His name means “pure” or “righteous,” but no one would have chosen words like those to describe Zacchaeus. He belonged to a despised group of Jewish citizens who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes from their own people, and who were notorious for extortion, greed and deceit. He was, in fact, a “chief tax collector,” one who employed tax collectors under him to collect revenues throughout his district. The position had brought him great wealth, but it had also cost him the respect and affection of his neighbors. He was despised by his fellow Jews.
New Testament scholar Fred Craddock writes,
“That Zacchaeus was a ‘chief tax collector’ implicates him even more deeply in the corrupt tax system of the Roman government. In a corrupt system the loftier one’s position, the greater one’s complicity in that system. While nothing of the private life of Zacchaeus is revealed in the story, this much we know on principle: no one can be privately righteous while participating in and profiting from a program that robs and crushes other persons.”
Zacchaeus was short, wealthy and hated. But he was also curious. Having heard that Jesus was coming to town, he desired to see him. But he realized that, given his small stature and the size of the crowd, he was unlikely to see anything, so he ran ahead of the crowd, and finding a large tree along the path, climbed up into its branches to glimpse the famous prophet and teacher from Galilee. His actions reflected his courage and determination – and his resourcefulness. He was willing to risk ridicule and public embarrassment for a chance to lay eyes on the one who was being spoken of as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” There is something about his keen desire to see Jesus that we can admire, and perhaps even imitate.
It is certainly a fascinating encounter. Jesus, walking along, mobbed by townspeople, suddenly stops and looks up into this tree where the wealthy little citizen has positioned himself. Did Jesus know he would find Zacchaeus in the tree that day? How did he know to call him by name? Had he heard of him? Was he aware of his occupation and reputation? Or had others in the crowd already spotted the tax collector in the tree and begun to ridicule and slander him?
Jesus calls out to him, saying, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” The Greek word is translated “immediately,” or “make haste” or “hurry” – there is an insistency, an urgency, an immediacy about Jesus’ request. He is not content to make an appointment for later. Now is the time. “I must stay at your house today.” I must come to dinner! Now! Immediately!
Being ordered by someone to provide on-the-spot hospitality might seem presumptuous and rude were it to happen to us, but Zacchaeus is overjoyed. Here he is, a social outcast, being offered the opportunity to host a famous visitor. He scrambles down from his perch to comply with Jesus’ demand.
So why has Jesus invited himself to dinner in Zacchaeus’ home? Out of hunger? No, it can only be because he recognizes the desire and earnestness in this man’s heart. No doubt Jesus sees that he is wealthy; perhaps he even knows or senses his disaffected status in the community. But he also sees his longing and faith, his eagerness to be restored and made well.
The people grumble at Jesus’ generous gesture: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (v.7). We’ve heard this before, haven’t we? “If this man were a prophet,” we can hear them saying, “he would have known who and what kind of [person] this is… – that [he] is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). But Jesus sees what they cannot see; he understands what they are incapable of understanding. And he chooses, in spite of the threat to his own reputation, to associate with just such a one as this, even to sit at his table. Shocking, really. But so like Jesus.
Zacchaeus’ reponse is even more shocking. He stands up (indicating that he had probably fallen to his knees before Jesus) and he offers to give half of his possessions to the poor – just like that! Then, he expresses his willingness to offer restitution to those whom he has wronged – four times the amount that he cheated them! The generosity of his offer would have amazed those who witnessed it, because it went so far beyond what the law required.
Grace is at work here, and its work is always amazing. Grace prompts this lonely and forgotten soul to seek Jesus. Grace brings healing and hope as Jesus recognizes and embraces him. Grace turns his heart to seek forgiveness and to make restitution for the evil he has done. Grace moves him to extraordinary generosity and love. Those who are forgiven much, love much (see Luke 7:47).
“Today salvation has come to this house,” says Jesus, and he is speaking not just of a change in the condition of this man’s soul brought about by a private inner moment of faith and belief. No, when the gospels speak of salvation they are speaking of something far more broad and comprehensive. The Greek word for being ‘saved’ is also translated “made well,” “healed,” or “made whole.” It refers not to some private transaction between God and the soul, but to the healing and transformation of the whole person! Those who experience this salvation are changed beings! Their lives are radically transformed! Salvation has implications for every aspect of their lives: their work, their finances, their relationships, their priorities, their character, their spiritual practice. Everything becomes new!
Zacchaeus is saved by God’s amazing grace! Greed gives way to generosity. Self-centeredness yields to self-sacrifice. Caring only about one’s self is transformed into a broader, deeper caring that flows out to family, friends and neighbors. See the new Zacchaeus. See how generous he is, how full of thought for others, how humble and contrite, how good. When Zacchaeus and his household are saved, when his life is so transformed by love, even the poor benefit! “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!” (v. 8). The salvation Jesus offers radically alters every aspect of our lives: personal, domestic, social, economic and political. We are made new!
And this is the mission of Jesus. He has come to seek and to save the lost, to bring this salvation, this healing and wholeness, this forgiveness and reconciliation, to the whole earth. He is the image of the invisible God, the sign of God’s love and acceptance, of God’s compassion and care.
Have you experienced this salvation? Have you met this Jesus who stretches out his arms of love to embrace us all, who gathers the sinners and the outcasts and the poor as well as the wealthy and the powerful and makes them all new people, whose transformed lives reflect his kindness, generosity and love? Has he opened your eyes to see others as he sees them? Has he shown you that no one is outside his love, no matter how evil their lives are or have been?
We are his people. We have been saved by his love. We have been healed and transformed and made new by his grace. We have been restored by his forgiveness. We have been taken gently into the arms of his love. In him, we are new.
This is why he was sent into the world: “to seek out and save the lost.” And this is why we are sent into the world. To bring God’s healing and salvation to others, to let them know that, no matter how twisted or broken their lives have become, there is love and salvation and healing and blessing in God. There is no greater mission, no higher calling that this: to be channels of God’s love and healing and salvation to every human being and to the whole of God’s creation. Come, join the mission of God! There is much to be done.
i Luke: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (part of the “Interpretation” series); by Fred B. Craddock (Louisville KY: John Knox Press, 1990); p. 218.
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