Summary: There is hope for everyone, even crooked tax-collectors!
There is hope for everyone, even crooked tax-collectors! We’ve all heard the story of Zacchaeus in Sunday School; it’s a favorite, and raises a smile or two.
Just a few days before the crucifixion, Jesus visits Jericho. It was an important center of commerce. King Herod had a palace there. Mark Antony once gave Jericho to Cleopatra as a present. Joshua and his trumpeters brought down its walls. Our Lord’s positive reception in Jericho reveals that the angry crowd in Jerusalem calling for His execution was the expression of a minority. Jesus was widely popular in Israel, evidenced by the large crowd in Jericho eager to see Him. They knew of His miracles and teachings.
Zacchaeus’ name means “righteous one” but he wasn’t living up to his name. He was working for Rome and was collecting more than was required to line his pockets. Older translations call him a “publican,” what we call tax collectors, and they were notorious for being corrupt in Bible times. Their job made them rich and despised. They were one of many reasons the Jewish people hated being an enemy-occupied, pagan-ruled country. The taxes collected went to Rome, except for the extra money the tax collectors pocketed. Jesus is a Savior who seeks the lost, verse 10, and Zacchaeus certainly qualified!
Had Zacchaeus not been so disliked, people might have let him stand where he could see Jesus; but they weren’t especially sensitive to his needs. He may have been a “big shot” but he was short of stature, and respect.
Putting dignity aside, he climbs a sycamore tree. He was already looked down on, so now they’d have to look up! He was willing to appear undignified. Jesus was looking for people with child-like faith, who put aside their pride to receive new life.
Before Zacchaeus caught sight of Jesus, Jesus fixed His eye on him. This is the only account of Jesus inviting Himself to someone’s house. He emphatically says “I must go to your home, verse 5. There’s a sense of urgency here. Zacchaeus wasn’t just the chief tax collector, but the chief sinner of Jericho.
Zacchaeus receives Jesus “joyfully,” verse 6, an indicator of his faith and need. What drove him to seek Jesus to the point of laying aside his dignity by climbing a tree? Zacchaeus was wealthy but spiritually bankrupt, and he knew it. He may well have been desperate. He likely had an increasingly strong sense of guilt over his disloyal and dishonest dealings. The first step to mercy is to see our misery.
The townspeople weren’t too happy about the honor bestowed on Zacchaeus, verse 7. They’d expect Jesus to dine with their Rabbi, but not the chief tax collector! They are right to call Zacchaeus a sinner; he is indeed, but not beyond the reach of God. In Luke 5:3 Jesus explains, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” The townspeople regarded Zacchaeus as unsavable, but Jesus did not give write off anyone. He does not accept the town’s assessment. He does not give up on people who remain open to God. No one could have known how this visit would forever change this diminutive man’s life…and theirs.
When I was an Army Chaplain, I often ate with the junior enlisted soldiers in the mess hall. Occasionally fellow-officers would complain, pointing out that I shouldn’t be fraternizing with the lower ranks. I explained that this was my job. It was Jesus’ job as well. He went where the need was. Jesus loved Zacchaeus too much to let sin define and destroy him.
We so crave fellowship with like-minded believers that we may be neglecting to make friendships with non-Christians. We can’t share our faith unless we develop relationships with people who need it. This isn’t always comfortable, but it is necessary. Our concern for others ought to give us a sense of urgency and overcome our discomfort and fear.
The Rich Young Ruler of the previous chapter was unwilling to forsake the idol he had made of wealth to follow Jesus, even though his riches were strangling his life. In striking contrast, Zacchaeus, just as wealthy (if not more), had a true change of heart, a new allegiance. He doesn’t wait to be asked; he spontaneously declares that he will both repent and provide restitution for his wrongs. Jesus says how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God in the previous chapter, yet He adds that nothing is impossible with God. Here’s the proof.
Zacchaeus states his intent to be a new, different man, verse 8. Half his possessions will go to the poor and those he has wronged will receive restitution at four times the amount taken. Giving 20% of one’s wealth to the poor was considered generous; this was “over and above.” We can’t think our way to God…He comes to us. Faith is not an emotional or intellectual response but a gift that transforms our lives.