“Zacchaeus….I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5)
On His way to the cross, Jesus visited the city of Jericho, where He would visit with another outcast, a man with few friends, if any. We are not told anything about this man’s personal life, just his public life and bad reputation, for he was a “chief tax collector.”(Luke 19:1) His name was Zacchaeus and he was a very wealthy Jew who had collaborated with Rome. We have already seen that tax collectors were among the most despised people in Israel, for they had become rich at the expense of their own people.
Furthermore, Zacchaeus was no ordinary tax collector, but one who held the highest office at one of the major custom centers in the land. In order to finance their extensive empire, the Romans had levied heavy taxes on all the provinces under their control. In Israel, these taxes had become so excessive that they were extremely burdensome, and to think that some of their own people were collecting these taxes, which were supporting their foreign overlords, was more than they could bear; and the “chief “tax collectors were among the chief of sinners.
Nevertheless, Jesus had plans to visit Zacchaeus, to even go to his house for dinner, which was seen as disgraceful behavior for a man who claimed to be a prophet of God, a righteous man. The Pharisees had already complained to His disciples about such flagrant disregard for Jewish law and Jewish life, asking, “Why does your Lord and Master eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In his gospel, Luke, the faithful historian of the Early Church, records how Jesus, time and time again, did not allow the fear of public opinion, including the opposition of the entrenched religious authorities, prevent Him from excluding no one from His ministry of mercy. Nothing could dissuade him from His mission to bring salvation even to those who were considered outcasts and beyond the reach of God’s forgiving and redeeming love. Zacchaeus was considered such a person by his own people.
We are told that Zacchaeus was a little man, i.e. small of stature, but that is not what made him small in the eyes of his neighbors in Jericho—it was his guilt and greed. However, there was one good thing to be said for Zacchaeus—he wanted to see Jesus. But it is much more encouraging to learn that Jesus wanted to see him. However, since he was so small and the crowd was so large, Zacchaeus had to climb up in a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as He was passing by. Luke tells us that when Jesus came to that place, “He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5)
Yes, Zacchaeus was eager to see this prophet of God whose reputation as a “friend of sinners” had preceded Him, but he had no idea that this day was going to be the first day of the rest of his life, a new life, a life lived under new management. How shocked and surprised he must have been when Jesus looked up, looked directly at him, and invited Himself to his home for dinner, and how stunned the other citizens of Jericho, standing by and listening in, must have been. In fact, Luke adds this footnote: “All who saw it (notice the word “all”) began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'” (Luke 19:7)
We are not told what transpired during His visit with Zacchaeus, what Jesus shared with him, but we are told that something happened that was truly amazing, something that cannot be explained apart from the power of Jesus Christ to transform people. There was a radical transformation, a change of nature, that could only occur after genuine repentance, which is a change of the mind, a change on one’s thought life, a change of direction, an “about face.” Zacchaeus was already a new man before Jesus left his home, for as the Master was leaving he said, “Lord, look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Jesus told him, “Today, salvation has come to this house,” and Jesus saw Zacchaeus as he had never been seen before, because the old man he was before had died, and a new man had been born. (Luke 19:8-9)
Something had happened to Zacchaeus that required God to explain it. I have asked previously, what is there about your life and mine that simply cannot be explained apart from the power of God to change human nature, to change the direction of a person’s life? There must be something that proves a new identity, new values, new priorities, new goals, new aspirations, new attitudes, as there was in the life of this chief tax collector. What as it? He wanted to make amends, restitution, and wanted to share his possessions with the poor. Money was no longer his god.
What changes do we need to make? What changes in our behavior might convince others that we too have been with Jesus, that salvation has come to our house? Perhaps the use of our own possessions might also be one major indicator of our salvation. In His teachings, Jesus had a lot to say about this very thing. So many of His parables were warnings about the dangers of greed, the perils of covetousness, which is idolatry. Suffice it to say, the way we use the financial resources God has entrusted to us is a good spiritual barometer to gauge the depth of our trust in God, and to evaluate the quality of our commitment to be faithful stewards and servants of our Servant Lord.