READ : Luke 19:1-10
Zacchaeus was a Jewish tax collector who lived in Jericho 2,000 years ago. But you might have more in common with him than you think.
When I was a very young boy we used to sing a song in Sunday school that went like this:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he,
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
I don’t know if children still sing it today, but it was definitely a favorite nearly fifty years ago. The high point of the song came when we all repeated Jesus’ command to the wee little man. Wagging our fingers at an imaginary sycamore tree, we shouted in unison, “Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today.” And Zacchaeus always did!
Today I’d like to look at the encounter with Jesus that turned an obscure tax-collector into such a memorable figure. The story is told in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 19.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Luke 19:1-10, NIV
Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus the tax collector occurred during his final trip to Jerusalem, a momentous journey of high drama. In planning the outline of his gospel Luke chose to set much of the action within the context of this long last journey by Jesus and his disciples to the holy city. Midway through the gospel Luke tells us that Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem,” or as one version has it, he “resolutely set out” for the city (Luke 9:51). There is a note of steely determination there, a sense that Jesus knows what is ahead of him and has very consciously and deliberately resolved to face it. Nothing will dissuade him, no force or power can make him swerve from his chosen course of obedience to the will of God. This despite the fact that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem will take him to the cross. Now Jesus and his disciples are drawing near to the end of that long journey, approaching the town of Jericho on the Jordan River in order to begin the familiar ascent up the road from Jericho to the city of Jerusalem.
“ZACCHAEUS, COME DOWN”
So it was as Jesus was passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem for the last time, with the cross very much on his mind, that he had his famous encounter with the local tax collector Zacchaeus. Let’s think for a moment about the kind of man Zacchaeus was.
Whenever someone in Jesus’ day wanted to suggest an especially bad person, they mentioned a tax-collector. The typical tax-collector had a well-deserved reputation for heartlessness and corruption. It all stemmed from the way the Romans had organized the system. The top officials who received the tax revenues from provinces like Galilee or Judea were posted there from Rome. But the Roman officers hired local people to do the dirty work of actually collecting the money by squeezing it out of the people, and the Romans allowed these underlings to turn a profit by extorting more money from the local citizens than was required.
So tax collecting turned out to be a job that attracted scoundrels and thugs, men who were a cross between a Mafia goon and a Nazi collaborator, with a dose of crooked politician thrown in. Tax collectors were the most despised members of society, and with good reason.
This was the sort of man who wanted to have a look at Jesus while he was traveling through Jericho. Zacchaeus was really only looking for some entertainment. He must have heard a lot about the great miracle worker from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, who had burst upon the public scene three years earlier. So Zacchaeus was curious to see Jesus. But he wasn’t really interested in him. After all, he didn’t try to talk to Jesus, or ask him for something, or even approach him. All he did was climb up into a sycamore tree.
Others were mobbing Jesus as he made his way through the streets of the ancient city. Crowds were jostling each other to get close to him, elbowing for space, pushing forward. People were shouting and screaming, crying out to Jesus to have mercy on them, to heal their sick child, to restore their sight. And all the while Zacchaeus was just sitting there, out on a limb, taking it all in. Zacchaeus apparently wasn’t interested in anything more than simply to catch a glimpse of the famous rabbi as he passed along the way. He just wanted to see what Jesus looked like, to satisfy his curiosity, to be able to say that he had once seen the great man.
Zacchaeus, I think, simply wanted a story that he could tell his grandchildren some day. “Oh, yes, I remember Jesus of Nazareth. I saw him when he passed through Jericho many years ago. I was as close to him as I am to you right now. You wouldn’t have believed the crowds, pushing and shoving, and the noise! You would have thought the emperor himself was in the parade! I had to climb up a tree just to get a good look. In fact, it was that old sycamore, just over there. That’s where I sat, and I watched Jesus pass right beneath me. It was only a few days before the Romans crucified him.” That’s what Zacchaeus was looking for.
