A “Wee Little Man” Shows us How to Respond to Jesus

Zacchaeus, by Niels Larsen Stevns
Zacchaeus, by Niels Larsen Stevns

Even though Zacchaeus was “a wee little man”–he was not “wee” or “little” in terms of his financial standing.

Luke 19:1-2    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.

He was “a chief tax collector” and he “was wealthy.” Those two things are actually three strikes against Zacchaeus.

Strike one: He was a tax collector.

Tax collectors made out pretty well in Jesus’ day. They contracted with the Roman state to collect taxes from their fellow Jews. As long as the tax collectors paid the Romans a certain amount, they could charge whatever commission they wanted.

Strike two: He was a chief tax collector.

A chief tax collector oversaw other tax collectors. Zacchaeus had a prime position.

There was really little regulation here. This is sort of like pre-2008 subprime mortgage lending. Only it’s worse, because Zacchaeus as chief tax collector has a lot of other tax collectors doing the dirty work for him. And not only are they getting rich from people’s hard-earned cash, they’re even giving some of it to an imperial power–Rome. And who knows what non-kosher godlessness that money is going to!

Strike three: Zacchaeus was rich.

He was a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. There’s nothing wrong with being rich, of course, but generally in Luke’s Gospel, the rich people Jesus meets have a hard time loving God on account of all their money.

Zacchaeus got rich off of other people’s money. Think: Ebenezer Scrooge.

As with the tax collector last week, the listeners expect this chief tax collector to be the antagonist.

So it’s no surprise in verse 3 when Zacchaeus can’t see Jesus. Sure, he’s short–probably not even 5 feet tall–but even if he were 6 feet tall, I’ll bet the crowd wouldn’t have made way for a guy like him.

Luke 19:3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd.

Source:  Adrienne Lavidor-Berman (Boston Globe)
Source: Adrienne Lavidor-Berman (Boston Globe)

These people are waiting to see Jesus! This is even more exciting than watching Big Papi and the Red Sox get on a duck boat! No way they’re going to make room for Zacchaeus.

The crowd blocks his line of sight. But Luke says he wanted to see Jesus. He seems to have these three strikes against him, but maybe this is a bit of character development here? Another translation says, “He wanted to see Jesus, who he was.”

He wants to figure out who Jesus is. He’s interested. He’s what church growth gurus in the 1980s and 90s referred to as “a seeker.”

The Motif of Urgency

Luke 19:4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

Zacchaeus runs ahead. He seems to be eager to see Jesus.

It wasn’t until I’d read this passage at least a dozen times and went for a long walk that I picked up on this motif of urgency.

The story picks up the pace at this point. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s about to die. And rise again. He’s aware of what’s coming; his disciples are not, really.

But this is Jesus’ last face-to-face encounter till he gets to Jerusalem. So Luke as a writer is going to pack in as much as he can.

We’ve got lots of Luke’s themes here:

  • Wealth can keep you from God, or you can use it to worship him and serve others
  • Belief in God always leads to action and compassion for others
  • Jesus came to save the lost
  • God is a seeker, who goes after the ones he loves

In Luke this is a sort of final crescendo to close out this movement, before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then the events of Holy Week. All those themes are here, and Luke the storyteller notes that they are all important–urgently important.

  • verse 4: Zacchaeus runs ahead
  • verse 5: Jesus tells him to come down immediately
  • verse 5 again: Jesus must stay at his house today
  • verse 6: Zacchaeus comes down at once
  • verse 8: Zacchaeus re-directs his giving and quits his cheating ways, and he metes out this retributive justice “here and now,” he says
  • Today,” Jesus says in verse 9, “salvation has come to this house”

So keep that motif in mind as we work through the rest of the passage. Zacchaeus runs up the tree, and Jesus sees him.

Jesus Invites Himself Over

Luke 19:5b  “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

This culture valued hospitality, but there are still ways to do hospitality and ways not to do it. What you don’t do is invite yourself over to someone’s house. That’s still true today.

Che GuevaraBut Jesus has to–Jesus must–stay at his house. Forget the conventions of hospitality. Forget the conventions of not eating with unclean sinners. Forget that Zacchaeus was a traitor and that there were some in the crowd who just wanted Jesus to be Che Guevera and overthrow Rome.

