Jesus entered Jericho and made his way through the town. There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector in the region, and he had become very rich. He tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” –Luke 19:1-10, NLT
This is a familiar story to most of us; but try to let go of your memories of the hand motions and the flannelgraph pictures, and use your imagination to place yourself at the roadside of this extraordinary scene.
Zacchaeus was a Jew, employed by the Romans to collect taxes from his fellow Jews. He was “very rich” because of the common practice of the tax collectors of that day, who would demand a fee higher than the Romans required and then pocket the difference. As chief tax collector, he likely was the head of all the tax collections in that district and had others serving under him, thereby multiplying the excess fees paid to him at the expense of his own people. Tax collectors were particularly despised and cut off from Jewish society. “Tax collectors and sinners” is a phrase often repeated in the New Testament, and Jesus Himself puts them in the same category as prostitutes (Matt. 21:31-32) and pagans (Matt. 18:17).
Curious, then, to imagine a well-dressed and powerful man of means, an official employed by the Roman government, scrambling up into a tree as any child might do! Not exactly very dignified. The image in my mind from the Sunday School song I used to sing was that of a little man perched on a scrawny tree branch overhanging the road, trying to get Jesus’ attention. But I think the reality was probably much different. The sycamore-fig tree that grows in the Middle East is a large, spreading tree with dense foliage; it would be a tree easy to hide oneself in. Some yearning in Zacchaeus’ heart, some unnamed desperation, caused him to abandon discretion and haul himself up that tree; but I suspect that he was trying to stay hidden among the leaves as he craned for a look at this “celebrity” who had caused such a commotion in Israel.
But Jesus is the One who sees. He looks up and calls Zacchaeus; and not with “hey, you up there!” but by his given name. Imagine the shock coursing through Zacchaeus as his hiding place is laid bare and he realizes that he is known by this Man. I’m surprised he didn’t fall right out of that tree! Jesus is surrounded on every side by a crowd of admirers, hangers-on, critics and curiosity-seekers…and yet He fixes His eyes on the one hiding in the foliage. The one everyone hates. The one everyone looks on as a sell-out, a traitor. And it is THAT one whom He honors by becoming a guest in his home.
The year was 1996, and our family was having a tough time. I was battling a chronic illness that left me depleted, barely able to care for our three young children. My husband was overwhelmed with working full-time, going to school, and trying to help me at home. One particularly bad day, dreaming of somehow getting a break from reality, I wrote a letter that entered us into a contest on a TV show. Imagine my shock when I got the phone call: “You’ve won! Pack your bags and get ready for a trip to New York!” Dazed, all I could think was, “Who, me? You must have made a mistake!” But it was true, and my husband and I were whisked off for three days of an amazing experience that felt like a dream.
I imagine what I felt then must be just a taste of what Zacchaeus felt that day in the tree! Far from being embarrassed at being found out, he responded with amazed joy and excitement, scrambling down as fast as he could. “Who, me? You really want to come to MY house?”
It was no mere coincidence that Jesus chose to single out Zacchaeus. It says in verse 1 that Jesus was “making His way” through Jericho. He was actually “making His way” to Zacchaeus’ house as His intended destination, while Zacchaeus was still trying to figure out how to get a glimpse of Him! His words were, “I must stay at your house today.” The word translated “must” means “it is necessary.” God had great plans for Zacchaeus, and they were about to be put into motion.
A New Reality
All the people grumbled and complained at Jesus’ words, focusing at once on the unworthiness of Zacchaeus in receiving this attention. If they could only have realized how the change in Zacchaeus’ life would dramatically affect their lives, they would not have been complaining! Some of the mutterers were about to be the recipient of half of the tax collector’s wealth. Others were about to receive money that he had previously defrauded them of. And all of them were about to benefit from a reformed and honest tax collector. The grumblers were missing out on the joy and anticipation of blessing.
“Meanwhile,” (v. 8) Zacchaeus was standing before the Lord and proclaiming his intentions for his new life. Being seen by God, being known by Him, is a powerful thing. It rocked Zacchaeus’ world and changed him forever. Suddenly the career that had defined him, the wealth that he had sought after, meant nothing to him as he stood before Jesus, surrendering the hold that it once had over him. Why did Christ say that “salvation has come to this house” in response to Zacchaeus giving away some money? Before his encounter with Jesus, money and wealth were Zacchaeus’ idols. Now he was calling Jesus “Lord,” and his money was merely a tool for service.
While my three-day “escape from reality” was a lot of fun, it was a temporary “Who, me?” moment that ultimately had no power to meet my needs. In contrast, Zacchaeus’ “Who, me?” moment resulted in his entrance into the truest and best reality of all. We are ALL seen, named, and known by Christ. He has great plans and purposes for all of us. Whenever He replaces the heart’s idols, He becomes the true Lord of that heart—and salvation has come.