Jesus and Sinners: Zacchaeus

Jesus and Sinners: Zacchaeus

Jesus and Sinners: Zacchaeus.

“And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house!’ So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.” (Luke 19:5-6).

Please read the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10).

Zacchaeus is the main character in a brief story in Luke 19. He was a rich embezzler with good climbing skills. Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Roman IRS, a Jewish man with no conscience who got wealthy by collaborating with the hated Roman occupiers. He would collect Roman taxes and then pocket some extra cash by demanding extra taxes from the Jews. Zacchaeus was a thief and a turncoat, a traitor to his own people. In fact, he was so good at  this slimy bit of extortion that he was the chief publican, a sort of godfather of the tax collectors.

As one would expect, Zacchaeus was reviled by all Jews. He wasn’t even allowed to worship with them, because he was considered a public sinner, and thus ritually impure. Jews couldn’t even enter his house without becoming unclean themselves. How ironic that his name means “pure and innocent one.” Zacchaeus was the kind of guy who had no friends, only enemies, among his people. Somehow, since he was raking in so much dough, he didn’t seem to care.

So one day Zacchaeus heard that this traveling, miracle-working rabbi was coming to town. Jericho was on the road to Jerusalem, and these were the days leading up to Passover, so the city was mobbed with pilgrims. Jericho was a gateway to Roman-controlled territory, and was a thriving economic center, mostly because Jericho was headquarters for producing and exporting balsam, a popular commodity. Naturally, Jericho was a major tax collecting site. The Romans weren’t stupid. Jericho was the area’s financial district, and the more they could tax the people, the better they could finance the Roman army. Jericho was just the place for a corrupt entrepreneur like Zacchaeus.

Because he was short in stature, he couldn’t see over the crowds when Jesus walked by. So he cleverly climbed a huge sycamore tree and sat in the branches, probably kicking out a few children in the process. He didn’t really care. He wanted to see this man Jesus he was hearing so much about. So here comes Jesus, jostled by the crowds, bumping his way down the street, and He saw this little man Zacchaeus perched in the branches of the tree by the roadside. Jesus stopped and looked up, and everybody else stopped as well to see what was going on. And Jesus did an amazing and shocking thing. Jesus called out to the little man by  name and said, “Come down from there! Let’s do lunch at your place!” One wonders how Zacchaeus got down from that tree. Frederick Buechner suggested he fell down out of pure astonishment.

The fact that Jesus knew this slimeball by name, knew him for what he was, accepted him, and wanted his company so much as to invite Himself over to his house! Shocking. Zacchaeus was overwhelmed into repentance. He immediately obeyed rabbinic law and promised four-fold returns on his thievery, and restitution to those he had cheated. And he topped it  off by saying he would give half his wealth to the poor! Zacchaeus knew that everyone around within listening distance had heard their conversation, but he didn’t seem to mind their whispering and grumbling. Most of the muttering was directed at Jesus, the unpredictable holy man who surprisingly made such intimate contact with a despised outcast, risking religious impurity in the process.

Church tradition has it that Zacchaeus indeed made good on his promises, and started following Jesus. In fact, he was reportedly the first bishop of Caesarea many years later. Zacchaeus turned out to be the polar opposite of the rich young ruler whom Jesus had met so recently (Luke 18). One had wealth and wouldn’t give it up. One had wealth and did.

Jesus concludes this scene by saying that salvation had come to this house, and that Jesus did what He did because He came to seek and to save the lost. And He was good to His word. Jesus announced, in another controversial action, that Zacchaeus was a Jew in good standing, calling him a “son of Abraham.” Most of the Jews didn’t want to hear that, and wouldn’t even consider it. Jesus was unafraid to risk popular rejection and religious condemnation to touch the untouchable. Finally, Zacchaeus was as good as his name. And Jesus proved once again that He is the lover of the lost.

At the end of the story, Jesus once again called Himself the Son of Man. This is one of His favorite ways to describe Himself, and it’s a messianic title taken from Daniel 7:13-14. Jesus is telling everyone that He is human, that He is a child of humanity, but also that He is the Anointed One from God. He will someday rule the world, just as Daniel envisioned. “As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a Son of Man coming with clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into His presence. He was given authority, honor and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey Him. His rule is eternal – it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed.” 

One Reply to “Jesus and Sinners: Zacchaeus”

  1. Fabulous, Steve! (all of this series) Thank you! I read the passage on Zaccheus last week too as part of our lenten readings. I was struck again at Jesus’ approach. He recognized Zaccheus, he spoke to him, and he asked to spend time with him…to know him. That is all we know about what Jesus did. No condemnation. The amazing power of Jesus’s approach: seeing, knowing, accepting and loving…..that’s the power that brings about transformation!

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