Although Jesus was comfortable in any crowd and at any function, both he and Zacchaeus probably didn’t normally mingle with the same social crowd. Although Jesus did dine with several rich and important people, normally, we would expect to find him with the poorer classes. On the other hand, Zacchaeus would have always dined with rich Jews like himself or with gentiles who were also of the upper class.
In a manner of speaking, Jesus invited himself to lodge in Zacchaeus’ home (Luke 19:5), but this was not presumptuous on Jesus’ part, nor was it considered ill-mannered in that day. After all, there is every indication that Zacchaeus was pleased with the whole idea (Luke 19:6). Jewish customs in first century AD Palestine were quite unlike what we find in modern America. In fact, hospitality was expected and practiced throughout the Roman Empire (cf. Romans 15:24; 1Corinthians 1:16; Acts 15:3).
Nevertheless, we must wonder if Jesus and Zacchaeus hadn’t already known each other before their meeting just outside Jericho, as recorded in Luke 19. Unless we wish to add a miracle to Luke’s record of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus and Zacchaeus must have known one another, at least in a superficial sense, such as being guests at the same function (cf. Luke 5:29). They may have been introduced, and may have even spoken with one another, but Luke’s account implies any greater intimacy was non-existent until Luke 19. If, indeed, they had met on a prior occasion, Zacchaeus probably didn’t take Jesus very seriously. “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemies” were, no doubt, phrases of a man out of touch with reality, at least as far as the chief publican was concerned.
While Zacchaeus may have from the very beginning supposed Jesus was a good man, he probably wouldn’t have believed Jesus knew what he was talking about. Of course there were the rumors of Jesus accepting publicans and sinners (Matthew 15:1-2), and, if Jesus had indeed done such things, he would have been virtually expelled from Jewish society by the Jewish authorities (cf. John 12:42-43), just as Zacchaeus had been. Nevertheless, at least for Zacchaeus, all the questions had not been answered. After all, Matthew might probably be the exception that proved the rule. Once Matthew abandoned his office as publican to followed Jesus, he was no longer a publican. Why wouldn’t folks accept him now? Nevertheless, what reason would anyone have to accept a chief publican?
Notice Jesus’ words, “I must abide at your house” (Luke 19:5). It seems that, according to Luke, Jesus considered his dining at Zacchaeus’ home a divine appointment. If Zacchaeus was to really understand that God loved him, Jesus had to show he was willing to dine with him. The Pharisees and Sadducees considered even entering the residence of a person considered unclean made the clean person ceremonially unclean (Luke 19:7; cf. Luke 15:1-2; John 18:28-29). So, if Jesus wished to unfold the nature of God, so Zacchaeus could understand he was loved, it was necessary for Jesus to show he accepted Zacchaeus by dining with him and lodging at his residence.
Considered another way, it seems obvious that Zacchaeus had wanted Jesus to dine with him, but was afraid to ask (Luke 19:4). He probably hoped he could be accepted, but feared it wasn’t possible. In order to dispel these doubts, it was necessary for Jesus to show Zacchaeus, by example, not merely tell him, that God accepts him (Luke 19:5). So, at least for Zacchaeus, Jesus’ words were similar to (if not in reality) an answer to a prayer. He responded to Jesus with joy by taking Jesus into his home and providing the necessary hospitality that was expected of a host who welcomed an honored guest.