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The Tax Collector and the High Cost of Love

In his book The Cost of Discipleship, the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously distinguishes between what he called “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” While Bonhoeffer defined cheap grace as requiring nothing from us and being ultimately meaningless, he characterized costly grace, on the other hand, as something that takes something from us, something that hurts, something that costs:  “the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

Exactly the same can be said of Christian love.  Love that does not cost us anything ultimately accomplishes little and has little depth.  It is so often only costly love that makes a real difference in the lives of others. There is a wonderful example of this principle in the Gospel of Luke – though it is one that we often read over – in the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.  A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.  He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! 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.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham (Luke 19:1-9).

By way of back-story to this account, Luke tells us that as Jesus approached Jericho he healed a blind man at which the people praised God (Luke 18:35-42).  As he entered Jericho then, Jesus was a hero – beloved of the city’s inhabitants who had gone out to meet him as he approached.  But in Chapter 19 Luke tells us that Jesus was only passing through the town and that he declined to stay overnight. This doubtless disappointed many citizens, especially as Middle Eastern culture meant that as a teacher of God’s word (to say nothing of the fact that he was regarded as a famous prophet who healed by the power of God), Jesus doubtless would have been offered hospitality and would normally have accepted it. 

But as Jesus left Jericho, a strange scene unfolds.  Zacchaeus, the chief regional tax collector for the Roman occupation, desired to see Jesus and so he ran down the road a little way and climbed up a sycamore tree to get a better view.  The fact that it is mentioned that it was a sycamore tree is interesting as those trees usually have a profuse covering of large leaves and it is very possible that Zacchaeus chose the tree as one from which he could see Jesus as he passed by, but not be seen by crowds that thronged around the Teacher.

As the local tax collector and thus a “collaborator” in the eyes of many, Zacchaeus may well have been the most disliked individual in the city.  Tax collectors often charged far more than the actual Roman tax rates and pocketed the extra cash – as Luke tells us was true in this case (Luke 19:8). So positioning himself in the leafy tree might well have been a conscious and prudent decision on the part of Zacchaeus.  A hated tax collector caught in the swirl of a large crowd could easily come to harm.

Yet Luke tells us that when Jesus drew near to where the collaborator was, he called out and not only greeted the man, but openly stated that he would like to spend the night in his home.  We have to concentrate on this situation to really understand the effect of this behavior on the inhabitants of Jericho.  Not only had the teacher declined the hospitality of "decent" citizens, but now, after indicating he would not stay the night, he changed his mind in order to stay in the home of the most hated man in town. Not only was Zacchaeus hated, but as a tax collector he was “unclean” and anyone who entered his home, ate there, or stayed the night, would automatically also be made unclean.

The reaction of the crowd as recorded by Luke is understandable in these circumstances: “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner’” (Luke 19:7).  Because of his reaching out to Zacchaeus in love Jesus incurred the total displeasure of not just a few, but of “All the people.” The famous prophet and teacher, the beloved healer of one of their own citizens, instantly became an object of local displeasure and perhaps even anger and scorn.

Nevertheless, as Luke shows, the love that Jesus extended to the hated individual was repaid in the man’s true and thorough repentance and his promise to more than restore all of the excess money he had taken from his neighbors (Luke 19:8).  We must remember that Zacchaeus already knew the law of Moses, already knew that it was wrong to cheat and steal.  It was not hearing an exposition of the law that changed the tax collector, but seeing the demonstration of love that Jesus made to him.  Zacchaeus was moved and transformed by that love, but it was not free.  Jesus immediately paid a price for the expression of his love, but he did so knowing full well that the cost of real love is often high.  

R. Herbert (a pen name), Ph.D., was trained in biblical studies and Ancient Near Eastern languages and archaeology. He writes for a number of Christian venues as well as for his websites at LivingWithFaith.org and TacticalChristianity.org.

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