Zacchaeus (a Greek name from the Hebrew, pronounced zakkay, meaning pure) was a chief publican, or superintendent of customs (see Custom and Tribute). As a chief tax collector at Jericho, he was a wealthy man, not just because tax collectors were commonly corrupt, but also because taxes were often collected by what amounted to independent operators who profited directly from all that they managed to collect. Zacchaeus was a short man ("short" and "tall" are relative terms - in ancient times, the average height was less than today - as a normal Jew of that era, Jesus Christ was probably about 5'6" tall) who climbed up a sycamore tree that he might be able to see Jesus Christ who was surrounded by a crowd as He was passing through Jericho on His way to Jerusalem. When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, He called him down so that He could rest at Zacchaeus' house that day (even though the Scripture account seems to indicate that they never met before). It was while there that Jesus spoke the parable of the minas (a mina was a Greek measure of weight - in earlier times, before coins were as widely available, payment was made by weight of silver or gold, rather than in silver or gold coins; hence the reason that some English-language Bible versions translate the original Greek word of the Scriptures, mina, as pound - and also hence the origin of the English use of a measure of weight, the pound, as a denomination of money).
"To save the lost"
Jesus Christ was criticized by the self-righteous Hypocrites for associating with a "sinner" (claiming to be without sin is actually one of the worst sins that anyone can commit because it denies the Savior, i.e. 1 John 1:8-10) but Zacchaeus was a repentant sinner, those for whom the Christ came to make salvation possible (see Faith and Works).
"He entered Jericho [see Bible Places] and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was to pass that way."
"And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully."
"And when they saw it they all murmured, "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 any one 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 RSV)
The parable of the minas, or pounds, is about God expecting people to make productive use of the God-given knowledge and talent that they are given by Him. God expects a good return on His investment.
"As they heard these things, He proceeded to tell a parable, because He was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, "A nobleman went into a far country to receive a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten pounds, and said to them, 'Trade with these till I come.'"
"But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying, 'We do not want this man to reign over us.'"
"When he returned, having received the kingdom, he commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by trading."
"The first came before him, saying, 'Lord, your pound has made ten pounds more.'"
"And he said to him, 'Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.'"
"And the second came, saying, 'Lord, your pound has made five pounds.'"
"And he said to him, 'And you are to be over five cities.'"
"Then another came, saying, 'Lord, here is your pound, which I kept laid away in a napkin; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man; you take up what you did not lay down, and reap what you did not sow.'"
"He said to him, 'I will condemn you out of your own mouth, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank, and at my coming I should have collected it with interest?'"
"And he said to those who stood by, 'Take the pound from him, and give it to him who has the ten pounds.'
"And they said to him, 'Lord, he has ten pounds!'"
"'I tell you, that to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.'"
"And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem." (Luke 19:11-28 RSV)
Fact Finder: Which of The Twelve Apostles began as a publican, or tax collector?