The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity August 26, 2001
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 wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” 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.” 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.” Here ends our text.
In Jesus Christ, the Seeker and Savior of sinners, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Have you ever noticed how often you hear people who are outstanding in their profession described in terms of greatness or largeness? You might hear someone say, “That Cal Ripkin—he’s a giant in the game of baseball,” or, “No one can match the huge talent of Leonard Bernstein for conducting an orchestra.” Someone who has a generous personality they call magnanimous. If you show yourself to be unselfish by some good deed, you friends might say, “That’s big of you!” By contrast, today we’re going to look at a man who wasn’t big at all, and who had probably never done anything “great” in his entire life. In our study of Zacchaeus, we’ll take a look at—
Zacchaeus was certainly short in more ways than one. Most obviously, he was short in height. So short, in fact, that he was kind of at a disadvantage when Jesus was passing through his town; he couldn’t see over the crowd that lined the streets. He was like a little child at a Fourth of July parade who just can’t see over the heads of the older people, and can’t seem to get a glimpse of the fascinating procession. Evidently he had heard of Jesus; perhaps he hoped that he might see Him perform a miracle. At any rate, Zacchaeus had to use some ingenuity to get his chance at seeing Jesus, so he climbed up into a sycamore tree to get a better view of the street. When you think about it, though, this may seem to be a strange thing for him to do, because we are told that he was wealthy. He was rich! How strange that in a relatively small town where everyone pretty well knew everyone else, no one would step aside so that this rich man could get to the front of the crowd and see Jesus. And that brings us to another facet of the character of Zacchaeus: he was despised by the people of his own community; he was short in the eyes of society!
The text reveals to us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. These tax collectors, also called publicans, were the most hated element of Jewish society. If the words “publicans and sinners” seem familiar, it is because they were considered synonymous in those days, and the two words often appear together in the New Testament. The publicans, or tax collectors, actually worked for the hated Roman government, who occupied and ruled over Palestine at the time of Christ. They were commissioned to collect taxes from their own people. As their pay, they were allowed to extort as much money as they could from their fellow Jews. These were men who made robbing their neighbors and betraying their people a way of life. As far as Jewish culture was concerned, one may as well have been a thief or a prostitute as a tax collector.
Zacchaeus was short in the eyes of his society. But if we look at the Jewish society of that day we can’t consider that to make much of a difference. Something like the pot calling the kettle black! Because by this time, the religion of Judaism had deteriorated into a hypocritical system of work-righteousness and outward piety. We see from the story of the Pharisee and the publican that a man was judged a good Jew by how “righteous” he could declare himself before other men. The most respected Jews were those who could boast large contributions to the synagogue, and who made a point of praying loudly on the street corners. The martyr Stephen described the Jews in this way, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears, you are just like your fathers: you always resist the Holy Spirit!” Acts 7:51. Being an outcast from this false, self-righteous religion wasn’t really much of a loss. At least Zacchaeus no longer had to listen to the treacherous religious leaders that Jesus called “blind leaders of the blind.”
How painful it must have been, though to be despised and ridiculed by all his neighbors! For all his wealth, he could not gain the respect of the humblest tradesman or the poorest farmer. How sad he must have felt when he realized how short he came up in the eyes of society.
But Zacchaeus was short in another, more important way: he was short in the eyes of God. He had carried into life, at his birth, the original sin that is inherent in all men from Adam. On top of this, he lived in open sin daily, by the very nature of his work; his job was to be an extortionist and a betrayer of his people. He had no part in the Jewish religion, so he couldn’t comfort himself with that kind of self-righteousness. He probably had no illusions as to his condition; he felt the crushing weight of his many sins. Perhaps he had heard it said that some considered Jesus the promised Messiah; perhaps not. We do know this, however: when Jesus called him down out of the sycamore tree, and went to stay at his home and preach the Good News there, Zacchaeus repented of his evil life and was saved!
On another occasion, also concerning tax collectors, Jesus had said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick—I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” When the rest of the crowd saw Jesus associating with Zacchaeus, they started grumbling about it. They considered themselves healthy and righteous. Why should Jesus hang around with a man like this tax collector when he might rather stay at the home of a good, upstanding Jewish citizen? But Jesus had “come to call sinners.” And Zacchaeus knew that he was sick—sick with a heavy load of sin—and he knew that he needed a doctor. He had come to realize his total inability to help himself out of his predicament. There was nothing he could do to save himself, and he knew it. Imagine his joy then, as Jesus unfolded the gospel message to him. Perhaps Jesus was teaching him on the road to Zacchaeus’ house, or maybe later, during dinner. But we know that Zacchaeus received the good news with joy, and a believing heart. We know it, because he showed the strength of his newborn faith by the fruits of that faith. This is the natural result of true repentance and a god-given faith; as St. Paul said, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God, and prove their repentance by their deeds.” And prove it he did! He said, “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.”
In repentance, this “short” man had become a giant! All his earthly wealth, which had been his only reason for living, meant nothing to him now, compared with the wonderful freedom from sin which Christ had revealed to him in the gospel. Look at the willingness with which Zacchaeus gives up so much of his wealth: if a “rich man: by today’s standards were to give up half his goods, it might mean half a $200,000 home, half a $50,000 bank account and half a $20,000 car. But what was money to him? Jesus had just opened the gates of heaven wide in front of him! Far from being short in the eyes of God, he realized that the righteousness of Christ had made him a giant, God’s own child, and an heir of eternal life!
Jesus saw the fruits of Zacchaeus’ faith, and He saw the faith itself in the heart of Zacchaeus. He declared, “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.” Zacchaeus had been lost; he had come up short on all counts. But Jesus had sought him as he clung to the branches of that sycamore tree, peering over the heads of the crowd. Jesus had saved him, and made him a “son of Abraham.” The self-righteous Pharisees believed that just because they were descendants of Abraham they deserved respect in the eyes of God. But John the Baptist had said to them, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” Luke 3:8. No, God has revealed who are the true sons of Abraham when he says, through the Apostle Paul, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” Gal 3:6-7. Zacchaeus, that despised tax collector, that social outcast who was short in so many ways, had become a spiritual giant!
When we view the hypocritical, self-righteous society of Jesus’ day, we can’t help being reminded of the society in which we live. There are only a very small fraction of our United States’ citizens who still hold to the pure truths set forth in the Bible. If you happen to discuss religion with a stranger, you are likely to hear ideas such as this one: “Well, I lead a pretty good life, and I try my best to do what’s right. I guess that’s all anyone can expect!” It is quite understandable that, in the midst of the sinful world of our day, the true Christian can feel like an outcast in society, just like Zacchaeus was! He realizes that there isn’t a single thing he can do to help cover up his sins before a God who demands, “Be ye perfect, for I the Lord thy God am perfect!” When we read what God requires of us in His Law, and feel the pangs of our guilty conscience, we can only despair of our efforts to please Him. We can only cry out, with that other famous publican, “Lord, have mercy on me—a sinner!”
We Christians, too, can quickly become outcasts from society when we don’t go along with the idea that “there are many paths to heaven.” All of a sudden people won’t like you very much if you don’t smile and agree with them that “it doesn’t really matter what religion you are, as long as you believe in some God.”
May we always continue to despise our own merits and worthiness, and come out of the crowd, to the call of Jesus’ Gospel message. May we realize that, if we are short in the eyes of the sinful society in which we live, it is, after all, a good thing. May we realize how short we will fall in the eyes of God if we lean upon our own good works for salvation. Finally, may we realize that, according to the righteousness of Christ, we too have been made giants in the very faith of Abraham. We confess with the hymn writer:
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress,
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head! AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.