Zacchaeus: A Study in Transformation: Luke 19:1-10

A Sermon Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton, March 21, 2021

Jesus once said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!  For 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. (Luke 18: 24)” Riches have a way of blinding us to the needs around us and make our hearts hard to the suffering of others. Riches are used to cushion us from the unpleasantness of life, and in so doing, they cushion us from God.

Last week, in the parable of the Lazarus and the rich man, we looked at one such rich man who didn’t have a clue.  Every day of his life he feasted luxuriously, all the time ignoring the poor man who camped outside of his gate.  Although he had left overs, he threw them away rather than offering them to Lazarus.  Because he did not show mercy in this life, he failed to receive mercy in the next life. 

This week we meet Zacchaeus, another rich man who was just as an entitled and selfish as the rich man in the parable, but unlike the first rich man, Zacchaeus met Jesus and had a life changing experience. 

The first thing to notice about Zacchaeus was that he was a chief tax collector.  Actually the word translated “chief,” actually means “ruler” so he was part of the ruling class. This means that he was a regional contractor for the Roman government.  This would have been a lucrative business, because Jericho was a rich city. According William Barclay

It had a great palm forest and world-famous balsam groves which perfumed the air for miles around. Its gardens of roses were known far and wide. Men called it ‘The City of Palms.’ Josephus called it ‘a divine region,’ ‘the fattest in Palestine.’ The Romans carried its dates and balsam to world-wide trade and fame.”

It was such a beautiful and temperate place that in 4 BCE, Herod the Great built a palace there as a winter retreat. 

As a chief tax collector, he did not operate only one tax collecting station. Rather he subcontracted with a number of other tax collectors and spent his time supervising his employees and collecting the receipts.  As a chief tax collector he would have been politically connected to the Roman ruling caste, including King Herod and his court officials

The second thing to notice is that he was rich.  As you may recall, the Romans did not collect taxes themselves.  Rather they practiced what is called “tax farming;” they franchised the tax collecting business.  The tax collector promised to deliver a certain amount of money every year and anything collected in excess belonged to him.  To gain these rights you had to be wealthy to begin with, but once you gained that right it was easy to increase your wealth.

Zacchaeus was not some small time operator; he was a powerful and wealthy business person.

But this wealth and power cost him something.  Although he was Jewish (Jesus calls him a son of Abraham), he was ostracized and rejected by his community.  We read in verse 6 that they regarded as “a man who was a sinner.”  Perhaps even more importantly they would have regarded him as a traitor and a collaborator.  He sold his soul to Rome for a pot of money. He had everything he could want except the love and respect of the people around him. David Guzik tells us that the name Zacchaeus means “pure one.”  The people of Jericho must have thought this a delicious irony.  As far as they were concerned he was never going to be pure. Although wealth can you buy you many things, it can’t buy you respect and belonging. So there must have been an empty hole in his life. Deep in his soul there was a gnawing sense of isolation and alienation.

So when Jesus came to Jericho, Zacchaeus was eager to see him. Now this is not idle curiosity motivated by Jesus’ celebrity status.  I;m sure that you know someone who loves to collect autographs. They will make an especial effort to be where they can rub shoulders with the rich and famous. Jason Declet, Jerry and Jane’s son, is one pf those who has collected the signatures of many athletes and celebrities.  He was so good at it that for a couple years he actually worked for a company that authenticates celebrity signatures.  There is a market for autographs, because getting an autograph is like owning a piece of your favorite celebrity. 

We are motivated by stardom and we see stars whenever we are around famous people. However, stardom is not what motivated Zacchaeus.  Verse 3 says that Zacchaeus sought to see who Jesus was.  Joel B. Green says,

He is not interested merely in “seeing Jesus” but wants to know “who Jesus is” (cf. 10: 21– 22). He goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his quest, even enduring the probable shame of climbing a tree despite his adult male status and position in the community as a wealthy “ruler,” however notorious. That he goes to such lengths is illustrative of his eagerness and deep longing.  (Green, p. 669)

Zacchaeus has heard about Jesus.  He knows that one of Jesus’s other disciples, in his inner circle, is a tax collector like him.  He senses that Jesus might welcome him.  So he acts on his hunger.

Unfortunately, the crowd isn’t very accommodating to Zacchaeus’ desire.  Verse 3 continues, “he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature.”

If Zacchaeus was short that in itself should not have prevented him from seeing Jesus.  All he had to do was work his way to the front.  No what really stopped him was the hostility of the crowd him. They tried to prevent Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus.

