In chapters 18, 19 of Luke, Jesus is only 15 miles from his final trip into Jerusalem. Holy week is almost upon Him. Several times he’s told the disciples something of the pain that is before Him. But He’s not sunk in on Himself as we’ll see.
He enters Jericho, a wealthy city on a trade route. By the time Jesus enters the city he’s – to put it in modern terms – on cable news 24 hours a day. The twitter feeds are filled with “hashtag Nazarene.” A crowd cling closely to him. Let’s pick it up in Luke 19:1:
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
The playwright and storywriter, Anton Chekhov, wrote out six rules of making a good story. One of those was “extreme brevity.” It seems all the gospel writers subscribed to this rule. Thus, the Church is forced to attend to the few details we’re given and really dig down to find all the meaning we have.
What can we dig up about Zacchaeus? He was a chief tax collector and was rich, Luke tersely records. A chief tax collector had junior tax collectors working under him. His employer was the invading power, Rome, so Zacchaeus would exact taxes from his fellow Jews and hand it over to Rome.
From what I’ve read Rome used local tax collectors as a means of disrupting the population and to keep close tabs on the economy. A national taking from fellow citizen breeds suspicion, distance, accusations of disloyalty – all good for keeping the client state unbalanced.
And a national like Zacchaeus would have a better feel for new developments. Zacchaeus had to be the man in the know in Jericho, keeping track of new purchases, what new bathrooms had been installed, business sales, harvests, births and deaths.
But then he used this info not to send Hallmark cards… but in order to take.
Still trying to penetrate who this man was: People have always begrudged the idea of turning over their money to the government, and we’re always figuring out ways to avoid it. So a good tax collector has learned to see through the tricks. He learns to spot inconsistencies a mile away.
A shady tax collector is especially always calculating – how much can I shave off the top without Rome noticing? What weaknesses are there to exploit? Is it time to be ingratiating, to appear generous, or to put on my tough guy face?
Zacchaeus is a man of many relationships, but surely a good many of those are anywhere from nervous to outright hostile. He must have developed a certain cynicism, a callousness.
And he’s rich. I think one of the Scriptures summary teaching on wealth is that, while it’s not wrong to be wealthy, it’s always dangerous.
In the gospel of Luke especially, wealth is seen to be a problem for people. Because wealth normally is a barrier to God. We can turn back one page to the previous chapter and note the conclusion of Jesus’ exchange with a wealthy ruler: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
And wealth is a problem no matter how it’s obtained. From what he’ll say to Jesus a little later, we gather that a good part of Zacchaeus’ wealth was gained by cheating.
And so it’s fair to conclude that his spirit is far from God. He doesn’t walk with God.
Zacchaeus is short too. Because of the crowd surrounding Jesus, he has to climb a tree in order to see Jesus. A chief tax collector who’s short and climbs a tree. Runs to climb it. When did you last climb a tree? When did you last run?
Ok, begrudging respect.
I like the show “Shark Tank,” where people pitch their business ideas before a panel of investors. One person on that panel, Mark Cuban, uses the word “hustle” a lot. He praises people for getting out there, working through the problems, being self-starters, pounding the pavement. Zacchaeus knows how to hustle.
And now I’m working out what kind of guy we’re dealing with. Here is a self-made man. Keeps his eyes open. Understands the system and is cynical. Doesn’t feel sorry for himself or for others. An outsider with a hard shell. A hustling tree-climber. Hasn’t found any practical reason to pay much attention to God.
One more observation about Zacchaeus – and it’s about his observation. Notice from v.3 that he was seeking to see who Jesus was. What was behind that? We don’t have to imagine anything deep. A tax collector was nosy about everything; as we said his job was to keep track of any new developments.
But we can also suppose something else. Zacchaeus was used to spotting the frauds, finding the chinks in the armor. ‘I don’t need any interaction with him…if I can get my eyes on this guy, I’ll see through him right away. I can write him off as just another bewitching teacher or slick con man.’
We don’t read of what occurred in Zacchaeus’ mind when he first spots Jesus. Instead, Luke has us look through Jesus’ eyes. Jesus looks up the tree.
And listen to his first word: Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus. He knows his name. He knows this man, knows he has a house big enough for at least a 13-person lunch, he’s not confused by finding him in the tree.
Meeting Christ often involves the sense that you’re meeting someone new who’s known you for a long time. Remember what the Samaritan woman said: Come see a man who told me all I ever did…
In meeting Christ you take a step forward – the biggest you could take – in knowing yourself, because He knows you, He’s your Creator, and you know yourself through Him.
Hurry and come down –Jesus doesn’t approach Zacchaeus timidly, but commandingly. There’s no: Zacchaeus, I was just wondering if it would be possible…
And… He already has plans for him. After he speaks his name, says hurry and come down, he tells him why: I must stay at your house today. No asking permission. No bargains.
Hurry, you’re going to host me in your home. Hurry, there’s a meal to be made. Hurry, we have a friendship to start.
