, we might note that another character in the Lukan account who runs in this way is the Forgiving Father in Luke 15.
“Zacchaeus’s behavior goes against cultural expectations of how a man was supposed to behave,” Solevag writes, “but at the same time it aligns with the performative role of dwarfs, where dwarfs often were represented as comic figures” (page 14). He is marginalized because of his “non-normative body” and his slavish, comic actions.
Second, Zacchaeus is portrayed as a sinner. In the ancient world, Solevag notes, body size and type was thought to reflect the mind and moral character of a person. “Read physiognomically, Zacchaeus’s short body would indicate greed and corroborate the suspicion already tied to his profession as a tax-collector,” Solevag writes, “When Jesus invites himself to come to Zacchaeus’ house, the onlookers grumble and say that Zacchaeus is a sinner (Luke 19.7). This judgment from the people could thus be a physiognomic assessment of Zacchaeus” (page 14).
Third, the story portrays Zacchaeus “as host and included ‘other’.” Jesus chooses to dine with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus proves his moral character by vowing to (or by already engaging in) his charitable donations and reparations. Zacchaeus is not the punchline of a joke or a social pretender and fraud. Instead, he is a son of Abraham. This idea is used elsewhere in the Lukan account (Luke 13:16) to include an ‘other’ (page 15).
In addition, if Zacchaeus is portrayed as a dwarf, there is another Great Reversal in this text. Dwarfs in ancient literature and practice were usually the entertainment and/or enslaved waiters at such banquets. Entertainers and enslaved persons were lowest in the social hierarchy since control of their bodies was in varying senses taken from them. Jesus honors Zacchaeus as host and benefactor and puts him at the top of the social scale. Zacchaeus fits the ancient literary category (both in Scripture and secular writing) of the unexpected host (page 16).
How does this story function in the Lukan narrative, given the above considerations? “The narrative fits the profile Luke has as a writer of a gospel for outcasts,” Solevag argues, “Throughout the gospel, Luke has a particular focus on how Jesus includes those formerly excluded in Judean society” (page 16).
Interestingly, Solevag argues against this story as a healing account. In fact, Zacchaeus’ lack of physical stature, if that exists, is not remedied but rather embraced. “In other words, this parable grants a different place to the social experience of disability than the healing narratives,” she concludes, “As a biblical scholar interpreting the Bible from a disability perspective, I think it is important to map this variety, not only in representations of disability, but also in the literary and theological uses of disability” (page 18).
References and Resources
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Solevåg, Anna Rebecca. “Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke: Comic Figure, Sinner, and Included” Other”.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 225-240.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).