by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 2, 2005
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2005 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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 down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."
A Favorite Among Children
The story of Zacchaeus is a favorite among children, and for good reason. It has lots of things kids can relate to. First of all, the star of the story is a short guy. Children are short, and often feel dwarfed by grown ups. So they can relate to Zacchaeus, the "wee little man" according to the Sunday School song.
Second, because he was short and couldn't see over the crowd, Zacchaeus climbed a tree, and children love tree climbing. A couple of weeks ago I went out into my back yard because I was looking for my daughter, Kara. I couldn't see her anywhere, so I called out, "Kara! Where are you?" "Up here, Dad," came an answer from somewhere above me. I looked up and saw Kara about fifteen feet up in a Jacaranda tree, reading a book. She had found a comfy perch between a couple of sturdy branches. Of course Kara isn't alone in her love for tree-climbing. Most kids are just like her. And that's why they connect with Zacchaeus: a short guy who climbs trees, just like they do!
Yet there's even more in this story for children. There's the surprise of Jesus's calling out to Zacchaeus. Kids love surprises, especially happy ones. They love the unexpected when it turns out for the best. And there are plenty of surprises in the account of Zacchaeus.
Even when children play Zacchaeus in a church musical, they get down on their knees to be a "wee little man."
Then there's the self-invitation of Jesus. He says to Zacchaeus, "I must stay at your house." This sounds an awfully lot like a sleepover, doesn't it? And what kid doesn't love a sleep over? (Though I think the name "sleep over" is a sham. I call them "sleepless-overs" when they happen in my house.)
Of course the story of Zacchaeus also has a happy ending, which children of all ages enjoy. So this story has all sorts of features perfectly suited to children: a short person climbs a tree, receives a happy surprise, has a sleepover, and everything works out well in the end.
More Than a Kids' Story
But this is far more than just a kids' story. There are themes under the surface here that are very adult, such as: oppression, hatred, alienation, grace, repentance, and, yes, welcome. In order to catch the deeper meaning of the story of Zacchaeus, we need to remember its historical context.
For almost a hundred years, even since the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., the Jews had lived under the rule of Rome. Perhaps the most onerous aspect of Roman rule, apart from the mere insult of being a subject people, was taxation. It took a lot of money for Rome to administrate its empire, and they got this from taxing their subjects. For the Jews, taxation, in addition to being costly, was a tangible sign of foreign domination. So, almost to a person, the Jews hated paying taxes to Rome.
Rome didn't actually collect taxes, however. This was farmed out to the private sector. Certain Jews were willing to become tax collectors. For obvious reasons, they were seen as turncoats, and were hated by their fellow Jews. To make matters even worse, tax collectors had the freedom to overcharge people, and to keep the extra for themselves. In fact, that's how they got paid. So a wealthy tax collector, like Zacchaeus, had been particular adept at ripping off his fellow Jews. Thus he would have been doubly hated by his neighbors in Jericho.
Sometimes it's hard for us to relate to the people's feelings about Zacchaeus. So consider, for a moment, how it would be if we lost the war on terror and the United States came under the control of Al Qaeda. Suppose, further, that Al Qaeda imposed heavy taxes upon us, which we had to pay under penalty of death. And then suppose that one of your neighbors went to work for Al Qaeda as a tax collector, and used his power to take even more of your money than you had to pay. He was so good at this that he became one of the richest people around. How would you feel about that person? Warm fuzzies? Hardly. Benign neglect? I doubt it. Every time you had to pay your taxes you would burn with hatred for this betrayer who profited so ably from your misery. That's rather like how the people of Jericho must have felt about Zacchaeus.
Walking Through the Story
So it comes as no surprise that Zacchaeus had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus. Though he was short of stature, he couldn't walk up to the crowd and say, "Excuse me, friends, would you mind if I stood in front of you?" He knew very well that this was begging for verbal abuse, if not a beating. So Zacchaeus climbed the tree to see Jesus.
We don't know exactly what Zacchaeus was thinking when he did this. I'd imagine that he was curious. He'd heard about the wonder-working holy man, and he wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus for himself. Whether Zacchaeus was aware of more than mere curiousity in his heart, we don't know. But it's clear from the story that something else was going on, something God was doing, something marvelous and merciful. In a letter to priests written on Maundy Thursday 2002, Pope John Paul II observed:
In climbing the sycamore tree, Zacchaeus seems prompted by curiosity alone. At times, God's meetings with man do appear to be merely fortuitous. But nothing that God does happens by chance. . . . Zacchaeus had no idea that the curiosity which had prompted him to do such an unusual thing was already the fruit of mercy which had preceded him, attracted him and was about to change him in the depths of his heart. (Letter of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II "To Priests," for Holy Thursday, 2002.)
This mercy begins to reveal itself in the surprise of Jesus's action as he comes up upon Zacchaeus's tree. Rather than merely walking by, as would have been expected, Jesus stopped, looked up at the little man in the tree, and said, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay your house today."
We don't know how Jesus knew Zacchaeus's name, whether by ordinary means or by supernatural. But it does seem that Jesus knew from the Spirit that God had plans for Zacchaeus, so He stopped and called out to him.
This was surely unexpected, both by Zacchaeus and by the crowd. What Jesus actually said was even more startling. It wasn't just, "Shalom, Zacchaeus. Can you come down so we can chat?" Rather, Jesus broke through social conventions by inviting himself over to Zacchaeus's house. Why did He do this? From a sense of divine purpose: "I must stay at your house today." This was God's will, God's gracious plan for your, Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus Welcomes Jesus
So Zacchaeus jumped down from his perch and, Luke says, "was happy to welcome him." Here's our key word, "welcome." Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus. Once again we see that this wasn't simply a handshake. In Jewish culture of the first-century A.D., eating together was a sign of friendship, of intimacy. So Zacchaeus was pleased to receive Jesus, not just into his home, but also into his private world, into his family, into his life, into his heart. Moreover, in a profound sense, Zacchaeus was welcoming, not only Jesus, but God into his life in a new way.
We can see clear evidence of this deeper welcome in Zacchaeus's pledge to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back four times over anyone he had defrauded. Here's a man who lived for money, and that's about it. He'd given up almost everything and had become a reviled outcast for the sake of Mammon. For Zacchaeus to offer freely to give away his stuff is ample evidence that God was transforming his heart.
Who Welcomes Whom?
One one level, this story illustrates how we can respond to God's grace by welcoming Him. When God calls out to us - sometimes through preaching, sometimes as we read His Word, sometimes through the still, small voice of the Spirit, sometimes through the human voices of other Christians, sometimes through suffering - we respond by hearing His voice and welcoming Him. In the words of the old gospel song, "Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus."
Yet the story of Zacchaeus reminds us that we welcome Christ, not on our own initiative, but in response to His. It may seem as if we're seeking God, and in a sense we are. But in a larger sense God is seeking us first.
That's part of the ironic surprise in the Zacchaeus story. Jesus doesn't wait for an invitation from Zacchaeus, does He? Rather, He breaks the social code by inviting Himself over. It's as if He's the host, the first welcomer. And in a sense, He is. Though Zacchaeus gets to respond by literally welcoming Jesus into His home, Jesus first welcomes Jesus into His merciful fellowship.
And so it is with us. Jesus invites Himself in to our lives. He doesn't push His way in. He respects our freedom to respond to Him. Yet He makes it clear that the initiative for relationship is not ours, but His. We welcome Jesus because He has first welcomed us.
What Jesus Offers
Notice, too, what Jesus offers to Zacchaeus. He doesn't say "Here's a ticket to heaven." And He doesn't say, "Here's a new way of living." And He doesn't say, "Here's how to get back in fellowship with your neighbors." All of these things will come, but as a result of Jesus's primary gift. And what is this? Once again I quote from Pope John Paul II:
To Zacchaeus, Jesus offers himself: "I must stay at your house." He himself is the gift that awaits Zacchaeus, and he is also "God's law" for Zacchaeus.
Now once we welcome Jesus Himself, many things follow, including the hope of heaven, a new way of living, and fellowship with others. As the example of Zacchaeus makes so vivid, welcoming Jesus leads to a profound transformation of life. That which had once been Zacchaeus's purpose for living - making lots of money - now becomes a tool to be redeemed for a new purpose: caring for the poor, generosity to others, seeking justice. When we invite Jesus into our lives, we learn to seek first the Kingdom of God and God's own way of living (Matthew 6:33). Our hearts and our lives are transformed.
If you're not a Christian today, please understand that what Jesus offers you is very much like what He once offered to Zacchaeus. He offers Himself, first and foremost. In this relationship come all sorts of benefits, like forgiveness of sins, as well as a new focus for living, serving Christ as your Lord. But the "stuff" Christ gives us and asks from us is not the center of Christianity. Relationship with Jesus, and through Him with the Triune God, is the center. This is what Jesus offers best of all.
If you are a Christian, this may be a good time for you to see how you're doing with Jesus. It's easy to start with Him, but then to get distracted along the way. Thus we turn the Christian life primarily into a matter of doing the right things, or avoiding the wrong things, or polishing our theology, or caring for the poor, or . . . you name your own tendency. These are all wonderful and important aspects of Christian living. But they're not the main point. That, we're reminded by the story of Zacchaeus, is welcoming Jesus into our lives and growing in relationship with Him.
As you look at your life, have you welcomed Jesus? Again, I'm not talking merely about the first invitation, whereby you received Him as Savior and Lord. I'm speaking also of a way of living, whereby Jesus is part and parcel of the whole thing. Are you welcoming Jesus into your life each day, each moment, in each situation, in each relationship? This is what He wants, and for this we were created.
He Knows Your Name
I mentioned earlier that we can't be sure how Jesus knew Zacchaeus's name. The story seems to imply that it was a miraculous event, though it's possible that Jesus knew about Zacchaeus through ordinary means. But the source of Jesus's knowledge isn't the main point here. The fact that Jesus addressed Zacchaeus by name . . . this is a big deal.
Zacchaeus wasn't just "Hey you, up in that tree!" He was "Zacchaeus," a man with a name. Moreover, from Jesus's perspective, Zacchaeus wasn't just a hated tax collector, one who had betrayed his people and his friends to get rich by collecting taxes for Rome. No, Zaccheaus was a man in whom God was at work, and whose life God had plans to transform. Zaccheaus was a person with whom Jesus wanted to have intimate relationship, in spite of the conventions of His culture. By using the name Zacchaeus, Jesus touched the heart of the despised tax collector, and offered him God's mercy.
My friends, Christ calls you and me, not en masse, but personally. He knows your name, your situation, your sin, your fears, your dreams. He knows everything about you. And he wants you, not just "Hey, somebody down there in the IPC sanctuary," but you, and you, and you, and me.
Today we have a choice, like Zaccaheus had a choice. We can welcome Jesus into our lives. Or we can hold Him at arms length. If we invite Him in, there will be changes. Whether we'll give away half of our net worth to the poor, I don't know. But I do know that if we invite Jesus in, His mercy and His loving presence will transform us, and we'll never be the same.
So what will you say when Jesus calls? Will you welcome Jesus into your life?