Jesus says he “must” come to dinner! Now! Immediately! We might think of this as presumptuous and rude. But Zacchaeus is overjoyed. Here he was, a social outcast being offered the opportunity to host one of the most famous men in the country. Of course, he is happy. He scrambles down the tree and welcomes Jesus. The word “welcome” is Greek hypodechomai, “to receive hospitably, receive, welcome, entertain as a guest.”
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.'” (Luke 19:1-10, NIV)
This final event in Luke’s long section detailing Jesus’ ministry on the road to Jerusalem ends with the story of Zacchaeus. It sums up several of the themes that Luke has developed, including who may become disciples and how discipleship should affect their lives. It concludes with Jesus the Great Shepherd, seeking and saving the lost.
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.” (19:1)
Jesus has no plans to stay in Jericho. But it lies on the way to his final destination — Jerusalem. The words “passing through” translate the Greek word dierchomai, “go or travel through.”
Luke, the storyteller, first introduces the chief character, Zacchaeus, and then goes back to Jesus who is entering the city. This quick shift of scenes helps the reader get acquainted with Zacchaeus so that the full significance of the story is appreciated at its climax.
“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.” (19:2-4)
We meet a small man, too short to see over the crowd. His name is Zacchaeus, an abbreviation of Zechariah, meaning “the righteous one”– a big name to live up to.
The name is incongruous for Zacchaeus, since he is the chief tax collector in Jericho, and tax collectors were notorious for cheating the general public to fatten their pockets. They would assess a tax, and if the person refused to pay or called it unfair, Herod’s soldiers would threaten him. Regions of a kingdom would be divided up into districts, and a tax collector would become responsible for collecting a certain amount of tax and passing it up the chain to the government. Whatever he collected over the amount required was his to keep. A chief tax collector would employ tax collectors under him to collect taxes in various parts of the district.
As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus probably was responsible for collecting tolls on goods coming into Judea from Perea, a main trade route. This business has made him rich. The word for “wealthy” is Greek plousios, “pertaining to having an abundance of earthly possessions that exceeds normal experience, rich, wealthy.” But despite his riches, or perhaps because of them, Zacchaeus is hated by the people. They see him as a crook and a traitor, who works as a spy for the Roman oppressors in order to take their money and give it to the occupation government, and on to Rome.
Zacchaeus is short, wealthy, and hated. But he is also curious. He hears that Jesus is coming through town and is determined to see him. The word “wanted” (NIV) or “sought” (KJV) is Greek zēteō, “to devote serious effort to realize one’s desire or objective, strive for, aim (at) try to obtain, desire, wish (for).” One evidence of his earnestness and purpose is the fact that he runs ahead to where he knows Jesus will pass. The words “ran ahead” translate Greek protrechō, “outrun, run on ahead.” He finds a large tree, and therein establishes a reconnaissance outpost where he will be able to see Jesus without attracting unwanted attention. The sycamore-fig tree (Ficus sycomorus) is a robust evergreen tree that grows to about 40 feet (12 meters) high, with branches spreading in every direction. Their many branches make them easy to climb. It is springtime, and new leaves have appeared among the old foliage on the tree. Zacchaeus is ready.
“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.” (19:5-6)
I am always fascinated when I read this. Jesus is walking along, mobbed by townspeople. But all of a sudden he looks up and sees Zacchaeus in the tree above him and stops. Does he know he’ll find Zacchaeus in the tree that day? We don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me. And more remarkable, he calls Zacchaeus by name. Does he know Zacchaeus’ name ahead of time, or does he pick it up from angry whispers in the crowd about the man Jesus was peering up at?
Now he calls out to Zacchaeus by name: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” The word translated “immediately” (NIV) or “make haste” (KJV) is Greek speudō, “hurry, hasten.” Jesus is not content to make an appointment for later. Now is the time. The phrase “must stay” (NIV) or “must abide” (KJV) is interesting. It uses the Greek word dei, “to be under necessity of happening, it is necessary, one must, one has to, denoting compulsion of any kind.” “Stay” or “abide” is Greek menō, “remain, stay,” often in the special sense “live, dwell, lodge.”