But he will not be stopped; he runs ahead and climbs up into a sycamore tree.  Climbing into a tree is not something that a rich pampered man was likely to do.  But that didn’t stop him.  I like what David Guzik says,

[Zacchaeus] climbed the tree like a little boy, and without realizing it he fulfilled Jesus’ word that unless we become like children we will not see the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3). (Guzik, The Enduring Word, online commentary on Luke)

See what lengths Zacchaeus went to on the off chance that he would get to meet Jesus.

Now what Zacchaeus didn’t realize is that Jesus wanted to meet Zacchaeus, just as much as Zacchaeus wanted to meet Jesus.  Jesus stops at the bottom of the sycamore, looks up and says.  “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

How did Jesus know Zacchaeus’ name?  Politicians usually have aides who stand beside them with a list of the people that she will be meeting that day That way they can whisper the name of the constituent name and give the illusion that the politician really knows the name. I doubt that Jesus had such an aide; but he did know Zacchaeus and he called him by name. How do you think that made Zacchaeus feel?  Humbled? Loved? Amazed? Grateful?

Jesus’s words “I must stay at your house” imply a divine necessity.  The word must when it appears in the scripture is often code for “this is God’s will.” Jesus sees his encounter with Zacchaeus as God’s will.  He has an appointment with Zacchaeus that has been scheduled by God.  Joel B. Green comments,

the verb “to seek” is used of Zacchaeus in v 3[, who sought to see who Jesus was. It is also used] of Jesus in v 10[, who came to seek and save the lost]. Who is seeking whom? We discover at the outset that Zacchaeus is on a quest, to see who Jesus is, only to learn in the end that, in accordance with his divine mission, Jesus has been on a quest for Zacchaeus, to bring him salvation.  Hoping to see Jesus, Zacchaeus is seen by him (cf. v 10).

An old hymn puts it this way

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true,
no, I was found by thee.

And that is good news for us.  Before you ever come seeking for Jesus, he is seeking for you.  He stops in front of whatever tree you have climbed, looks up and calls you by name.  Jesus knows you by name and he wants to spend time with you.

Jesus’ word, transformed Zacchaeus.  He was filled with joy, knowing that he was forgiven and loved.  No longer an outcast, he was now a part of the family of God.  The fact that his name is recorded in Luke’s gospels suggests that Zacchaeus was one of those who followed Jesus after his resurrection and that he was a part of the local Christian community.  You could probably go to church in Jericho and shake hands or rub elbows with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus experienced emotional and spiritual healing that filled his heart with joy. 

This joy however, also resulted in changed behavior.  Back in the frontier days, Methodists were known for their enthusiastic and emotional worship.  They were known as “shouting Methodists.” This once prompted a Methodist bishop to say, “I don’t care how high you jumped when you were saved.  I want to know how straight you walked once your feet hit the ground.” 

Zacchaeus jumped high with joy when he met Jesus, but he hit the ground running as a changed person.  In verse 8 we read, ‘And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”’

Now I want you to notice two things.  First, Zacchaeus made restitution for his past failures, but that restitution was greater than what the Law required.  Leviticus 6:2-5 says “if you have defrauded you neighbor [that would be Zacchaeus] … you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one fifth to it.”  In other words, to make restitution you paid a 20% penalty.  But Zacchaeus promised to make restitution at a rate of 400%.  When God’s grace touches your heart, you not only want to put right what you did wrong, but you also want to bless those whom you have wronged.  Zacchaeus had tasted the kindness of the Lord and so he offered a feast to those whom he wounded so they too could taste the kindness of the Lord.

Second, Zacchaeus promised to use half of his wealth to help the poor.  The verb “I give,” is in the present continuous tense.  That means that he not only immediately liquidated half of his assets and gave it to the poor, but that he also promised to continue to support the poor by giving them half of his annual income.  This woes not a one-off. It became is continuing practice for the rest of his life.

Can you imagine the impact that had on his community?  Jericho was a rich town and good place to live if you were rich, but not so good if you were poor.  But Zacchaeus’ gift would have made a tremendous difference for all those who were widows, orphans, blind, sick or disabled.  The Romans must have been scratching their heads, the religious leaders and patriots thought he was trying to work some kind of angle, but the poor gave thanks to God and joined in Zacchaeus’ joy.

Why didn’t Zacchaeus just quit his job once he met Jesus?  Perhaps for the same reason that Oskar Schindler continued to cooperate with the Nazis during WWII.  He realized that he could do more good by cooperating than by trying to protect himself and not caring for others.  Schindler, like Zacchaeus, sacrificed his own wealth to care for the outcast and rejects. 

In his inaugural sermon Jesus said, “

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:17-19)

Zacchaeus, by using his wealth to help others, took up the message and work of Jesus.  His wealth brought good news to the poor and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. Zacchaeus has made Jesus’ work his own.  May we follow his example, by the way we live and the way we give.

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