He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. (Luke 19:1-3 ESV)
Here is the infamous Zacchaeus. Luke includes three details about him. First, he was a chief tax collector. This is important to the story. The Romans financed their empire through a vast network of taxes which required there to be local employees of Rome who collected those taxes; the Roman IRS. The rules were loose regarding what the tax collectors could exact and this led to such widespread corruption that tax collectors were considered the very bottom of the social barrel. They were essentially thieves and traitors. Why? They worked directly for imperial Rome. They took money from the Jews to give to the Romans.
Second, tax collectors became personally very wealthy as they played favorites, worked deals under the table, could punish whomever they liked, and skimmed money off the top. All of the taxes were collected through three hubs in Israel: Capernaum, Jerusalem, and Jericho. Presumably, nearly one-third of all the taxes collected in the whole nation passed through Zacchaeus’ fingers. Think Jon Gotti or Tony Soprano. He was the head of the cartel and he didn’t get to his position because of his perfect Sunday school attendance. Zacchaeus was ambitious, greedy, corrupt, and a traitor to his own people.
The last detail that Luke adds is his height. He was small in stature; vertically challenged. When there is a huge crowd on a flat surface, you can’t see. Zacchaeus didn’t become the head of the tax cartel without being a resourceful guy.
So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. (Verses 4-6)
There is so much raw human experience here. We don’t know Zacchaeus’ spiritual background. He was a Jew, so presumably he was raised in proper Jewish teachings. Yet, he was clearly a fraud and a thief. However, John the Baptist ministered near Jericho and he may have heard him preach. He may have heard of Jesus’ miracles. Clearly, there was a spiritual curiosity or stirring in his heart. We see it in his actions. He wanted to see Jesus. He “ran” ahead. That’s not the kind of dignified action of a wealthy aristocrat. He “climbs a tree.” I am going to guess all of us have climbed a tree in our lives. Do you see a lot of adults up in trees? No. I don’t think it’s too hard to understand this man’s personal pain.
Long ago he sold his soul to power and money. His greed was greater than his patriotism and greater than his moral sensibilities. The temptation to financial gain was so powerful to him that he gave up his standing as a Jew and a citizen, and he probably lost his family and friends. Who brings cookies or hangs out at the tax collector’s house? Yet he was very wealthy and powerful. So think big house, lots of money, no friends, lonely. And as we all know, money doesn’t buy you happiness.
So for a man like this, he may be thinking, “Who cares if I run? Who cares if I climb a tree? The Jerichonians hate my guys anyway so why put on airs?” But he wanted very much to see Jesus.
The text says that Jesus walks by that sycamore tree, looks up, and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down for I must stay at your house today.” (Verse 5) The emphasis of the Greek word “must” is surprisingly strong. He’s not saying, “I’d like to,” he’s saying, “I have to.” It’s as if Jesus wasn’t passing through Jericho randomly but actually went to Jericho to meet the chief tax collector and to stay at his house.
Zacchaeus is overjoyed. I wonder how long it had been since anyone wanted to come to his house. Yet, this Jesus who everyone was talking about and seeking an audience with, wants to spend time with Zacchaeus. He received Jesus “joyfully.”
And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Verse 7)
This is important to Luke’s purpose in telling the story. The crowd understands the significance of this. Zacchaeus is a notorious man and criminal in their eyes. He was the worst sinner in town. Yet, of all the people crowding around him, Jesus chooses the traitor in the tree as the person he wants to be with. Jesus will say why in a moment.
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 anyone 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.” (Verses 8-10)
Zacchaeus’ words are shocking. First he stands. There is a formality here. An official statement. Zacchaeus has something to get off his chest. He confesses his sin and makes two vows as signs of his repentance. First, he gives to the poor half of everything he has. Remember, Zacchaeus was a man who had a lot. This was no small commitment. Secondly, he says, “If I have defrauded…,” presumably he had defrauded many. He will pay it back times four. The law only required restitution plus 20%. Zacchaeus goes way beyond the law. Amazing what grace does with rules.
Jesus’ response is to declare that Zacchaeus is a true son of Abraham, meaning he was a true son of faith. Then adds this, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Zacchaeus is held as an example of the kind of person Jesus came to save—a sinner who knows he is a sinner—not a person who is righteous in his own eyes, or looks down on sinners like the crowd did. Rather, Jesus came for the broken and spiritually shattered. I wonder how many years and how many nights Zacchaeus, in the privacy of his home, had cried out, “Is this all there is? I am rich! I am powerful! But I am so empty.” The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, meaning those who know their lostness and their need. Zacchaeus did.
How about you today? Can you resonate with ambitious Zacchaeus? And yet, the whole thing feels so empty. There must be something more! Would you climb a tree to maybe find what your soul is longing for?
Don’t misread this to say gifts to the poor and restitution save us. Salvation is entirely by faith in Jesus. Zacchaeus wasn’t saved because he made financial restitution any more than he was saved because he climbed the tree. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house because Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ heart. Like so many others who met Jesus, Zacchaeus was convinced that this man was utterly unique. He was the Messiah. God’s Savior to the world. Zacchaeus believed.
The power in this story is the effect this new relationship with Jesus had on Zacchaeus. Money had always been the real god of his life. To get it, he gave up friends, family, morals, and self-respect. Money was his obsession.
Does that sound familiar? Any echo in your own story? Of all the idols and gods in our culture, money reigns supreme. Not that it’s money itself. The Bible says money is neutral, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. (1 Timothy 6:10) For a sinner, money is so easy to love. It provides what we want. Security. Self-worth. A sense of superiority over others. Self-reliance. Zacchaeus would fit well in the American way of life. Ambitious. Materialistic. Craving money and status. While money is neutral, where money sits in our priorities reveals just who is our god. Jesus put it this way, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
There is only one throne in the human heart. Something or somebody has to reign. His whole life, money reigned on the throne of Zacchaeus’ heart. Until one day, when Jesus came into town. What happened that day in Zacchaeus’ heart was a spiritual revolution. Money had always been his king and god. But Jesus reached out to him. Went to his house. Spoke with him about his spiritual condition. And his words and life were so transformational and wonderful, how could he live for money anymore? With eyes of faith and by the power of God through Jesus in his heart, money was out and Jesus became his treasure, his worship, his Savior, and God.
How do we know that? Look at what happens to the old idol money. He uses it to right past wrongs and he freely gives it away to meet the needs of others.
“Half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:8) When greedy people become generous, something radical has happened. When drug abusers throw their drugs away and sexual idolaters throw their porn away and tax collectors give back money, something radical has happened. When a new affection takes over, the old idol becomes disposable.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.
©2013 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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