Zacchaeus was one hated man, and I mean HATED; with a capital H and A-T-E-D too! I’m not really sure any of us could understand what it feels like to be so despised by so many. I suppose it’s possible that Zacchaeus had some friends among the Roman elite, but it’s really hard to imagine that such friends would bring any sort true enrichment. Zacchaeus just didn’t really “fit in” anywhere in Jericho. And it wasn’t like he just didn’t fit in; he was actively disliked by most if not all of the people in that community.
I never gave this much thought until this week, but I think it’s really interesting that this story of Zacchaeus comes after the parable we explored last week about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Because the thing is, it’s really easy to imagine Zacchaeus, after his encounter with Jesus, heading straight to the Temple and beating his breast in repentant prayer. And maybe that did happen, but whether or not Zacchaeus headed over to the Temple to pray, there can be no question that his encounter with Jesus completely changed him.
So let’s just talk for a minute about exactly who Zacchaeus (besides a “wee little man”) was before he met Jesus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and we all know about tax collectors, but it wasn’t even that Zacchaeus was just a tax collector; he was a chief tax collector. So take everything you know about tax collectors and multiply it a few fold, and you come up with guys like Zacchaeus. He was a turncoat Jew, pilfering his fellow Jews for all they were worth, but then on top of that he almost certainly made even more money from the tax collectors working under him. We can only imagine the reaction of his neighbors as Zacchaeus’ home become more lavishly decorated, his clothes became finer, and his food became richer. There can be no doubt that on the streets of Jericho, Zacchaeus was a dirty name.
Now, keep in mind that with such a reputation, public appearances would have been uncomfortable at best for Zacchaeus. Consider again what it must feel like to be hated by nearly everyone. He would have been sneered at on a regular basis, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the residents of Jericho openly mocked Zacchaeus about his short stature; their only line of defense against this shameless robber. Keeping in mind Zacchaeus’ less than ideal reputation around town, it’s a little bit surprising to find him in this story in the midst of a great crowd waiting to see this prophet named Jesus. If Zacchaeus knew what was good for him, he would’ve just stayed home, out of the way. But as it was, he found himself in the midst of the mob, so completely surrounded that he couldn’t see the road, much less who might be coming down it. He was probably getting pushed and shoved around, more on purpose than by accident most likely, as people saw a unique opportunity to give Zacchaeus a little taste of his own medicine. And yet, that didn’t seem to bother Zacchaeus. He was not deterred by the mob surrounding him, there was something about this man Jesus that had compelled him to be there, and he wasn’t even going to let his vertical challenge keep that from happening.
Eventually, Zacchaeus broke free from the crowd and he ran ahead to a sycamore tree standing by the side of the road. Now sycamore trees are not grand trees, but they have low branches, and are good for climbing, and it would’ve given Zacchaeus just the boost he needed to see down the road. And yet, keep in mind that by climbing on this tree, Zacchaeus was making himself even MORE vulnerable to the sneers and jeers of the crowd. Whereas before he could only be seen by those standing right around him, atop the sycamore tree, he was in full view of the whole crowd. Still, that did not stop Zacchaeus; he was not ashamed, he was not afraid. He just wanted to see Jesus. There was such a sense of anticipation and excitement about seeing Jesus, that it was already changing Zacchaeus; nothing else mattered.
Some of you may remember several weeks ago when I shared with you a summary of John Wesley’s teaching on grace. If you recall, Wesley taught that there are three movements of grace in our lives; prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. The story of Zacchaeus is a perfect example of the ways God’s grace works within us. You see, it was prevenient grace that led Zacchaeus to climb that sycamore tree so that he could get a glimpse of Jesus. Without knowing or understanding what drove his curiosity, I believe it was God’s prevenient grace compelling Zacchaeus to defy the pushing and shoving of the crowd around him, to ignore their jeers and sneers, and to get to a place where Jesus was in plain view.
But that’s not the end of the story, because grace continues to work in Zacchaeus’ life. As Jesus enters Jericho, he comes along the sycamore tree where Zacchaeus is perched. And as you heard, Jesus stops in his tracks, looks up to Zacchaeus and calls him down from the tree, explaining that he must stay in Zacchaeus’ home today. This is the beginning of Zacchaeus’ total transformation. It is justifying grace working in Zacchaeus’ life as he responds to Jesus’ invitation and climbs down the tree. Sanctifying grace is the grace that changes us; it is what works in our lives when we respond to Christ’s invitation by moving us from our old selves into the new life that Jesus makes possible. Zacchaeus’ climb up the sycamore tree was the sign of prevenient grace working in his life, calling him in Christ’s presence. Zacchaeus’ descent from the sycamore tree is the sign of justifying grace changing him; setting him firmly on the path of Christ follower. It’s hard to imagine any significant sort of life change in such a short amount of time, and yet there can be no doubt about the transformation in Zacchaeus’ life when we see what happens next.
Remember, this is a chief tax collector; a filthy, stinking rich, power-playing in Jericho society. He had it all and then some, at least in terms of worldly security. This man had what must’ve been the highest level of financial security at that time. And now, he’s the center of attention in Jericho. As Jesus stands there talking to Zacchaeus all eyes are on them, and it’s the eyes of people who have been cheated by this wealthy man. But while the crowds were still busy judging Zacchaeus, Jesus did something else entirely. He loved Zacchaeus when nobody else did. Jesus showed compassion to a man that in many ways was undeserving of any mercy, and who certainly had not received any from his peers in Jericho. That’s what grace is; Christ’s unmerited love and mercy for us, even when we don’t deserve it. And so it is that Zacchaeus’ reaction to Jesus is even more amazing than Jesus’ reaction to the man in the tree. As he stands there with Jesus, surrounded by glaring eyes and grumbling voices, he declares that he’s going to give his riches away, half of everything he has to the poor, and he will provide four-fold restitution to any he has cheated. This is sanctifying grace working in Zacchaeus’ life; moving him towards greater Christ-likenesses as he abandons his former life and riches and embraces some of the key values of God’s kingdom, serving the poor and offering justice.
Zacchaeus knew he wasn’t a great guy, and he had heard of this man named Jesus who loved sinners. Prevenient grace at work in his life was enough to compel Zacchaeus out among the harshest of judges in order to meet this unusual prophet. And sure enough, Jesus showed complete, unconditional love for Zacchaeus. This justifying grace changed Zacchaeus’ life, he had finally found the “more excellent way,” and he wasn’t afraid to show it. It didn’t matter that he was now out of work completely. It didn’t matter that he was about to lose everything and probably become poor like all those people he’d been overtaxing in Jericho. This newfound faith and God’s sanctifying grace at work meant a new life to be lived in a new way, and that’s exactly what Zacchaeus did.
So this is what we need to hear this morning. Jesus loved Zacchaeus, and he loves each of us, too. What we have done or left undone matters not; we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We all have much of which to be ashamed. But Jesus still loves us, and when we have accepted that love and entered into a relationship with Christ, it changes us. We have to live that changed life. We can’t just give only when it’s convenient, or worship only when we don’t want to sleep in. We can’t use our faith as a springboard to the next great thing in this life. Real, genuine faith in Christ transforms us so completely that everyone we encounter will see the love of Jesus in us, as we live the way Jesus lived.
The simple story of Zacchaeus teaches us that Christ forgives sinners. The more complicated story reminds us that Christ’s forgiveness results in transformed lives full of anticipation, generosity, and love. When Jesus found the lost Zacchaeus and his life was changed, Jesus told him, “Today salvation has come to this household.” Tempering our faith because of social expectations, or fear, or shame will keep us from experiencing full salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord. So, as always, we have a choice—we can continue on with life as we know it, following Christ’s ways only when it’s convenient for us, or we can be more like Zacchaeus.
What will you do? Will you simply meet Jesus, or will you allow Jesus to change your whole life? The answer to that question really does matter.