Have you ever been written off as a hopeless cause by people around you or even by yourself? Have you ever written someone else off as a lost cause? If so, I’m glad you’re listening in because our story for today has something for you and me to take to heart. In our passage, we find Jesus closing in on Jerusalem where He will carry out the rescue mission for which He was sent. He’s passing through Jericho, which is only about twenty miles from Jerusalem.
Now there was a man who lived in Jericho named Zacchaeus. He was Jewish, a chief tax collector for the Roman Empire, and very rich. We also learned Zacchaeus was short. He was physically short in stature. So short, in fact, he couldn’t see over the crowds welcoming Jesus as He came into town. So he climbed a sycamore tree to get a look at Jesus.
Zacchaeus was short in a variety of other ways as well. He was short in morals. His name meant innocent and pure, but he was anything but. He shorted people out of their money. He worked for the government but tax collectors were known to charge people more than was required in order to make a profit for themselves and line their own pockets. They were cheats.
Zacchaeus didn’t care about the poor or anyone else. He didn’t share his wealth with others. He was tightfisted with his money keeping everything for himself. He was successful, but he lived for making money and having the best things money can buy. Money had become kind of a god in his life. It was his security. He was willing to do anything to get it – even cheat his own people for personal gain, which brings us to the next thing Zacchaeus was short on.
He was short on respectability in his community. Nobody respected him – or even liked him, for that matter.
He probably was very short on friends. After all, he was working for the enemy to make his money. The Roman government at that time was the world power and his nation’s oppressors. He was forcing the people to pay taxes to support the evil Empire. So Zacchaeus was seen not only as a cheat, but also a traitor to his own people.
Finally, Zacchaeus came up short in his relationship with God. He was living a life of disobedience to the commands of God. He stole, and he cheated. He was living for money and depending on it for security instead of God. He was ignoring his neighbors’ needs, the poor, and even his own people. He fell far short of living a righteous life before God.
Zacchaeus had heard Jesus was visiting his community. He had heard some things about His miracles, His teachings that had people excited. There was also talk of Jesus being the Messiah sent from God. So Zacchaeus went to see for himself who this Jesus was and what He was all about.
I wonder if it was just curiosity or perhaps a thirst within, a spiritual thirst. Even with all his possessions and wealth, was something missing for him? Was God already working in him? Only God knows the answer to that question.
When Zacchaeus came to see Jesus, he was in for a big surprise, because, while he came to see Jesus, it turns out Jesus was already on the search for him! A life-changing encounter was about to take place in his life. Because he was so short, Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus coming down the street. So he ran ahead and climbed a tree to get a look at Him.
Finally he can see Jesus approaching. But when Jesus was near, lo and behold, He stopped! He looked at Zacchaeus up in the tree and made a short statement that would change this small man’s life.
“Zacchaeus!” How did He know his name? People had to be wondering. Zacchaeus had to be wondering as well!
“Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
The phrase “I must” speaks of divine necessity. It is used again and again, and it threads its way throughout Luke’s Gospel. It is spoken by Jesus. I must do this, and I must do that. He is under divine orders.
Zacchaeus must have been stunned, maybe even a little embarrassed to be brought into the center of things. And Jesus! He must have wondered, Come and dine? At my house? Today? Right now? I can’t believe it! This man of God wants to come into this old sinner’s house.
We’re told Zacchaeus scrambled down the tree and received Jesus joyfully. Joyfully! Could it be, Jesus’ self invitation to Zacchaeus’ house was heard as an absolution, acceptance, and his joyful receiving Jesus marks the moment of Zacchaeus’ awakening, his conversion? The evidence of faith is joy, right?
Predictably, the people of Jericho grumbled about this action of Jesus as they watched the two of them walk toward Zacchaeus’ house. They said, “He’s gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” Going into someone’s home and having table fellowship with him or her was to basically extend the hand of acceptance. This crook, this traitor did not deserve it, as far as they were concerned.
Now, we don’t know what happened in the house, but when they emerge, what a surprise! A new Zacchaeus was making a public speech to Jesus, showing extravagant, lavish repentance and faith. “Lord! Look!” he said.
The word Lord means Zacchaeus recognized Jesus as the ruler of his life. He shows the turnaround that has taken place in his life as he says, “Look, Lord! One half of everything I own I give to the poor.” Wow! Suddenly an openhanded generosity has taken over his life, which was not there before. Give one-half of everything to the poor. In those days, 20% was considered way out of this world. Zacchaeus is talking half of everything.
Zacchaeus also promises the restoration of money gained through his cheating. To those he cheated, he will give back double what the law even required of him to give. This would reduce his living circumstances substantially, but he does not care. He has found something far more valuable for his life – a relationship with Jesus, living with Christ in the kingdom of God.
