A rich tax collector
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. 2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” 6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”
Thoughts on the passage:
The story of Zacchaeus is filled with colorful details, like his size and the tree he climbed. It tells a story of transformation for one man, a tax collector and sinner. Yet, if you dig deeper you find that it contains the essential message of the gospel, that Jesus comes to seek and save the lost. It serves as culmination of several of Luke’s teachings around salvation and it calls us to reflect on our own role, both in this story, and in how we are called to be disciples and followers of Christ because of this story.
Zacchaeus is a person in need. While he has been successful financially in his life, it has come at the expense of his relationships with his fellow countrymen. This is seen when Jesus comes to town and the crowds begin to gather. Zacchaeus, for all his wealth and importance is shunted to the back and not allowed to see Jesus. Rather than take pity on him for his short stature, the crowd uses this advantage to further block him from seeing Jesus. Their dislike of him is further emphasized that when Jesus chooses to eat with Zacchaeus the crowd grumbles and questions what Jesus can hope to gain from eating with a sinner like him.
What is it that makes Zacchaeus so reviled? He has sold out his country for profit and likely has been acquiring his own wealth at the expense of his neighbors. Even in our modern, well-regulated society, tax collection is not really a well-regarded profession. Most people do not dream of their children growing up to join the IRS. When we are being the most charitable, we tend to think about taxes as a necessary evil, something we grudgingly pay, even if we might grumble about where it goes or how much we have to pay.
During the time of Jesus and Zacchaeus, tax collection looked very different. First, Rome was not a democracy, people were taxed without any real say in the process. Further, since Rome had conquered Judea that taxation occurred essentially through contracted outsourcing. Rome would set the amounts for various taxes and tolls, but its method of collection was to simply allow tax collectors to collect more than the prescribed amount to cover their own taxes. Imagine Target or Wal-Mart adding another 1% to the sales tax they collected for the state of Minnesota in order to cover some of their own costs. It is easy to see how people might resent the tax collectors whose wealth was derived from these extra charges.
There was another reason to resent these tax collectors. Rome was the occupying force. Zacchaeus, and the other tax collectors were working for the enemy. They had chosen to cast their lot in with, and profit from the Roman empire at the expense of their fellow countrymen. Is it any wonder that crowds did not like him? No one loves a turncoat.
This is the backdrop for the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is lost and hurting. He has turned against his neighbors and profited at their expense and now finds that profit to be hollow. He is longing for a connection to someone who will accept him and offer him hope. Jesus reaches out to him and treats him with the respect and love that he has been lacking for so long. In that moment, Zacchaeus realizes what he is missing and turns his life around. The lost one has been found.
The theme of the lost being found is an important one for Luke. Luke records several parables and teachings that Jesus gives on the importance of finding the lost, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each one, Jesus talks about how God is seeking after those who have gone astray. Jesus is also clear of the need for God in these interactions. Just the chapter before, when asked by a rich ruler about getting into heaven, Jesus says it will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Yet, here with Zacchaeus we see that what seemed impossible to the rich ruler who was not willing to give up his wealth, is possible when Jesus is involved.
It is easy to think of Zacchaeus as the hero, the person who turns his life around. The reality is that Jesus is the hero of the story. He is the one who seeks out Zacchaeus, calls him down from his tree and invites him into a new relationship with God, one not built on money but on love. Jesus, the human one, is seeking out the lost and saving them.
The same good news for Zacchaeus is good news for us too. Like Zacchaeus, we are all lost in our own ways. We have all gotten distracted at one time or another with things that we have made more important than our relationship to God. For Zacchaeus it was money, that drove him to be a tax collector who exploited his neighbors. For some of us it might also be money or maybe it is our love of other pleasures, nice cars, big houses, or fancy vacations that become our focal point. When I was in college, fencing was more important to me than going to church on Sundays. I justified it that this was temporary, and that I would go to church later (which is obviously true) but I am still not sure if that was the right thing to do. Was I making fencing, and my temporary happiness, more important than my relationship to God?
Now, I want to be careful because I do not want to fall into the same trap as the crowds who were so quick to judge Zacchaeus. They had their idea of what it meant to be a sinner, and they clearly framed it in terms of how they were in the right, and Zacchaeus was not. They knew the correct actions that were required of them. What Jesus wanted them to see is that this is not about correct actions, but about relationships. We are all sinners and we all fall short in our relationship with God. We would be wrong however to limit our understanding to our actions. The problem with choosing fencing over worship on Sunday is not where I was, but the mindset that goes with it. What is important is not a set of actions, but a relationship with God.
Jesus reaches out and Zacchaeus is saved, not because of the future actions he will take, but because he has restored his relationship with God. The actions he takes, giving to the poor and those he has cheated, are a response to his salvation not a part of that salvation. Zacchaeus has been transformed by his relationship with Jesus and he lives his life differently because of it.
Christ is extending his hand to each of us as well and inviting us into a new relationship with him. Like Zacchaeus, Christ is seeking us out when we are lost and ready to welcome us back. The question is whether we want to come down from our trees and encounter God. If we do, I can guarantee our lives will never be the same.
Our transformation will look different than Zacchaeus’ because I am pretty sure that none of us have defrauded our neighbors in collecting taxes for Rome. Still, once we have experienced God’s love in our lives it changes us. When we know that Christ meets us in our brokenness it challenges us to think about how we can offer that love to others. Are we guilty of standing in judgement like the crowds, or are we quick to reach out with love and acceptance to our enemies and those we have rejected as Christ does?
The story of Zacchaeus is a colorful tale of how Jesus meets a man and changes his life. It is a reminder that Jesus is longing to meet us and change our lives as well. It is also a powerful reminder of the good news of the gospel, that Christ is coming to save the least, the lost, the left-out and no matter how impossible it be to imagine, God can save everyone, even you and me. Amen
Questions to Ponder:
What are the ways that you feel like a lost sinner in need of saving?
When are the times you have been like the crowds, so sure that there is someone who is not deserving of God’s love?
How is God calling you to change your life and enter into a new relationship with Christ?
God, we admit that too often we are like the crowds, sitting in judgement of others, and maybe even ourselves. We give you thanks that you forgive us and reach out to us even when we do not deserve it. Help us to remember that love and grace you offer to us. Forgive us when we stray and transform our hearts that we might offer your love and grace to all we meet. Amen