Summary: Zaccheus’ attitude toward money completely changed when Jesus found him up a tree.
The owner of a fitness center was offering $1,000 to anyone who was stronger than he was. He would squeeze a lemon dry, and then hand the lemon to anyone who wished to challenge him. Anyone who could squeeze just one more drop out would win the money.
Many strong people tried, but nobody could do it.
One day a puny little guy came in to try it. After the laughter died down, the owner grabbed a lemon and squeezed it dry. Then he handed skin to the little man.
The laughter stopped as the man squeezed several drops out of the lemon. As the crowd cheered, the manager paid the prize money and asked the little guy what he did for a living.
The man replied, “I work for the IRS.”
Our scripture introduces a little man who had learned to squeeze every last drop of revenue from taxpayers. But when Jesus found him up a tree, his attitude toward money completely changed.
Zaccheus was a tax collector and for the Jews there was no one more despicable or more hated.
First of all, even though he was a Jew, he worked for the Roman imperialists, collecting taxes for them. That position alone generated the kind of hatred we hear about in Iraq where Iraqis who work for the Americans have been targeted for attack.
Second, Zaccheus practiced fraud and extortion. In those days, tax bills were not neatly printed out and made public. People didn’t know how much tax others were paying. The Romans assessed a district at a certain figure and tax collectors could bid to get the job. The Romans didn’t care how much the collector got as long as the government got its share. These tax collectors were not nice. They would do whatever it took to get their money.
Third, Jewish tax collectors were always in contact with Gentiles, so they were ritually unclean. They could not worship at the synagogue or even put money in the offering because their money was tainted. In the eyes of religious Jews these guys were scumbags, at the very bottom of humanity, like prostitutes, drug dealers, child molesters.
In short, a man like Zaccheus, even though a Jew, did not and could not fit into the religious family. He could never belong. He was an outcast pure and simple. No one in his right mind would talk with him, eat with him, or invite him to church. No one, that is, except Jesus.
Luke is the only writer who includes this story about two men, both on a mission – Jesus and Zaccheus.
On the one hand we have Jesus who was on a journey.
• In 18:31 Jesus tells his disciples that he is headed toward Jerusalem to complete his mission.
• In 18:35 Jesus approaches Jericho.
• In 19:1 Jesus enters Jericho and is passing through it.
• In 19:4 we read that Jesus would pass that way.
• And there are other references to Jesus’ journey.
Jesus was on a mission, introducing the kingdom of God to the blind, the lame, the poor and the rich. And he was passing through Jericho. He knew this world was not his home; he was just passing through. He would not build a winter palace in Jericho like King Herod had. He wouldn’t own any of Jericho’s famous rose gardens or dates or balsam (the stuff that gave perfume its aroma). Nor would he have a large bank account in the Bank of Jericho.
But for a tax collector like Zaccheus it was a different story. Jericho was a wealthy city, located at the crossroads of international trade and travel. And Zaccheus profited from those circumstances greatly because of his occupation. But that day he too was on a mission. He lived there, but did not really belong. He was financially rich, but spiritually bankrupt. And no matter how long and hard he may have tried to measure up to God’s standard, he came up short. His money got in the way. Everyone knew that he was vertically challenged, but only he and Jesus knew about his impoverished and shriveled soul. He was a living demonstration of Rom 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one can measure up to God’s standard. Everyone falls short, Zaccheus and you and me included. And he needed to see Jesus.
His desperation showed that day as he ran alongside the crowd to find a tree to climb. In Jesus’ day, dignified men didn’t run in public or climb trees. Dignified men didn’t want to appear as little children. But here he was acting like a child. Remember, Jesus said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Lu 18:17 And that day, Zaccheus didn’t care.