Summary: An encounter with Christ means a fundamental transformation of everything we have been.
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.