Because the name Zacchaeus means 'pure,' the story of Zacchaeus might be used to highlight Jesus' statement in Matthew 5:8, "Blessed are the pure of heart, because they shall see God." Zacchaeus' character contrasts with that of the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18:18–23. Both Zacchaeus and the Rich Young Ruler were wealthy men, but one was self-righteous and refused to give up his fortune, while the other gave half of his wealth to the needy. Zacchaeus' tale is a simple but crucial explanation of how we should approach and respond to Jesus Christ. According to tradition, Zacchaeus was a wealthy tax collector (Luke 19:2). Understanding how this happened is crucial to grasping the gravity of the situation.
The Jews despised tax collectors. They were Roman Empire operatives that collected levies and taxes for Caesar. They had broad powers to pursue individuals who did not pay, as well as the ability to increase their rates beyond what was required, as long as they returned the appropriate amount to Rome. Zacchaeus had amassed a considerable amount of illegitimate wealth as a result of his status. Because he was a Jew, it was a double betrayal: not only was he harming his own people, but he was also doing it as someone who had declared his allegiance to Roman sovereignty by his acts. He was nothing more than a traitor and a saboteur. But, as Jesus would shortly demonstrate, even such a guy can be redeemed.
Running was frowned upon by Jewish men, and climbing a tree was frowned upon since they would be exposed to people passing under them. Such behavior would be regarded disgraceful and unworthy of a community member. When Zacchaeus heard Jesus was approaching, he dashed ahead of the crowds and climbed a tree simply to get a glimpse of Him (Luke 19:4). Regardless of what others believed, he did what was necessary to come to God. Zacchaeus "hurried and came down," thrilled that Jesus had reached out to him (Luke 19:6), and did everything in his power to obey Him (Luke 19:7).
Through his actions, Zacchaeus demonstrated that he was ready to hear Jesus: he had to leave his taxation tables, his livelihood and a symbol of his ill-gotten money, in order to seek Jesus out. When Jesus finally spoke to Zacchaeus, he responded instantly, breaking every social taboo in the process.
What are you taking home out of this brief lesson? Go and sin no more!