When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5)
What must it have been like for Zacchaeus to hear these words? On the one hand, he was very successful. Not simply a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector–the only time this term is used in the New Testament. As one might expect from the title, he was also rich. We might think that he had everything going for him. But of course there is the fact that he was not only a tax-collector, but the chief tax collector. Not only hated, but hated all the more for his success, since, as many of you know, tax collectors in that era made their living by collaborating with the imperial force occupying the land. They collaborated with the Romans–gentiles–and they made their money by taking whatever they could get from the people over and above the basic amount called for by Rome.
For Zacchaeus to be a tax collector at all was to put him at odds with the dominant values of the religious establishment, but for him to be so successful, to be so wealthy… that just convinced everyone that he was extorting his neighbors to fill his own coffers.
Most people obviously distrusted and probably hated Zacchaeus, and while other tax collectors had been given a chance among the followers of Jesus, none was likely as successful as Zacchaeus. That success, that wealth, meant something. Not long before this meeting Jesus explained how difficult it would be for a wealthy person entering the Kingdom of Heaven, comparing it to the difficulty a Camel would have going through the eye of a needle (Luke 18:25). We know, of course, that it is futile for anyone to try to enter the kingdom based upon their own righteousness or works. But that’s now. At the time, this example was fresh. What hope could someone like Zacchaeus possibly have for salvation? Could he even hope?
Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as he and his disciples came through Jericho, only that he was “seeking to see who Jesus was.” Maybe he’d heard that Jesus was passing through. Maybe he wanted to catch a glimpse of the person some were calling Messiah. Or maybe he just wondered who was causing such a commotion and he wondered if he could collect a tax. We simply don’t know much about Zacchaeus’ motivations for wanting to see Jesus. We know why he climbed the tree to see Jesus.. the old children’s song tells us that, and summarizes most of the story:
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down;
“For I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.”
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I MUST stay at your house today.” The word that Jesus uses–must–is an indicator of divine calling. He must stay with Zacchaeus as part of his mission. The people grumble when they hear: how could Jesus want to stay with Zacchaeus, with such a scoundrel? What good could possibly come of it?
The answer is in Zacchaeus’ response. Zacchaeus must’ve heard the complaints of the crowed, “He [Jesus] has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” When Zacchaeus stands, he tells Jesus “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.” But this is not in response to the complaints and murmurs of the crowed–he must’ve heard their grumbling and their insults often enough–but it is instead a response to the grace that God has given him.
Zacchaeus responds to the fact that Jesus comes to him. He responds to the fact that Jesus looks him in the eye, tells him to get down from there, because he MUST stay with him that night. The grace and mercy of God, the wonder of God seeking the lost, inspires repentance and a change in the life of Zacchaeus. What judgement and ridicule and hatred could not do is accomplished by love and mercy. Zacchaeus stands before Christ as a changed man, and it is Christ who initiates the change.
“Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says “since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)
This account of the story of Zacchaeus is one of the most beloved in scripture, in part, I believe, because of the immediate response Jesus’ mercy generates on the part of Zacchaeus. This story hearkens back to the promise that Jesus made to the disciples, after the teaching about the difficulty of the wealthy entering the Kingdom of Heaven. When they heard that teaching, the disciples were concerned, and wondered if anyone could be saved. Jesus promised them that what was impossible with men is possible with God. Amazing things happen because of God’s mercy–like the conversion of a chief tax collector.
But the other reason this account stands out, is, I believe because of its vividness. I was reading something recently that is somewhat tantalizing to consider. In his wonderful book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospel’s as Eyewitness Testimony, Dr. Richard Bauckham advances a thesis that is at once simple and paradigm shifting. It can be summarized this way: the characters who are named and unnamed in the Gospels do not always follow a logical pattern. Sometimes seemingly minor characters are named while some figures that one would expect to be named are not. The reason for this, he suggests, is that many of these minor figures who recieve names, are actually the sources for much of the Gospel material–they are the eyewitnesses. This is part of what he writes about the story of Zacchaeus, among others:
“[I]t is at least interesting that some of the stories we have suggested come from those who are named in them are among the most vividly told. [...] The last three of these four stories are certainly told from the perspective of the named characters. In fact, if the details in these stories really are recollected, rather than the product of storytelling imagination, they can only have been recollected by, respectively, Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, and Cleopas.” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony, p. 55)
Consider for a moment that, rather than the recollection of one of Jesus’ disciples, this story could’ve been a written account of Zacchaeus’ own experience. We wonder what it must’ve been like for Zacchaeus to have Jesus stop, look directly at him and say “I must stay at your house today?” We know what it was like: it was transformative–it changed his life.
The good news for us today is that the mercy of God that called out so directly to Zacchaeus on the fringes of society, is the same mercy that is extended to us. Christ looks into the soul of each and every one of us and says “I must stay with you.” And we, like Zacchaeus, have the opportunity to have our lives transformed by the love and mercy of God. Amen.