As we have walked with Jesus through the book of Luke over the last couple of weeks we have seen Jesus working his way back to Jerusalem for the final week of his life. Along the way, we have been instructed by some of the encounters he has had with people. Last week we saw the healing of a man who was physically blind but had keen spiritual insight. He knew that he needed the Savior and was utterly dependent upon Jesus. Because of his faith, he walked away a new and changed man.
The week before that we looked at the account of the rich young ruler. This man was spiritually blind because he thought he had lived good enough to warrant eternal life. Jesus instead cut through the man’s façade and helped him to see that he wasn’t really trusting in God at all, because he loved his riches far more than he would ever love God. At the end of that encounter Jesus told his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God—but then he also reminded them that what was impossible with men was possible with God.
In our passage this morning we will look at an example of a situation where God did the impossible. Jesus sought out a rich man named Zacchaeus who was looking for something more in life, and by the end of the day Zacchaeus discovered that what he was looking for was a relationship with Jesus, and that the riches he had worked so hard for and grown so accustomed to were worthless in comparison to what he could have in a relationship with Jesus.
For many of us, the story of Zacchaeus is relatively familiar because we learned the song about him when we were growing up. We learned that Zacchaeus was a wee little man who climbed up in a tree to see Jesus, and as he passed that way he told Zacchaeus to get down because he was going to his house that day. The fact is, the song does a pretty good job of accurately relaying the gist of the story. This morning, though, we want to go a bit further than just the facts of the story—we want to understand the significance of the story.
Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was the chief tax-collector for the area around Jericho. This probably meant that he was in charge of overseeing a team of other tax collectors. The way tax collection worked at that time was that Rome told them the amount that they were supposed to collect and give to the Roman government. Anything above that amount would be theirs to keep. As the chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus was probably told the amount that he was supposed to collect from the region, and he in turn told the other tax collectors what each of them was supposed to collect, adding in profit for himself in the process. Some writers have compared Zacchaeus’ job to being equivalent to the leader of a drug cartel—he was a tax kingpin! Needless to say, tax-collectors were not looked upon highly, because people viewed them (rightly) as thieves.
You can imagine the way most people felt when they saw Zacchaeus. When this short little man showed up at their door, their blood began to boil, knowing that he was going to try to get as much money from them as he possibly could. Zacchaeus was probably the kind of person that people avoided when they saw him out walking the streets, because nobody really liked him. People probably pretended they didn’t see him or maybe even just glared at him as he passed. Probably the only friends Zacchaeus had were the tax collectors who worked for him, and even then, they were only friends because there weren’t any other options—and as his employees even that friendship would have been limited. Surely it was lonely at the top for Zacchaeus.
Luke also says that Zacchaeus was wealthy. He had probably gotten a system set up where he was able to make money on almost every tax transaction that happened in Jericho. We also know that Zacchaeus owned a house (since Jesus wanted to go there), and it would be safe to assume that it was a large and luxurious home.
Most of the time we are given very little physical description of characters in the Bible, but Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was short, because it is relevant to the story.
It was a big deal when visitors came through town, and when people of note came near a town, people would go out to see them. As word of this visitor spread throughout the town a crowd would gather along the road. Jesus was someone that lots of people wanted to see. His reputation had spread far and wide as someone who was a great teacher and a worker of miracles, so there was quite a crowd lined up in Jericho.
Zacchaeus desperately wanted to see Jesus, so he joined the throng of people along the road where he would be walking. Unfortunately, being short, he wasn’t able to see unless he got to the front of the crowd. Since nobody liked Zacchaeus, getting to the front of the crowd was not going to happen. In fact, the people probably relished their opportunity to stick it to Zacchaeus. You can almost hear some of the things they might have said : “Oh, you can’t see can you? That’s such a shame!” or “You’ve stolen our money and now you want to steal our spots? Fat chance!” The process of pushing around and depriving this rich, greedy man of what he wanted was something they didn’t have much opportunity to do, so they surely enjoyed Zacchaeus’ plight. But Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus, so he decided to climb up in a tree along the route where Jesus would be traveling, so he could at least get a chance to see the man.
Climbing a tree was considered undignified behavior. It was not something a rich man like Zacchaeus would do. It’s possible that Zacchaeus was embarrassed that he had to climb into the tree to see Jesus, so it’s likely he didn’t want anyone to know that’s where he was. But then Jesus came by. I can imagine Zacchaeus’ heart began to beat faster as he finally got to see the teacher and as he got closer, I imagine his heart was racing. But when Jesus stopped right in front of him and looked up at him I can imagine his heart stopping. I wonder if the people noticed Zacchaeus in the tree for the first time when Jesus stopped. I can picture them laughing and pointing at him, saying, “Look at the little rich man! He had to climb up into a tree to see!” In my mind I picture Zacchaeus being struck with fear that Jesus was going to ridicule (or worse, rebuke) him in front of this whole crowd as well. But Jesus’ response wasn’t one of rebuke, and I suspect that when he heard what Jesus said, nothing else really mattered.