But Jesus was looking for something else. Things didn’t work out quite the way Zacchaeus had planned because Jesus noticed the little man up in the tree and stopped. Imagine how Zacchaeus must have felt when he realized that Jesus had spotted him. I wonder what he thought when Jesus made eye contact with him. Suddenly time seemed to slow down and the noise faded. For the first time in his life Zacchaeus must have wished he was even shorter than he was, like maybe about two inches tall so he could hide behind a leaf. But there was no hiding from the searching gaze of Jesus Christ.
Jesus looked at this little man with different eyes. When Jesus looks at a person like Zacchaeus, he doesn’t see a monster, he doesn’t see a label, he doesn’t see a little man (or a big one). He only sees someone who’s lost and needs to be found. Jesus’ business in life is seeking and saving people who are lost, whether they are destitute and in the street or wealthy and up in a tree. So Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner.
“I’M GOING TO YOUR HOUSE TODAY”
Here’s where the story gets even more interesting. The song stops at this point but the story goes on. Zacchaeus came down from his tree at once and welcomed Jesus gladly; those are Luke’s words. It seems that Zacchaeus was excited. Nobody had ever spoken to him like that before, in fact, probably no one ever willingly spoke to him at all. And Zacchaeus wasn’t used to having company at home. He must have been the loneliest man in town. For one thing, he was the richest, and a rich man in a poor community never really has friends. He only has hangers-on. And, of course, Zacchaeus was hated because of his job, which had made him a tool of the hated Romans and had enriched him at the expense of all his neighbors.
Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus, however, had a very different effect upon the crowd. They began to mutter with disapproval, as they so often did whenever Jesus extended grace to someone whom they disliked (v. 7, cf. Luke 15:1-2). The onlookers began to cluck like a bunch of chickens because Jesus was willing to associate with such a sinner as Zacchaeus. I remember an old farmer once telling me that he put red paper on the windows of his chicken coop so that the interior was bathed in a sort of crimson light. This dusky light covered any signs of blood on the birds, because if one chicken had a little blood on it from a cut or a sore, the others would all gather around it and peck at it until they had pecked it to death.
I didn’t know chickens behaved like that; I thought only people did.
Now the crowd has started in “pecking” on Zacchaeus, and Jesus too for being willing to associate with him. I think the problem was the light. These people didn’t realize – they couldn’t see – that they were all just as red as Zacchaeus was, each in their own way. If it was so wrong for Jesus to visit with a sinner, how could he ever come to my house, or to yours?
The story isn’t quite finished yet. The scene now shifts to Zacchaeus’s house where we find that he’s a changed man. He’s become a new person, and he is resolved to prove it, starting that very day. He determines to simplify his lifestyle, and to make restitution to those he has cheated. Zacchaeus is like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, except it isn’t the ghosts of Christmas who have changed him; it’s an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself adds a comment on Zacchaeus’s resolve to make amends and live differently: “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (v. 9). Zacchaeus’s changed priorities signaled a change in his relationship with God. He had come alive spiritually. The money that had meant so much to him before and for which he was willing to sacrifice everything now means little to him, except as it enables him to help others who are in need. Jesus explains this change by saying that salvation has come to Zacchaeus. He is indeed “a child of Abraham,” not just by physical descent, but in the sense in which the apostle Paul speaks of this relationship in Romans 4:12, as one who shares Abraham’s faith in God and so is justified by that faith.
At the very end of the story Jesus adds his own personal mission statement: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (v. 10). Jesus came into the world to save people who were lost; not just “down-and-outers,” but “up-and-outers” like Zacchaeus.
He’s still looking for lost people today, people like Zacchaeus who are lonely, people who have everything money can buy but nothing that truly satisfies, people who keep striving to accumulate more and more things and experiences while wondering all the time why the things they already have don’t make them happy. So many today are asking, “If this is the good life, why don’t I enjoy it more?” It’s because they’re lost. Jesus came to find people who are lost like that, so that he could introduce himself to them and show them what they’ve really been looking for all along without even realizing it.
In fact, that’s what he’s doing right now, at this very moment. After all, Jesus could be speaking to you. Maybe he wants to meet you, to begin a relationship with you, or perhaps renew an old one that’s grown distant over time. So what if he happened to stop under your particular tree at this moment and said to you, “I’d like to continue this conversation. How about inviting me home with you? We could talk some more, see where it goes.”
What would you say to him?
What do you say?