How does Jesus know Zacchaeus’s name? Luke doesn’t tell us. Jesus other knew him through divine omniscience or through Zacchaeus’s reputation. But he’s got to get to Zacchaeus’s house.

Why? We’ll come to that in a bit.

Already we’re struck by Jesus’ offer of fellowship. His offer to fellowship with him is a standing offer, but as with Zacchaeus, it’s also an offer he wants us to take him up on right now. This very day. This very minute. Jesus wants to come to us, to enter the homes of our hearts and minds, and have communion with us.

God calls the ones he has made good. And when we go bad–as Zacchaeus did–he does not turn away from us, but continues to pursue us, and invite himself into our homes, our work, our daily routines, our lives.

Zacchaeus models a response to Jesus. He comes down with the same urgency Jesus had in calling him.

Luke 19:6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

He receives Jesus into his home as an esteemed guest. No delay. There’s not putting it off till another time. Zacchaeus comes down have fellowship with Jesus right now.

The people in the crowd don’t like this, of course.

Luke 19:7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’”

They grumble against Jesus. But haven’t they figured out by now that this is the sort of thing Jesus does? Have we learned that yet?

Zacchaeus’s Immediate Response

And then, more urgency:

Luke 19:8 But 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.”

Right now–on the spot, Zacchaeus pays it all back. Retributive justice, it’s called. He makes amends in a way that is appropriate to the crime. Redistribution of ill-gotten wealth was the only way for him to do this.

Saint Augustine once wrote of grace that it “is bestowed on us, not because we have done good works, but that we may be able to do them.”

This is another side of the coin when we consider last week’s tax collector and his uttered prayer. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer of faith made him right with God, Jesus said. Here, there is action, which always accompanies belief. Salvation has come, Jesus says, and that is evident because of what Zacchaeus is doing with his money.

He literally puts his money where his mouth is. His profession of faith is only truly complete as he acts on it. And he acts on it “here and now.”

He held his money loosely. He embodied that offertory prayer: “All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

Zacchaeus is going to lose a ton of money here–and think of all the logistics in making sure everyone gets repaid properly.

But no matter–he is eager to express his love toward God through his vocation and his giving.

Luke 19:9-10   Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Remember how Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today”? Or, as another translation puts it, “It is necessary” for Jesus to stay?

This is because Jesus’ fellowship with Zacchaeus was “mission-critical.” It was the core of Jesus’ mission to “seek and to save what was lost.” He’s doing that here. He has done that here. He sought Zacchaeus, and saved him– “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Zacchaeus did his part, of course–he climbed a tree, pledged to give back money he had extorted from people.

But Jesus is the ultimate initiator, I think. He could have passed by that tree… pretended not to see Zacchaeus.

The Prodigal Son Returns, Rembrandt
The Prodigal Son Returns,

“The Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek and to save what was lost.”

The 1 sheep, lost and wandering away from the other 99. The 1 coin, lost on a dusty floor. The 1 son, lost in his youthful rebellion and waywardness. A despised chief tax collector. Prostitutes. People with diseases. Gentiles. You. Me. Jesus comes to seek and to get all of these.

Our Mission with Jesus

Jesus’ mission is “to seek and to save what was lost.”

This has now become the mission of the church, as the visible expression of Jesus’ body on earth.

Faith and action go hand in hand, as they did with Zacchaeus. For him, following Jesus necessarily entailed that he do all he could to bring about justice. The kingdom ethics of Jesus transformed the way he thought about his business relationships. It revolutionized the way he worked.

Zacchaeus responded to Jesus immediately. There was a sense of urgency in his desire to make things right before God.

And he responded to Jesus with joy.

May we be inspired by this unlikely hero. Zacchaeus allowed his whole life to be transformed by his encounter with Jesus, in the very moment of Christ’s coming to him. Salvation has come to our house today. Let’s receive him with joy.

The above is adapted from the sermon I preached this Sunday on Luke 19:1-10, covering the story of Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus. All Scripture quotations come from the NIV (1984). See my other sermons, if you desire, here.

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