Summary: When you go out on a limb, Jesus won’t leave you hanging, but you have to let go.
Out on a Limb
A Sermon on Luke 19:1-10
As the story goes, a man had fallen between the rails in a subway station. The people were all crowding around trying to get him out before a train ran him over. “Give me your hand, give me your hand!” they shouted. But for all their effort, the man would not reach up.
Joe managed to push his way to the front of the crowd. “Friend, what is your profession?” he asked.
“Income tax inspector,” he replied.
“In that case,” Joe said, “Take my hand!” The man immediately grasped Joe’s hand and was pulled to safety. The bystanders were all amazed. Joe turned to them and explained, “Never ask a tax man to give you anything.”
Today we will meet a first century tax man who wasn’t in the habit of giving anything. ‘Taking’ was his specialty – and it had made him quite wealthy.
As we turn to the nineteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, we find there the story of Zacchaeus. If you have your Bibles with you, and you haven’t already, please turn there with me.
Zacchaeus the Outcast:
Go out on a limb
Beginning at verse one, we read:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. (Luke 19:1-4, NIV)
Chief Tax Collector
Who is Zacchaeus? We are told he was a chief tax collector. This is the only place we see this term – chief tax collector. It is assumed that he oversaw the other tax collectors in Jericho, so he got an extra cut before sending the money on to Rome. Jericho was a busy trade route between Jerusalem and the East and a well-known toll place in Palestine. It was, as some have said, “a good spot for a tax man.”
Not a popular guy
Despite the great wealth the position afforded Him, a tax man was not someone people wanted to hang out with. He wasn’t a particularly popular guy. Who really wants to hang out with the IRS? They might find something else to tax. And in Rome it was even more true – because the business was much more personal. Your tax rate depended to a large degree on the greed of the tax collector, because his income was based on how much extra he collected.
It was kind of like that Beatles’ song:
Let me tell you how it will be;
There’s one for you, nineteen for me.
‘Cause I’m the taxman.
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat
If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet
‘Cause I’m the taxman
It may seem like that is true today, but how much more so in the first century. The IRS manages to take a lot of our money, but at least our accountants try to work on our behalf and find us all the right deductions.
Tax collectors and sinners
In Rome, you couldn’t have much pity on the tax man, because the position was one you bought. He was already rich, and he threw his relationships away for more money. People thought so little of tax collectors that three times Luke uses the phrase “tax collectors and sinners,” associating them as though they were one and the same. It was understood that if you collected taxes, you were a cheat and a sinner.
But something was happening in the heart of this tax collector named Zacchaeus. He heard about Jesus and wanted just to see him. His curiosity had gotten the best of him. He wondered if there might be more to life, and if maybe, just maybe, this Jesus held the key.
Zach was too short to see over the crowds – and those who noticed his plight weren’t about to give this sinner a spot in front. Though it was a very undignified thing for a grown man to do, Zacchaeus couldn’t let this opportunity pass, so he climbed a tree for better view.
Another man who wanted to see Jesus
Just before Jesus got to Jericho, at the end of chapter 18, he was passing by another place, and a different man wanted to see Jesus. But this man was blind and had been reduced to begging to stay alive. He called out to Jesus, who had mercy on him, and gave him his sight.
While the blind man was very poor, and Zacchaeus was very rich, in some ways, they were very much alike. They both wanted to see Jesus, though in different ways. They were both outcasts in their society. As you read through Luke’s gospel, you see that he has great compassion for the outcast. The blind man was a beggar who was ostracized for his physical condition. He would never be a great man in the eyes of the populace. And neither would Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector for Rome, a traitor in the eyes of the Jews, and a thief to boot.