Summary: This is more than a cute little Vacation Bible Schools story.
Into the House of a Sinner Man
Many of us can remember the Vacation Bible School song about Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.” We remember that the song tells us that he climbed up into a sycamore tree “for the Lord he wanted to see”. We also remember where is says that Jesus bid him “Zacchaeus, you come down from there, for I’m staying at your house today.”
As good as the song is at teaching us the basic details about Jesus and Zacchaeus, it falls far short of just how significant this passage is. It is not just a cute story for Sunday School or a ditty that children sing to the adults on the last night of Vacation Bible School to their adoring parents.
Come with me, and let us explore this text in more depth. Please turn your Bibles to Luke 19.
Exposition of the Text
Verse one begins with Jesus beginning the last leg of the journey to the cross. It says that He entered the city of Jericho. The text implies that Jesus came there by crossing the Jordan River from the east, the same way that Joshua and the children of Israel had crossed more than a thousand years earlier on their way to conquer the Promised Land. A chief tax collector named Zacchaeus heard about it and desired to see Him. He was responsible for a group of tax collectors who were hated by the Jews for the strong arm tactics they used to collect taxes for Rome. So Zacchaeus would have been the most hated of them all. He would have been considered not just a sinner man, but the chief of sinners by the Jews.
At first, it seems that Zacchaeus was curious just like many others and wanted to see Him and find out about him. Because Zacchaeus was short, he could not see Jesus for the crowd. So the text says he ran ahead to climb a sycamore tree so that he could see him. The very act of running would mean that he would have to tuck up his robe into his belt. Running fast could expose his private parts which would have been shameful. This is especially true when Zacchaeus had to climb into the tree. But Zacchaeus, unlike the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who was a noblemen who was a good man who was willing to expose himself to shame for sinners, Zacchaeus was already at the bottom. He was the sinner man just like the prodigal. The people who saw Zacchaeus, especially those who knew him would probably have laughed at him.
Jesus soon came to the place where Zacchaeus was and called him out by name. how did Jesus even know his name? We know that as God’s Son led by the Holy Spirit that Jesus had the ability to know his name. It would be interesting to know whether Jesus who was also human and learned things like everyone else whether He had heard the crowd mocking Zacchaeus. Or perhaps Jesus has heard of his infamous reputation elsewhere. What is truly remarkable is that Jesus called him out.
What is even more shocking is what happens next. Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down because He needs to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that night. The people of the place knew Zacchaeus. By being called a sinner man, it probably meant that Zacchaeus had been excommunicated from the synagogue and was treated like a Gentile. The Pharisees would have considered Jesus going to the sinner man’s house as revoltingly as if Jesus had gone to the house of a prostitute. The buzz went immediately shot through the crowd. Why was Jesus going to a sinner man’s house to lodge with the chief of sinners? Were there not good Jews who would have offered Jesus and His disciples a place to stay for the night? Jesus made the offer to stay there, which makes this scene an absolute affront to the Pharisees.
In verse eight, we don’t know whether Zacchaeus makes his confession after he has received Jesus to his home or whether he was still in public. I tend to think the latter is the case. In it, Zacchaeus all but admits that he has cheated people or at least the tax collectors who were under him. The law of Moses said that a thief who was caught in the act had to pay twice what he stole and if caught later, four times what he stole. By saying that he would repay fourfold, it indicated that Zacchaeus put himself in the latter category. He also promised half his goods to the poor.
Zacchaeus makes a pledge to Jesus which would probably result in his financial ruin. He was already giving half away to the poor and would have to make fourfold restitution from the other half. If he had cheated just over ten percent of the time, he would be destitute. This is a stunning repentance, unlike the crocodile tears shed by others for their sins.