Scholars have long recognized the theme of reversal as an interpretative key for the two books that Luke wrote, the Third Gospel and Acts.  New Testament scholar, Justo Gonzales, summarizes what many others have observed: “One of the central themes in the Gospel of Luke is what interpreters have often called ‘the great reversal’—or perhaps in today’s more common language we should call it ‘the world upside down,” (Justo L. Gonzales, The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015], 141). Luke establishes this theme at the very beginning of his Gospel with the words of the Magnificat, in which Mary proclaims:

“He has shown strength with his arm;

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty,” (Luke 1:51-53).

The Third Gospel extends salvation to those on the fringe of Jewish society and foreshadows the Gentile mission, while Acts records the full inclusion of Gentiles into God’s saving plan.  Many people accepted by Jesus were previously outsiders, but have now found themselves inside the kingdom.  Likewise, many insiders have found themselves to be on the outside.

The materially poor, Gentiles, Samaritans, sinners, tax collectors, and women are treated favorably by Jesus, while the rich and the religious leaders do not fare well.  Matthew 5:3 states, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  In Luke’s Gospel, the qualifier “in spirit” is absent, so that the poor, spiritually and literally, are the blessed ones (Luke 6:20).  Jesus is born into poverty.  The poor shepherds are the first to hear the good news of His birth.  He inaugurates His ministry with the declaration that, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,” (Luke 4:18).   In the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21), Jesus lambasts the wealthy because they store their earthly treasures for themselves and are not “rich toward God,” (v. 21).  The angels carry the stingy, wealthy man who refuses to assist the beggar, Lazarus, to the place of eternal torment (Luke 16:19-31).  The rich, young ruler fails to enter the kingdom of Heaven because he refuses to part with his wealth, prompting Jesus to say, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” (Luke 18:25).

Luke affirms the inclusion of Gentiles in his earliest chapters.  Simeon declares that his “eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel,” (Luke 2:30-32).  Mark introduces John the Baptist’s ministry with a quotation of Isaiah 40:3, intimating that John’s role was to prepare the way for the Lord (Mark 1:2-3).  Luke continues the citation from Isaiah and reminds his readers that the way of the Lord includes that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” (Luke 3:6). God’s plan included not only the spiritually elite, but all of humanity.

Samaritans are also treated kindly by Luke. The Good Samaritan is more virtuous than the Levite and the priest (Luke 10:25-37).  When Jesus heals the ten lepers, only the Samaritan returns to thank Him (Luke 17:11-19).  Matthew 10:5 records that Jesus forbade His disciples to enter Samaria; Luke omits the prohibition in his version of Jesus sending out the Twelve (Luke 9:1-6).  Jewish outsiders, such as tax collectors and sinners, are also received favorably by Jesus, much to the chagrin of the Pharisees (Luke 5:30, 7:34, 15:2).  This brief overview of the data in Luke and Acts shows the importance of the theme of reversal to Luke.

However, Luke does not simply tell his readers about reversal.  He shows them through how he presents the characters in his two volumes.  These characters, though historical figures, serve literary functions.  Luke accurately recorded the words and actions of the historical Jesus and those with whom He interacted.  Still, his choice and organization of the material also allowed him to shape these characters to further his rhetorical goal of showing that the advent of Jesus had turned the world upside down.  He depicts these characters as historical individuals with distinct thoughts, motives, and emotions, but also presents them in a way that advances the plot and achieves his objective. 

To illustrate this point, let’s turn to Luke 19:1-10.  Luke’s carefully crafted account of Zacchaeus displays remarkable narrative and rhetorical sophistication.  Luke gives readers several clues about how to characterize Zacchaeus, and each clue screams that kingdom reversal has drawn near.  Those on the outside are now on the inside, and those who were on the inside now find themselves on the outside.  These descriptions carry deep significance due to the historical and cultural context available to Luke’s readers.  Let’s look at Luke’s description of Zacchaeus:

1. Though his name in Hebrew means “innocent one,” Zacchaeus is portrayed as anything but innocent.  That we are given a name at all is notable.  Most minor characters in the Gospels remain unnamed.  Luke’s readers would smirk at the idea of the “innocent one” conspiring with the Romans to steal their money.  Tax collectors in the first century were notorious for their injustice.  They worked for the Roman government and participated in the oppression of Israel.  The system encouraged them to collect more than was required and permitted abuses.  And Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector; Luke tells us that he is a chief tax-collector. 

