October 30, 2022
Zacchaeus is an interesting character in the gospel story. He is only mentioned this one time, in this one chapter, only in Luke’s gospel—and yet, we all know about him! It’s crazy what a simple song can do to make something or someone easy to remember. Like the smell of lutefisk, a catchy tune lingers. And when we learn it in our childhood, it really sticks! But here we are, hearing the story of Zacchaeus—what do we know about him?
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of the region in and around Jericho. Now, obviously that meant he was in charge of collecting taxes—but not like some regional IRS agent. Instead, Roman taxes were “farmed out.” Rome would invite the richest men of the region to bid on how much money they could raise in taxes, and whoever could raise the most was given the contract—and Roman power—to collect those taxes. They put down the cash to cover the whole tax bill for a region, and in return they were given the legal right to collect that tax money from the population and pocket it. Plus, they could collect whatever more they could get away with on top of that. Zacchaeus was the guy in charge of that racket.
The thing is, being chief tax collector meant that he was both very powerful and very despised in his community of Jericho. He was an important person and he was recognized (not just because he was really short) wherever he went. So when he noticed the crowds gathering and lining the streets to see Jesus, he wanted to know who this important person was. And he couldn’t see Jesus, because he was short. And no one was going to move to help him get a better view. He ended up having to do the really humbling act of climbing up a sycamore tree—like some child, and not a powerful official of the Roman government—just to see Jesus.
Then there’s this really powerful scene where Jesus notices Zacchaeus. In the song, we remember it, Jesus almost seems to be scolding Zacchaeus, or at least impatiently commanding him: “you come down!” But what if Jesus isn’t impatient, or scolding? What if Jesus is joyful? Expectant? What if Jesus saw Zacchaeus, and immediately knew “this is the one and I am so happy he’s here!” So he said to Zacchaeus, “come on down; I need to eat at your place today!”
We’ve talked about how dinner invitations were really important before. But can you imagine it? Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector. He was powerful, but he was hated by his neighbors. He never heard the end of short jokes behind his back. He couldn’t get anyone but Roman occupiers to have dinner at his house; they’re the only ones not ashamed to be associated with him. And here is Jesus, this man surrounded by crowds of people, this bringer of good news, this man of God, not just asking but insisting on joining him for dinner! No wonder he is happy to accept how Jesus just invited himself to dinner!
In fact, he’s more than happy. Jesus’s graciousness in pushing past all the problems of what Zacchaeus does and insisting on associating with him caused something in Zacchaeus to change. For the first time in who knows how long, someone saw him. Someone knew him. Someone looked at him and saw a man in need of community, a man lost in the corruption of the system, whose neighbors had given up on him, whose community had ostracized him. For the first time in likely decades, Zacchaeus saw hope for coming back. He saw the possibility of being friends with his own people again, of sharing meals with his neighbors again, of talking to the people he grew up with again. In a moment, Zacchaeus knew exactly what he had to do.
So he made this bold declaration. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Remember how tax collectors could collect whatever they could get away with on top of their bid? That’s the “defrauding” he’s talking about—his cut! And he says he’ll restore it fourfold! Because being restored to his community meant that much! The simple act of Jesus insisting on dinner, insisting on the possibility of Zacchaeus’s redemption, opened the floodgates of repentance. Zacchaeus didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to right the wrongs of his life, because Jesus had shown him that he could be saved, too.
I love the message of this story of Zacchaeus exactly for that reason. Too often I’ve seen the message of the gospel being boiled down to scaring people into correcting their behavior. If you don’t shape up, you’ll burn for eternity! If you don’t repent, you will be punished! If you don’t accept Jesus, you will never see your family again! And it’s awful! So many people have experienced God as being this overbearing judge who is just waiting for us to mess up. Even Martin Luther lived in absolute dread that he wasn’t good enough, that he wasn’t being forgiven for sins he didn’t account for, that his salvation was being held only with the barest of threads. Fear is a great motivator, sure, but fear doesn’t change people. It only stops us from doing things as long as we’re afraid.
But Zacchaeus wasn’t afraid. Jesus didn’t come barging in and threatening him with hellfire if he didn’t repent. The motivation wasn’t the fear of punishment. Instead, it was the one thing that actually can change the human heart: hope. Jesus showed Zacchaeus hope that he wasn’t too far gone. He showed Zacchaeus that if even one person can hold out hope for you to do better, then you can have the motivation to change. And Zacchaeus leaped on it. He had been longing for a way out of his brokenness, a release from his sins, and a way back to the community he knew, and loved, and grew up in. All he needed, it turns out, was someone to show him that it was possible.
That is how God’s grace works. It’s not something we work to earn. It’s not something we have to be terrified of losing. Instead, that amazing grace is God’s free gift to us—a branch of hope extended our way, there for us to grab. And if you’ve been longing for a way out, for a way to be restored, for hope that you are not going to be left in the outer darkness away from your community and your God, there is grace for that. There is grace available in abundance. There is grace enough to turn you from brokenness toward wholeness. There is grace enough to change you.
And when that happens, when that hope dawns on you and the full crashing wave of salvation breaks into your life and you are changed forever, then Jesus is there saying, “see, salvation has come to this house.” Because that’s what salvation looks like: a life lifted from the gloom of sin and isolation, brought into the world of hope and love and grace and salvation. And sometimes all is needed is Jesus’s insistence that you sit down and eat with him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.