Jesus looked up into the tree and told Zacchaeus to get down because he must eat at his house today. Imagine the shock as Zacchaeus heard those words. And imagine the murmurs from the people along the road as they heard them. They hated Zacchaeus and couldn’t believe that he would receive such an honor, so they looked for ways to rain on his parade. And Luke tells us that the crowds were recounting Zacchaeus’ reputation to each other, decrying the fact that Jesus was going to eat at the house of such a notorious sinner.
In verse 8, we are told that Zacchaeus has a change of heart. We don’t know exactly how much time has passed between verses 7 and 8, but I suspect Zacchaeus’ change of heart comes after having spent some time with Jesus at his home, because Jesus pronounced a blessing on “this house”. In my mind I imagine Jesus explaining the gospel to Zacchaeus and this declaration comes in response to what Jesus said. Regardless of the details, we read that Zacchaeus stood up and declared that he needed to make things right. He said that he was going to give half of his possessions to the poor, and then on top of that he would repay anyone he had cheated by paying back four times what he had stolen. The Old Testament law required that a person repay someone they had cheated with 20% interest, but Zacchaeus went above and beyond the requirement and did what he thought was right. This was a radical declaration, and if he followed through, it was evidence of a radical change in his heart.
Jesus seemed to believe that Zacchaeus’ declaration was genuine because he declared that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house and that he was a true son of Abraham. What he meant by those words was that it was clear that Zacchaeus was a true believer. Jesus was not saying that Zacchaeus’ actions had earned him salvation, but rather that his actions demonstrated the faith he had in Jesus—and it was his faith that had saved him.
Because this is such a familiar story to many of us, it is easy for us to gloss over it and to totally miss the point. So there are several things I think we should learn from the story of Zacchaeus.
First, is that we will never be satisfied by the things of the world. Zacchaeus was a rich man. He had chosen to become a tax collector and had become very good at it. He had probably gotten to a point where he rarely had to go door to door asking people for money. Other people did the dirty work for him and he just reaped the profits.
Inside, however, it seems that Zacchaeus knew that wasn’t enough. Maybe this is why he went out to see this man who had a reputation of loving those who were unloved and rejected by the world. Maybe Zacchaeus knew his life was empty so he wanted to meet the man who had transformed the lives of many others. Unlike the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus was willing to give away everything he had to know the new life offered by Jesus.
Second, we see that no one is too far gone for God to restore them and make them new. We saw the way the people responded when Jesus told Zacchaeus he was going to his house. They couldn’t believe it. They figured that surely Jesus couldn’t have known the kind of man this was. If Jesus knew the kinds of things that Zacchaeus had done, the kind of character he had, the way he had earned the money to buy that house, he would have understood that it would be a bad idea to go there. The people viewed Zacchaeus as a lost cause, but Jesus knew that Zacchaeus was ready to hear the truth.
Third, we learn that Jesus is seeking us. Think about how this story would have been different if Jesus had waited for Zacchaeus to come to him and ask him to tell him why he felt so unfulfilled in life. This story would never have happened. Zacchaeus never would have stopped Jesus in front of everyone else. Fortunately, Jesus came into Jericho with the intention of having lunch with Zacchaeus. He stopped at the tree where Zacchaeus was and told him that he must stay at his house. We see in this story that Jesus takes the first step—he is the one who does all of the work, we must simply respond.
I suspect that God had been working in Zacchaeus’ life for a long time before Jesus ever showed up. It would be interesting to see the events leading up to this day in Zacchaeus’ life. Maybe there had been a series of things that happened to make him realize that no matter how much money he had he would never be fulfilled by it. God had orchestrated events to prepare Zacchaeus for his encounter with Jesus.
Lastly, we see that a true encounter with God results in a change in the way we live. Zacchaeus surely had nagging feelings of guilt whenever he thought about how he’d gotten his riches. When it was quiet and nobody else was around, I’m sure he knew that he’d gotten rich by taking what rightfully belonged to others. He felt bad about it, but he wasn’t going to change, because the money was the thing he loved most.
It all changed when he met Jesus. Within a single day Zacchaeus had a new first love. No longer was money the most important thing in his life, but Jesus was. As a result, he did something crazy. He declared that he would give away half of his fortune to the poor and with the other half he would repay everyone he had stolen from—giving them back four times what he’d stolen! People who knew Zacchaeus knew that something drastic must have happened to change Zacchaeus’ heart.
