Summary: Jesus 'seeking and saving' the Lost.
A CAMEL THAT PASSED THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE
We recently read Jesus’ parable of a rich man who was only interested in hoarding his wealth, had no present compassion for the poor, and was living as if there was no God (Luke 12:16-21). God’s verdict on this man was that he was a ‘fool’ (cf. Jeremiah 17:11). Jesus used the parable to warn us to beware of covetousness – a sin which the Apostle Paul later equates with idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
A certain ruler, perhaps recognizing that money is not everything, asked Jesus what he must ‘do’ to inherit eternal life. The young man had a very high view of his own heart, but knew that something was missing in his life. However, when Jesus suggested that he should sell all that he had and give to the poor, the man went away sad, ‘because he was very rich’ (Luke 18:18-23).
The disciples were amazed when Jesus followed this incident with the suggestion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. ‘Who then can be saved?’ they wondered. Jesus was not, of course, denying the possibility, for ‘the things that are impossible with man are possible with God’ (Luke 18:24-27).
One such possibility arises in the passage before us (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus was passing through Jericho (Luke 19:1), the Good Shepherd seeking His lost sheep (cf. Luke 15:4). A man named Zacchaeus, who had amassed a fortune off the backs of his fellow-countrymen in his office as a chief tax-collector for the occupying Romans, desired to see Jesus (Luke 19:2-3).
Now, being a small man, Zacchaeus could not see because of the crowds (Luke 19:3). They were no doubt hostile to the collaborator, and were not about to give way, so he ran on ahead of them and climbed a tree (Luke 19:4). The tree spoken of here, the sycamine - or ‘mulberry-fig’ - has low branches, making it easy for the wee man to skim up and hide in the foliage.
In the literary centre of this little narrative, Jesus discovered Zacchaeus hiding up in his tree and, in front of the whole crowd, ‘called him by name’ (cf. Isaiah 43:1). Not only this, but Jesus invited Himself into the tax-collector’s home that very day (Luke 19:5). It is not that Zacchaeus invited Jesus into his heart, but that Jesus invited Himself into the man’s heart and home – and Zacchaeus hastened down the tree, out of his hiding place, and received Him joyfully (Luke 19:6).
The hostility of the crowd thereby shifted away from Zacchaeus onto Jesus (Luke 19:7). In response to this costly love, Zacchaeus immediately made a gesture of charity towards the poor (Luke 19:8). Furthermore, his confession was followed by a practical demonstration of his change of heart, as he pledged more than the law required in restitution for any past false dealings (cf. Leviticus 6:4-5).
Now Jesus gave his final word on the matter. “Today,” He said, “salvation has come to this house, for he too is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). The man who may have thought he had forfeited his right to such a distinction, is received back, like the Prodigal (Luke 15:21-24), into the Father’s house and family.
In this reading we see the dawn of salvation in the household of a hitherto crooked tax-collector. The Son of Man came, says Jesus, “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). This is salvation in the sense of being saved from sin.