“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
King James Version
“How God treats despised sinners.”
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.”
Luke 19: 1, 2
“Life is filled with meaning as soon as Jesus enters it.”
“One could view the whole life of Jesus from first to last as a single continuing exploit in breaking down the walls that separate people.”
When I was a child, I learned a song that went like this:
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Master passed his way He looked up in the tree.
And He said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today.’”
There were all kinds of hand motions we did as we sang this song about a despised tax collector who became a devoted follower of Jesus.
To understand why Zacchaeus was such a despised person, we need to look back into the historical setting in which he lived. Luke 19 tells us that Zacchaeus was a Jew. And he wasn’t just any tax collector – he was the chief tax collector. Tax collectors or publicans are referred to 22 times in the gospels. These men were wealthy individuals who paid for the privilege of collecting taxes in certain localities. Often people like Zacchaeus employed other Jews to do the actual collecting of taxes and tolls for them. What made these people so despised was that they sold their services to the Roman government. They represented the country that dominated the Jewish nation – Rome. Often their methods of getting money could be shady to say the least. These tax collectors many times overcharged the people and pocketed the surplus. In writings by some of the Rabbis, they are referred to as “robbers.” They were looked upon by most people as “renegades, who sold their services to the foreign oppressor to make money at the expense of their own countrymen.”
Jesus’ acceptance of these despised humans, even including Matthew, a tax collector as one of His twelve disciples, infuriated the religious folk of the day. Matthew 9: 11 gives a record of the Pharisees questioning why Jesus would “eat with tax collectors and sinners?” A guilt by association accusation.
And then, the icing on the cake came when the chief tax collector, a man we learn was extremely wealthy, decided he wanted to meet Jesus.
We will never know what first drew Zacchaeus to want to learn more about Jesus. I like to think it may have been the fact that this wealthy man realized no amount of money was enough to fill the empty place in his soul. And when He heard Jesus talk about calling, “sinners to repentance,” this message of acceptance hit a responsive cord in Zacchaeus’ heart. The cords of love that Jesus wrapped around this man with money began to pull him toward a new life.
As the Bible tells us in Luke 19, Zacchaeus, who was short, heard Jesus was coming to Jericho, so he climbed into a tree to watch Jesus pass by. But Jesus didn’t just keep walking. Instead, He stopped, looked up into the tree, and told Zacchaeus to come down. Then He invited Himself to lunch at the tax collector’s home.
Luke 19: 7 says, “all the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”
What happened next is one of those “WOW” moments in the life of Jesus. Luke tells us, “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’”
I like the thoughts Martyn Percy shares about this encounter in his book, Sensing the Crowds:
“In Christian memory and tradition Zacchaeus is portrayed as either fraudulent or as a collaborator with the occupying Roman government…The reaction of the crowd bears this out. They all “murmured” that Jesus had gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ Zacchaeus, meanwhile, has responded to Jesus’ visit by giving half his goods to the poor. Then comes the hidden sting in the story, for he adds that if he has defrauded anyone of anything he will restore it fourfold. That ‘if’ must be one of the most important two-letter words in the Gospels. That Zacchaeus is despised by the crowd is not in doubt. But nowhere in the story does it say that he was dishonest. He is simply hated for what he does…
“What then does Jesus’ action signify? Simply this: that in the midst of a crowd bestowing their adulation he refuses to side with their base prejudices. Zacchaeus is affirmed for who he is…Consistently, Jesus sides with the ostracized, the rejected, the unclean, the impure, the (alleged) sinner, and the half-breeds. He is no crowd pleaser, he is their confounder. Even before the palm branches are stripped from the trees, and the cries of ‘Blessed!’ are heard, Jesus is a disturber of crowds. He does not want their praise; he wants their commitment.”
It was the commitment that Zacchaeus gave to Jesus. He went from being despised to devoted. A devotion that wasn’t just lip service but heart service. A devotion that reached not only into this wealthy man’s heart but into his pocketbook. How did Jesus treat despised sinners? He loved them. He regarded them. He welcomed them. And he offered them a better life. A new life. A life that filled them to overflowing.
For Zacchaeus, giving half of all he had and more meant little in return for the fullness he received from Jesus. In the words of H. A. Ironside, “No one ever lost out by excessive devotion to Christ.” And you can count on Zacchaeus saying “AMEN” to that!
“Lord, make me according to Thy heart.”
“Praiseworthy to a high degree
Is Godly curiosity;
To search the Lord, above, around,
If happily He may yet be found.
Short-sighted reason, dwarf desire,
Are faith and zeal when lifted higher.
Then on the Tree of Life sublime
With hand and knees devoutly climb;
Catch mercy’s moments as they fly,
Behold! The Lord is passing by.”
“Open my eyes that I may see.
Incline my heart that I may desire.
Order my steps that I may follow.”
Dorothy Valcarcel, Author
When A Woman Meets Jesus