The story of Zacchaeus is one that is fun to read about and makes for a neat song, but we must not miss the lessons that we can learn from Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus. The fact is that most of us can really resonate with Zacchaeus because we struggle in our own lives. So I want to challenge you to apply this passage to your own life. Here are four suggestions of things you can do today.
Examine what is most important in your life. Zacchaeus had bought into the cultural belief that if he had enough money he would be happy. Once he had money, he discovered that it didn’t deliver what was promised. You may be doing the same thing, or you might be more concerned with power, success, or having everyone else look upon you highly. Be honest in your assessment of yourself. If your primary concern is something other than pleasing God, you will eventually find that your life feels empty—work toward changing your priorities today.
Learn to see the people God is working on. Nobody except for Jesus noticed Zacchaeus, they had stopped paying any attention to him because they thought he was a lost cause. Look at the people in your life differently. Resolve not to write anyone off as being too far gone for God to change. Watch for the people who show an interest in the things of God. Watch for the person who’s listening from the other side of the room as you talk about your faith. Watch for the person who seems to feel like their life is in shambles. Watch for the people who are aware of their own sin. These are often the people who are desperately looking for answers, and God gives us the chance to share the message of forgiveness and new life with them.
Look for the fruit of genuine faith. Because of Zacchaeus’ encounter with God, there were drastic changes in his life. He knew the things that needed to be changed before he met Jesus, but he never thought about actually changing. When his heart was changed, the way he lived his life changed too.
Jesus told his disciples that Christians and non-Christians be recognized by the fruit their lives bear. (Matthew 7:15-20) Many people claim to be Christians, but I suspect that if a lot of these people looked at their lives and asked what was different since they professed faith in Christ, they would struggle to come up with anything except that they went to church more often. Be honest with yourself and see whether your life has changed since declaring your faith in Christ. If not, consider whether there has really been a change in your heart at all.
Recognize the Good News that God is seeking you. The great news about the story of Zacchaeus is that God does not expect us to save ourselves. God knows that we will not come and follow him on our own, so He orchestrates the events of our lives so that we will come to a point of decision with Him. Maybe you are in the same boat as Zacchaeus today. Maybe you have come to church today because you’ve seen in your life that you need something more—that life has to be about more than just what you’re doing right now.
Allow me to make a suggestion. Maybe God has been preparing you for this day. Maybe God has been helping you to see the emptiness of your life to this point and helping you to see that you need something different, something greater, something that has meaning in your life. Jesus came to seek and save what was lost—is it possible that today he is seeking you?
If so, listen to him. Recognize that as long as you put other things ahead of him you will never find fulfillment and you will always feel empty inside. Today he wants to take first place in your life—he wants to be the most important thing to you. He wants to begin a relationship with you. You face a choice—will you let him come to you or will you close the door? God has set up this opportunity to meet with you—don’t let it pass by.
Let me invite you to meet with Jesus right now. If you aren’t sure about how to do that, let me guide you. Pray to God about what’s going on in your heart. You can do it right where you are if you’d like. You don’t necessarily have to close your eyes, but you might find it easier to concentrate if you do. Talk to God and tell him what’s on your heart. You don’t have to talk in some special way, you don’t have to use fancy language, and you don’t need to hold anything back, just talk to him like you would your best friend—he won’t be surprised by anything you tell him, but he wants you to share your life with him.
Start by confessing to God the ways that you know you have failed him. Be brutally honest with him, don’t try to sugarcoat your sins, but confess them to him. Acknowledge to God that you know you can’t possibly make up for all the ways you have failed him, but that you believe that the Bible tells us that Jesus has paid for every sin you’ve ever committed. After you do, tell him how you desperately want your life to be different, how you know that He alone is supposed to be first in your life. Tell God that today you are committing to moving in a different direction; that from this day forward you will follow Him alone. Ask him to change your heart and to help you as you move forward with Him at the center of your life.
If you pray something like this today, I want to encourage you to share your commitment with someone who you know is a Christian—someone else who has committed to put Christ first. Ask them to help you live out the commitment you’ve made, and ask them for advice on what you can do to grow in your faith. You may consider talking to Dad or I as well.
The story of Zacchaeus is not just a story about some guy who lived in the time of Jesus. I think it is recorded because it could be your story. Today could be the day that Jesus enters your life and changes you forever.
Don’t just sing the song about Zacchaeus; follow his example. Look for the One who has been looking for you. Invite Him into your life and your heart. If you will do this sincerely, then like Zacchaeus, you too will find that your life will never be empty again.