The largest section of Luke, beginning in chapter 9, comes to a close with chapter 19 and Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem. This part has been devoted to Jesus’ teaching and it ends with a story and a parable.
The story of Zacchaeus is found only in Luke. Zacchaeus is not a tax-collector like Matthew. Matthew was but an employee. Zacchaeus is a “chief tax collector,” someone who bid for the right to collect taxes, satisfying the Roman levies and pocketing whatever else he could squeeze out of tax payers. He would have been a wealthy man. There is something humorous about this rich, powerful figure climbing a tree to see Jesus.
When Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ home, the people become critical because they perceive Zacchaeus as a traitor (working for the Romans) and a thief (which he was). Jesus shouldn’t be associating with such vermin.
Zacchaeus is not a good guy who maintains his innocence. He is a bad guy who changes – and not just determines to live right, but to try to make up for his past wrongs. That’s the heart of repentance. Salvation is seen to come to the tax-collector not in that he quits his job, but in that he performs it responsibly and ethically.
Salvation is seen in our own lives the same way: not in an announced determination to do right, but in actually doing right. Most important here is that you see not only Jesus’ mission: not to cater to the righteous, but to minister to the unrighteous with a view toward changing their lives.