The story of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10)

At first sight, this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is straight forward, but if we look more closely, this account gives a startling insight into the real meaning of conversion, and the way that God works in our hearts even before a person is saved. In verse 2 we are told that, as Jesus was passing through Jericho, there was a man by the name of Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector and he was wealthy” — three bits of information which help to set the scene.

Firstly, the man’s name was Zacchaeus. This name actually means ‘pure’ — and I can only ask, did his given name signify the hopes and aspirations of his parents or is it a name which is intended to point towards the outcome of this morning’s story.

Secondly, we are told that Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Taxes were raised for the benefit of Rome: they were not for the welfare of the local population. By being a tax collector, Zacchaeus had sold his soul to the other side — and not only that, he was a chief tax collector. He had obviously been very good at his job and he had risen to the top, and in doing so he would have been acquainted and friendly with the local Roman dignitaries. He would have been moving in different social circles and he had probably all but forgotten his Hebrew roots — this meant that he would probably have been treated by his fellow Jews as an outcast.

Finally, one other thing that we are told in this opening verse is that Zacchaeus was wealthy — he would have had to have paid Rome a stated amount of tax for the territory which had been allocated to him but it is probable that he became rich by gathering more taxes than he paid Rome … and no doubt he would have been pretty ruthless about it, much like today’s loan sharks. If he had been collecting taxes from a widow who could not pay, he would probably have put her out of her house and if a man was unable to pay enough, he would have been forced to take out a mortgage on his own property in order to release the required cash. It would appear that Zacchaeus had robbed many people to gain his wealth.

One other thing we know about Zacchaeus from these opening verses was that he was short — not only would he have been reviled by those who knew him because of his activities, but he would also probably have been treated as a figure of fun. He had been pushed to the back of the crowd and he was being ignored when Jesus entered the city. But when we think about what happened next we must ask, “Was this man simply curious about Jesus or was he unsatisfied with his life and the social isolation from his fellow Jews. Was he in fact desperate to renew his relationship with God?”

And here I ask, could this possibly have been the man who was at the centre of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in chapter 18 of Luke’s Gospel? The one who …
“… stood at a distance and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (v. 13) On the face of it, this incident seems ludicrous. Zacchaeus was a wealthy and probably an influential man, and yet he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree like a child would to gain a better chance of seeing Jesus. Is there another subliminal connection being made here by Luke? Are Zacchaeus’ actions a reflection of the words of Jesus who said … “Unless people become like little children they cannot enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:17).”

Whatever the initial intent it seems clear from his response, when Jesus invited him to come down from the tree, that he wanted to start over. He knew he had been going down a one- way street to nowhere and he wanted to regain God’s mercy and forgiveness. Perhaps he felt that he would be unseen in the tree and that Christ would only notice the people around him. Perhaps he thought that just by seeing Jesus he would be healed, but like that other man from the region of Jericho, Blind Bartimaeus (Luke 18:35–43), he caused the Lord to stop. But Jesus didn’t just stop, he called Zacchaeus by name and asked to be able to stay at his house! — this had two affects.

The first was very positive: Zacchaeus immediately responded. We are told that “he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.” However the second affect was that on the crowd. “All the people saw this [it says] and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ ”No doubt they all thought that they were so much more deserving of Jesus’ attention and this man of God, this man whom they had thought of as their Messiah, had chosen to spend time with a man who had been defrauding them. You will remember that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and here is one of the first signs of any discontent among the crowds. Was this possibly the initial seed which led towards Jesus’ rejection when the crowd demanded that Pilot should release Barrabas and leave Jesus to his fate on the cross?

But let’s turn our attention back to Zacchaeus because what happens next is truly astounding.
Zacchaeus repents but repentance is more than just saying sorry. Here he changes his entire way of thinking, feeling and being, by abandoning his previous life … and he demonstrates this through his actions.First, he gives half of his possessions away to the poor, and then, out of the half he has left he offers to pay anyone whom he has cheated four times the amount he had misappropriated. Far from boasting, these words and actions are an admission of guilt and a sign of his deep humility before God.

This man, this cheater and lier and thief, effectively disposed of all of his worldly money but gained the wealth of salvation. Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ With those words Jesus was rejoicing that salvation had come to Zacchaeus, but those remarks also point out that ‘he was a son of Abraham — not only a son by birth, but now also by faith (Gal. 3:7). Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and he had found Zacchaeus whom he called by name and, as I said at the outset, it would appear that God was at work in his heart even before he was saved.

Many today, believe that trust in Jesus is simply about wiping the slate clean, and being forgiven—yet it is clear from this story that it is also about restitution and repentance. We must restore all we have ‘stolen’, and make peace with those we have hurt. Jesus taught that we are known by our fruit: Zacchaeus showed, not just by his words but also by his deeds, that he trusted in the Messiah, and he had become a new person, and in doing that he becomes an example for us all.

Alan Dowen