2. Luke has consistently castigated the rich in his narrative.  The rich fool of Luke 12 finds his life cut short and his wealth meaningless.  The rich man of Luke 16 suffers in Hades, while his begging counterpart, Lazarus, lounges at Abraham’s bosom.  The rich young ruler of Luke 16 is unable to part with his possessions and departs from Jesus in great despair.  And, Luke tells us that Zacchaeus is rich.  He didn’t have to provide this detail.  One would expect a chief-tax collector to be rich.  Luke is drawing attention to the economic status, because the story will end with a surprising twist.

3. In the Greco-Roman world, it was common to associate physical characteristics with moral standing.  Shortness represented small-mindedness and drew ridicule.  Zacchaeus is short.  While this detail is easy to miss, we must remember that we know more about Zacchaeus’ physical stature than we do Jesus’! 

4. Zacchaeus is further characterized as isolated from the crowd when he climbs the tree to see Jesus.  He is presented as physically distant and alone. 

In sum, Zacchaeus is the supreme sinner.  His name is ironic.  Every descriptor points to him as anything but innocent.  Therefore, it is remarkable when Jesus approaches him and extends an offer of fellowship.  Some in Luke’s audience might have initially shared the reservations of the Jericho crowd.  Of all people, why did Jesus choose to stay at Zacchaeus’ house?  Both men in the story provide the answer to this question.  Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ request with a display of genuine repentance and generosity.  This act undermines the stereotypical assumptions of the protesting crowd and the potential concerns of Luke’s audience.  Despite what they thought about Zacchaeus, he proved to be a righteous person.  Jesus also addresses the crowd’s grumbling by remarking that He is the Son of Man who seeks and saves the lost.  Luke characterizes Zacchaeus as one of the lost sheep of Israel and Jesus as the Shepherd.  Therefore, Jesus came to seek and save Zacchaeus.

The succinct descriptions—such as Zacchaeus’ name, that he is “rich,” a “chief-tax collector,” and “short in stature”—may not mean much to the modern reader.  However, Luke expected his readers to fill in the gaps and create a complex character profile of Zacchaeus.  He is a character of depth, and he defies many categories readers might desire to place him in.  Luke uses this complexity to draw readers into a beautiful story of reversal.  In Zacchaeus, Luke can summarize much of what he has been trying to say throughout his Gospel.

Luke crafted the story with persuasive flair and loaded it with important detail to show how a small, wealthy chief tax collector could find salvation, contrary to the expectations of others.  Luke draws his ancient and modern readers into the story.  They can relate to Zacchaeus’ depravity; they can understand his isolation from the crowd and his reticence to approach Jesus.  The story is Good News because Jesus came to seek and save the lost (like Zacchaeus and many of Luke’s readers).  God seeks sinners who are not necessarily seeking Him.  Luke 19:1-10 is a story of salvation, repentance, hope, and restoration; it is, therefore, the perfect summary of Luke’s Gospel.

Luke’s efforts are persuasive at heart. He has told them that Jesus brought about a grand reversal; now he wants to show them through the acceptance of a paradigmatic outsider.  Zacchaeus was a historical person who existed outside of Luke’s story-world.  However, Luke provided only the information that he wanted his readers to know, and he withheld other information, inviting them to participate in Zacchaeus’s redemptive story. 

I am writing this as one who also experienced a grand reversal.  I am glad that Jesus did not just tell me that He came to turn the world, and my world, upside down.  Instead, He chose to enter the messy, conflicting details of my life and restore my identity as a child of God and a participant in the Kingdom.  Though the canon of Scripture is closed, Jesus is still proclaiming His message of hope, restoration, and reversal through living epistles. 


This article was originally published in the 2023 Spring Edition of the Destiny Magazine. You can find the online edition here.