For Jesus to associate with a “tax farmer” was politically incorrect. It was an affront the nationalist sensibilities. Zacchaeus, a Jew, was a traitor to his people. Still, he had a certain social (or at least economic) position. He was management not labor. This background makes Luke’s narrative all the more interesting
One of the more persistent charges leveled against Jesus is that the associated with the wrong sort of people. One of the best examples of the tension between the way Jesus understands the Kingdom of God and the way that his critics understood it is the story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. The old-fashioned word for tax collector is publican. It comes to us from Latin. Indeed the title of this essay comes from the Latin translation of Luke 19:2, where he is called “princeps publicanorum, translated literally as “prince of the publicans.” A publican (tax collector) was a contractor or as one reference put it, a “tax farmer.” Specifically, he probably (so J. W. Simpson, Jr s.v., “Zacchaeus,” ISBE) collected tariffs on imported goods. As a supervisor (ἀρχιτελώνης) he supervised sub-contractors. They harvested taxes from the Jews on behalf of the Roman empire and the sub-contractors got a “piece of the action” and he kept a percentage of what they collected. The Romans had conquered the Jews in 63 BC. The Jews, of course, hated their conquerors and the Romans, for their part, seemed to have thought relatively little of what they regarded as a troublesome backwater. The Jews had been paying taxes and fees to their conquerors for a little more than 90 years by the time Jesus met Zacchaeus.
For Jesus to associate with a “tax farmer” was politically incorrect. It was an affront the nationalist sensibilities. Zacchaeus, a Jew, was a traitor to his people. Still, he had a certain social (or at least economic) position. He was management not labor. This background makes Luke’s narrative all the more interesting:
[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And 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 and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:1–10; ESV)