Another thing about meeting Jesus: Not only does Jesus know your name, your past, your family tree – he shows up with direction for your future. A true Lord. The unapologetic Boss.
Well, Zacchaeus did descend exactly as he was told. He hurried and came down.
And he met Jesus at the foot of that tree joyfully. The chief tax collector had just been ordered off his perch. Been told to ‘hurry.’ He had just been volunteered for work. And yet… joyfully.
Another thing about truly believing Jesus, and it’s a little paradoxical: He’s a Lord, a Boss, but you’re happy to hand over the map and the keys to him.
When some of the onlookers saw all of this developing, they were miffed. Not at Zacchaeus, but at Jesus. Why isn’t he asking us about the character of this guy? Or doesn’t he care? Is he trying to get something from the rich guy? Where are his principles?
Who’s your bad guy? Imagine Jesus coming into town and making an appointment with the local Leftwing activist. Rush Limbaugh. Mark Zuckerberg. A TV evangelist. President Biden. A New York Yankee. Your Ex. The president of the humanist society.
Luke reports there were grumblings, but nothing about any rejoinders. Instead he brings us to the lunch scene Zacchaeus’ house. We see Zacchaeus getting up from the dinner table and facing Jesus.
Behold – Whatever he’s about to say, it’s not going to be a side comment. Hey Everybody…
Lord – When Zacchaeus woke up that morning, his Lord was the Almighty Dollar. Now he looks at Jesus and offers him deepest respect.
the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” –
I want to explain, via contrast, what Zacchaeus has done. If you heard me say I’m giving half of my goods to the poor, feel free to yawn. Because – and I don’t mean this at all as a self- complement – money isn’t that important to me. It’s not at my heart. (So what are the idols that are always plotting down there? – well, I won’t air my dirty laundry.)
But when Zacchaeus says that he’s giving up half of his money, we are at his roots. When he, without histrionics, volunteers that there’s been some defrauding in his past, but then says he intends to not just repay, not just double, but quadruple what he stole – what has happened?
He’s free. His Lord has liberated him from what William James called “the bitch goddess success.” He is a repentant, which means that he has been disenthralled from the “deceitful desires” that had beset him. And now he’s joyful.
The Lord has done this. But his footprints were in the sea. When the day began Zacchaeus was in charge, the self-made man was directing his life. It was his decision to climb the tree, to position himself to see Jesus, on one hand out of idle curiosity, and on the other hand so that he could write another person off.
But unbeknownst to him, Zacchaeus had an appointment, Jesus came into Jericho looking for him.
And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.
Jesus explains what’s happened. Almost always when someone receives Jesus into his life… repents, he/she doesn’t understand much of what is happening. So Jesus spells it out: This is what it looks like for salvation to cross the threshold of a house – repentance, submission, and JOY.
Did you notice that? Zacchaeus wasn’t looking for salvation; salvation, that is, Jesus himself, came and found him.
And you noticed Jesus mentions Abraham. It’s always the case that God sees the whole person, inside and out. He comprehends the biggest picture. And part of that is that God remembers where we’ve come from…going all the way back.
When God around 1800 BC came to Abraham who was living somewhere in Iraq, and spoke of making him into who he was created to be, and blessing his seed so that they’d become what they were made to be, this is what it looks like in real time – repentance, submission, JOY.
Salvation, Jesus says, has found Zacchaeus because he’s a son of Abraham. And Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, not because he’s biologically related to Abraham. No, he’s his son in that he shares the faith of Abraham.
Faith -that strange word. That gift from God. That heavenly perception. Zacchaeus wasn’t looking for it, but he ended up seeing something in Jesus, something that the more virtuous grumblers didn’t see. Here is a Lord-Liberator.
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
For all his cunning and success… Zacchaeus was a lost soul. Lost in his greed. At odds with his community. Outside of God’s promise to remake the world. Following the prince of the power of the air. Carrying out the desires of the body and the mind. Whether happy or no, he wasn’t at peace. Without hope. Facing the anger of God. A sinner.
And Jesus found him, knew him, and saved him.
After all that, recall that Jesus is still en route through Jericho to Jerusalem and His crucifixion. To an exceedingly painful death physically; and spiritually to a tribulation that we could not fathom in a thousand lifetimes.
There’s a foreshadow of that grim scene here in Jericho: the poor man Jesus looks up to the mighty but lost man sitting in the tree and commands him. And a week later the dying man Jesus looks down from the tree at the lost, mighty men and prays “Forgive them.”
In life and death, Jesus by his authoritative words the Savior of sinners. Speak to us, our Lord. Save us!
As we remember the authority and generosity of our Savior at this, the Lord’s Supper, thank Him for seeking you out, and saving you. Breathe out gratitude for His Personally knowing you.
And if you haven’t yet believed in Jesus Christ, I suggest that in your seats you ask the Lord Jesus for that to address you personally, and give you confidence in his authority, and bring you out of spiritual captivity, and into the joy of salvation. Ask him for that Abraham thing.
And hurry – today is the day of salvation. He won’t summon you to Himself forever.