Many of us can remember the Vacation Bible School song about Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.” We remember that the song tells us that he climbed up into a sycamore tree “for the Lord he wanted to see”. We also remember where is says that Jesus bid him “Zacchaeus, you come down from there, for I’m staying at your house today.”
As good as the song is at teaching us the basic details about Jesus and Zacchaeus, it falls far short of just how significant this passage is. It is not just a cute story for Sunday School or a ditty that children sing to the adults on the last night of Vacation Bible School to their adoring parents.
Come with me, and let us explore this text in more depth. Please turn your Bibles to Luke 19.
Exposition of the Text
Verse one begins with Jesus beginning the last leg of the journey to the cross. It says that He entered the city of Jericho. The text implies that Jesus came there by crossing the Jordan River from the east, the same way that Joshua and the children of Israel had crossed more than a thousand years earlier on their way to conquer the Promised Land. A chief tax collector named Zacchaeus heard about it and desired to see Him. He was responsible for a group of tax collectors who were hated by the Jews for the strong arm tactics they used to collect taxes for Rome. So Zacchaeus would have been the most hated of them all. He would have been considered not just a sinner man, but the chief of sinners by the Jews.
At first, it seems that Zacchaeus was curious just like many others and wanted to see Him and find out about him. Because Zacchaeus was short, he could not see Jesus for the crowd. So the text says he ran ahead to climb a sycamore tree so that he could see him. The very act of running would mean that he would have to tuck up his robe into his belt. Running fast could expose his private parts which would have been shameful. This is especially true when Zacchaeus had to climb into the tree. But Zacchaeus, unlike the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who was a noblemen who was a good man who was willing to expose himself to shame for sinners, Zacchaeus was already at the bottom. He was the sinner man just like the prodigal. The people who saw Zacchaeus, especially those who knew him would probably have laughed at him.
Jesus soon came to the place where Zacchaeus was and called him out by name. how did Jesus even know his name? We know that as God’s Son led by the Holy Spirit that Jesus had the ability to know his name. It would be interesting to know whether Jesus who was also human and learned things like everyone else whether He had heard the crowd mocking Zacchaeus. Or perhaps Jesus has heard of his infamous reputation elsewhere. What is truly remarkable is that Jesus called him out.
What is even more shocking is what happens next. Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down because He needs to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that night. The people of the place knew Zacchaeus. By being called a sinner man, it probably meant that Zacchaeus had been excommunicated from the synagogue and was treated like a Gentile. The Pharisees would have considered Jesus going to the sinner man’s house as revoltingly as if Jesus had gone to the house of a prostitute. The buzz went immediately shot through the crowd. Why was Jesus going to a sinner man’s house to lodge with the chief of sinners? Were there not good Jews who would have offered Jesus and His disciples a place to stay for the night? Jesus made the offer to stay there, which makes this scene an absolute affront to the Pharisees.
In verse eight, we don’t know whether Zacchaeus makes his confession after he has received Jesus to his home or whether he was still in public. I tend to think the latter is the case. In it, Zacchaeus all but admits that he has cheated people or at least the tax collectors who were under him. The law of Moses said that a thief who was caught in the act had to pay twice what he stole and if caught later, four times what he stole. By saying that he would repay fourfold, it indicated that Zacchaeus put himself in the latter category. He also promised half his goods to the poor.
Zacchaeus makes a pledge to Jesus which would probably result in his financial ruin. He was already giving half away to the poor and would have to make fourfold restitution from the other half. If he had cheated just over ten percent of the time, he would be destitute. This is a stunning repentance, unlike the crocodile tears shed by others for their sins.
Jesus responds by saying that this very day that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house. It is interesting how this is worded as it implies His household as well. Perhaps the witness was so powerful that Zacchaeus’ entire household was saved as a result, just like the Philippian jailor’s house in the Book of Acts. Jesus emphatically lifts the ban of excommunication, whether formal or informal and says that Zacchaeus was now a son of Abraham, just like the father in the Prodigal Son story restored the ring to his son, put new clothes on him, and invited him to dine. And I suppose that many in the crowd would have reacted to Jesus’ statement in much the same way as the older son who stayed home.
Jesus tells the crowd as he has elsewhere that his mission was to seek and save those who are lost. Jesus did not come to praise the righteous, as if there were any righteous other than Himself. He had accomplished another rescue of a sinner man. Soon He would die for all sinners who would receive Him as Zacchaeus did. And after that, He would personally call another who called himself “The chief of Sinners”, the Apostle Paul.
The mission accomplished, Jesus sits down to a feast with Zacchaeus and his house. It might be the last feast Zacchaeus would be able to throw. But this is a time of great joy as a sinner man had come home. Jesus is recorded, especially in Luke as a man who feasted with sinners. There was a feast at the conversion of Matthew. It was at a feast that the sinner woman came and washed Jesus’ feet with tears. There was a feast when the prodigal came home. The return of sinner men and women are occasions of great joy in heaven, so great that the comparison is left open. There is nothing on the “then” side to which a comparison can be made. Zacchaeus might be on the verge of losing everything he had in this world. But Christ had found him. Even if he became destitute on earth, he would have riches in heaven. The banquet he held for Jesus was nothing to be compared with the banquet Jesus is preparing for him and all sinner men and women who have believed on Him in heaven.
This account is similar to the account of Rahab in the Book of Joshua. And if we remember that in Hebrew, Jesus’ name is Yeshua just like Joshua. They both crossed the Jordan into Jericho. Joshua was told to destroy the city. He sent spies who lodged at the house of a prostitute. This Rahab had believed God’s story that the city was to be destroyed and asked for mercy. All those who came to her house were saved. In this story, In this day, salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house. But there is one major difference. Jericho was not to be the destroyed city. Rather Jesus would come to Jerusalem and wail at the destruction of its walls, building, and even the Temple which would be flattened without one stone remaining upon another.
I brought up this story to show that Jesus was not doing a new thing in His mission from God. God has always been the one who seeks after lost sinner men and women. It goes back to Genesis itself. In fact, God is the only seeker as Adam and Eve, the first sinner man and sinner woman who represent us all fled from God and tried to hide their nakedness. It is the same god who called out Adam who called out Zacchaeus this day. It is the same God who calls us out. We may be the very chief of sinners. Others might see us as being beyond help. We might see ourselves as being without help. We might cry out with the Apostle Paul: “O wretch that I am! Who can save me from this body of death?” But Paul quickly answers himself: “But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” By faith in Jesus, our sentence of condemnation is lifted and we become the children of Abraham who was a sinner man saved by faith, just like everyone else who comes to Jesus. If you have come to faith in Jesus already, you must remind yourself from where you came. If you have not yet heard Him calling your name, ask that you might hear it, and obey when you hear. For God is not willing that anyone perish, and this means you. Jesus is still seeking to save the lost even today.
I cannot promise you earthly gain and riches if you follow Jesus. In fact, you may lose everything you own, even your life. But when we consider that earthly wealth is only temporary, we should not consider it worth dying for if this means losing eternal wealth. Rather we should embrace the cross which Jesus bids us carry. Whereas it is not worth dying for one’s earthly possessions, it is worth it all, if need be, to suffer the loss of all things for what is gained in Christ. Zacchaeus found that pearl of great price and was willing to give up all to acquire it. Do you so value Christ?