Last week’s text was about a rich man as well, the rich young ruler. He encountered Jesus, and after the conversation walked away for he was so rich. Jesus said to those witnessing the conversation, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard Jesus say this then asked, “Who can be saved?” Jesus answered, “What is impossible for man is possible for God.” Today we see this impossible thing happened – a rich man was saved and changed. He let loose of the wealth – which was the center of his life and what he depended upon for a security – and instead entered God’s kingdom. God at work!
Jesus takes the opportunity to have the last word in this episode, by the way. He makes an announcement, an affirmation, and speaks an authoritative word as well. “Today salvation has come to this house!” Jesus is actually talking about Himself, for where He is, salvation is to be found for those who accept them as master and reorder their lives accordingly to follow Him. Zacchaeus is saved.
Jesus also affirms that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, meaning he belongs to God’s people through faith in Jesus. He is family now! God’s family! He believes in Christ and the word of authority.
Jesus then sums up His mission: For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. And that is what has just happened. Jesus sought out Zacchaeus and saved him. This statement is filled with authority as Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man, because the Son of Man was an Old Testament Messiah figure found in the book of Daniel. So Jesus is really saying here, I have the authority from God to find and restore lost people, like Zacchaeus.
These words also point us ahead to Jerusalem where Jesus is headed, and to what awaits Him there. He, who set His face to go to Jerusalem back in Luke chapter 9, is almost there now. His fate lies twenty miles away. Prophets have spoken of the fate awaiting Jesus, the Son of Man – rejection, suffering, and death. However, His mission is not just to die but to rescue lost people from sin and its consequences.
The biblical scholar, N. T. Wright says in his commentary, “The statement in this story, ‘He has gone to spend time with a sinner,’ will now soon change to, Jesus has gone to die with two thieves on a cross. The same reason will underline both of these statements, for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
I find two takeaways for us in this story.
First, Jesus loves short people. I have to say, I’m glad He does! Let me explain . . .
I’m glad about this because I’m short – not physically, though I am shrinking a bit with age. I am short in righteousness before my righteous God. We all fall short in the righteousness department. The apostle Paul says it in this way: “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23). In God’s eyes, we are all Zacchaeuses. All are in need of a Savior. All are in need of God’s forgiveness. All are lost. The Good News is Jesus came to seek and to save us on behalf of His Father who wants reconciliation with all who have fallen short of His righteousness.
We read in II Corinthians 5:21, written by Paul, “At the cross for our sake God made him, Jesus, to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus looks at sinners like me who are stuck up a tree because of our sinfulness, and He calls us to come down to Him – sin and all – that we might have forgiveness and experience God’s grace in our lives.
Dear friends, if you are far from God, if you are feeling like a lost cause and there’s no hope for you, God has not written you off. Maybe people have written you off as a lost cause, and maybe you’ve written yourself off, but God has not. It’s not too late to come to Christ, to come to the One who calls us down to Himself.
Note: He says with a bit of urgency, “I must come and stay in your house today.” Someday it will be too late; It will be your judgment day.
This story reminds me a bit of Jesus’ promise in Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, I will come into him and eat with him and he with me.” Rescue and salvation awaits, standing at the door. A new start, a new joy-filled life awaits anyone who opens the door of their life to the Savior, Jesus Christ, and it lasts for an eternity.
So friend, whatever your story is, Jesus is calling you – today – to Himself. He is seeking you in order to save you.
Second. This take-away is for those of us who call Him Savior and Lord and are in Christ’s Church. The Master is teaching His disciples, His Church, that there are no write-offs in His book. No one beyond His redemption. With God, the impossible becomes possible. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Can we, who call ourselves Christ’s Church, do anything less? We are not to piously separate ourselves from the world and give up contact with the lost types and the prodigals, people whose morals, values, and lifestyles make us cringe and feel uncomfortable, who maybe even oppose Christ. Instead, remember that we are sinners ourselves, saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. We are to humbly make the approach and seek to enter into a loving relationship with them.
I ask you, who have you given up on in your life? Who have you written off as a hopeless, lost cause? There have been times in my own life, God forgive me, when I’ve self-righteously stood in the company of the grumblers in this story who had written Zacchaeus off. It’s so easy to do.
A few years back a Christian songwriter named Bruce Carroll wrote a profound song in which each verse describes a person whose life is totally messed up. In the chorus he asks this question,
Who will be Jesus to them?
Who will show the love that restores them again?
For they do not need a judge, they need a friend
Who will be Jesus to them?
Will you? For it is the mission Jesus has given you. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer