Zack: Another sermon on the Grace of God

Zacchaeus the Tax Collector

Read Luke 19:1-9 

1 He entered and was passing through Jericho. 2 There was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, and couldn’t because of the crowd, because he was short. 4 He ran on ahead, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 He hurried, came down, and received him joyfully. 7 When they saw it, they all murmured, saying, “He has gone in to lodge with a man who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. If I have wrongfully exacted anything of anyone, I restore four times as much.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.

For convenience sake we're going to call him "Zack"

Purpose of the story? Some commonly heard suggestions:

  • Zacchaeus had identity problems because of his size, that is why he is hiding…
  • But Jesus loves him even when Zack is quite short
  • Jesus sees you, even if you're trying to hide in a tree!

Sounds familiar?

My problem with all these interpretations is that:
It is not a natural and straight reading of this passage. Of course we need to do some work to understand the culture of the story, but that is because we are from a different time and culture. They are anachronistic. Psychology, psychoanalysis and counseling are very 20th century. People in the original time of the story would not have had all this knowledge. Biggest problem: focuses on Zack instead of Jesus. Gospels, in this case Luke's, is all about Jesus. Every Gospel story is meant to show you more about Jesus.
Let's have a look at this story.

1. "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."

In Jericho lives Zack. Zack is a tax collector (bad sign!)… Just as in Jesus time, being a tax collector in our time does not make you very popular. We don't like to pay taxes! But, In Jesus time being a tax collector was actually a lot worse, it was really bad.

Tax collector = traitor!
In Jesus' days Israel, just like big parts of Europe and Northern Africa, was part of the Roman Empire. Everyone had to pay tax to the Romans. The Romans, very clever, did not collect these taxes themselves. Instead they appointed local people and made them responsible for collecting these taxes.

The Romans did not care how these tax collectors collected the taxes or if they took some extra money for themselves, as long as the tax collector collected all the money they required. If you could not or did not want to pay your taxes, the tax collector could use some "pressure" to force you to. Roman soldiers, his own mob…

If you take money from your own people and give it to the enemy you are a traitor and a collaborator… Not only a traitor, but also a thief. A very good thief, because he was very rich, the story tells us! And on top of all was CHIEF of traitors and of thieves! In short: when the crowd call Zack a "sinner" they are right! This is not a nice guy!

Grace: Zack does not deserve attention from Jesus!

And ironically the name Zacchaeus means – pure and righteous one!

2. Jesus does the weirdest thing…

3 [Zack] wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today".

Jesus invites himself for dinner! Very impolite in Holland! (This is the only time in the Bible Jesus invites himself into someone's house) Jesus is going to eat with this traitor? Is he out of his mind? Shouldn't Jesus teach this guy a lesson? Rebuke him publicly, curse the tree so Zack would fall down…

Grace: Zack certainly does not deserve a VISIT from Jesus! 

Now he's going to stay with him! Which in Jesus time meant: eating! In Jesus time staying in someone's house and eating with someone meant that you we're approving this person and his actions. "I am okay with this guy", "We're cool together". Can you see yourself having dinner with your country's biggest traitor?… That's why the crowd were upset!

3. 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.”

Some people (especially in children's bibles) state that "Jesus had a very long talk with Zack, we don't know what they talked about, but the result of Jesus talking o Zack resulted in his repententance, his change. While I am sure Jesus and Zack did talk with one another, the Bible does not present this as the reason Zack changed! E.g. "Jesus told Zack that He knew about all his activities and He told him to stop with it".

What the Bible does tell us is that Jesus visits Zack, and Zack changes. 
Jesus does not preach to Zack, tell him how sinful he is. He did not judge or condemn Zack. He simply pays him a visit. The result is that Zack changes completely. He has become "a new person"! Not a little change, little repentance (okay, I am sorry). Radical change. According to Jewish law: stealing, pay back actual amount + 1/5th extra. Zack: 4x! and after he has given back all the stolen money: half of his possessions to the poor! There is also no delay. Zack does not say: tomorrow, or this week I will…No, "here and now I give back"…

Grace: The presence of Jesus changes people

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

1. Listen carefully at what Jesus is saying here! Not: "today you are saved" or "today God has saved you" (All of which is true BTW!) He says: "Today salvation has come to this house". Who has come to the house? Jesus! What Jesus is actually saying is: I AM salvation! Not just: I preach salvation". He does, but He IS! Our Gospel is not just a message, it is a Person!

2. The Lost
I think we'd all agree that Zack was really lost. He really needed Jesus to save him. What about ourselves? Are, or were we really, really lost? Without Jesus, are we just as bad as Zack? In previous stories in Luke we run into people who think they are good enough for God. They are not as bad as other people, they pray, they give money, they go to church, …They are too good to be saved! We also see people who think of themselves as "too bad to be saved". "I am not good enough for Jesus". The story of Zack shows us that no one is bad enough for Jesus to save him/her! In the Bible we often find people judging Jesus for being friends with sinners. Why does He eat with prostitutes, sinners, tax collectors? Jesus never apologizes for spending times with sinners. On the contrary: He always confirms that He does what He does with good reason. "Healthy people do not need a doctor, sick people do". "I have come to seek and save the lost".

3. Jesus was not accidentally visiting this town and then by mere coincidence he runs in to Zack. When we read the bigger story, we'll see that Jesus is on a mission and He 's on his way to Jerusalem to give his life as a sacrifice on the cross. Jesus came exactly for people like Zack!

Conclusion: Jesus came, ate, saved!