Finally, he offers restitution to any he has wronged — four times the amount he cheated them. Our English translation, “if I have cheated anybody,” might indicate that Zacchaeus isn’t taking responsibility for cheating, and making it only hypothetical. The verb translated “cheated” is sykophanteō, which means “to secure something through intimidation, extort.” This conditional clause doesn’t put in doubt the fact of the extortion, only its extent. Marshall translates it, “From whomsoever I have wrongfully exacted anything….”
Jesus isn’t the first prophet to be sent by God to an individual who would feed him. God tells Elijah the Prophet:
“‘Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.’ So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, ‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’ As she was going to get it, he called, ‘And bring me, please, a piece of bread.'” (1 Kings 17:9-11)
Jesus has invited himself for dinner at this man’s home. Out of hunger? No. But because he knows something about the desire and earnestness in this man’s heart. Jesus can see that he is wealthy. His clothes betray that easily. Be he can also see the man’s longing and his faith. Jesus has spiritual sight.
I’ve had experiences in preaching where I knew without anyone telling me the people with whom God was working during the message. Perhaps it could be explained by subtle body language, but I believe that God was showing me certain people who he was working with. Now, I haven’t always had this insight — not by any means. But I know it exists. And I believe that is what Jesus has that day in Jericho; it accounts for him inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner. Elijah’s presence is instrumental in feeding the destitute widow and her son. Jesus’ presence is responsible for providing salvation and forgiveness to a wealthy man who is starving for spiritual life.
But Jesus’ choice of dinner companions didn’t make him popular in Jericho.
“All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.'” (19:7)
The word “mutter” is Greek diagongyzō, “complain, grumble (aloud).” Aren’t you glad that Jesus loves you whether or not others approve? Perhaps the people are jealous that the honor of Jesus’ presence goes to such an unworthy citizen. And perhaps they think less of Jesus for associating with people like Zacchaeus.
“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.” (19:8)
Look at Zacchaeus’ reaction to the criticism and shame he is bringing on his guest. First, he stands up, indicating probably that he had fallen to his knees before Jesus. Next, he offers to give half his possessions to the poor. The rich young ruler (who evidently was richer than Zacchaeus) has trouble disposing of his wealth, but not Zacchaeus. In one stroke he pledges half his possessions to help the poor. 50% of one’s possessions goes far beyond the 20% that might be considered generous by the rabbis. Here is a fledgling disciple who does not love money, but has his priorities in the right place.
It is wonderfully refreshing to see such repentance by a man who realizes that his life must change or it will bring discredit upon his guest. These days it is common to see people wearing a cross necklace — the symbol of Jesus’ death for our sins — and be involved with all kinds of sin and degradation. King David, who committed adultery, murder, and deceit, was heartbroken when the Prophet Nathan reminded him,
“By doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt….” (2 Samuel 12:14)
It is so vital to repentance that we recognize, as David did, that
“Against you, and you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” (Psalm 51:4)
Our sins against others discredit the God with whom we identify ourselves, and we owe him a huge apology.
Zacchaeus’ acts of repentance were both genuine and required if he is to remove from Jesus the shame of associating with him. Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus takes our shame upon himself willingly, waiting, hoping that we will understand and repent. What grace! What mercy! Love changes people. Jesus’ love changes us. Our love for others can bring change to them.
“Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.'” (19:9)
Now Jesus moves to reconcile Zacchaeus with the townspeople who despise him. They view tax collectors as worse than infidels, banish them from their synagogues, and disown them as Jews. But Jesus insists that Zacchaeus has received salvation (Greek sōtēria). His actions evidence repentance, a change of heart. And Jesus reaffirms that Zacchaeus is indeed a Jew, a son of Abraham. He calls on the man’s neighbors to welcome and accept him.
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (19:10)
The final passage of this section of Luke’s Gospel contains Jesus’ mission — that of a Shepherd, to seek and to rescue the lost and straying. It is a servant’s role. There is little glorious about this kind of work. It may look spectacular in mass meetings where the converted stream from the stadium seating to a place of repentance on the infield, but it involves working with slimy people who have committed grievous sins and whose lives are both miserable and misery-filled.
Those people are in our churches, in our neighborhoods, at our jobs, in our schools — hurting people whose lives are messed up and who need Jesus’ mercy and grace. These people need our willingness to love them rather than judge them, our willingness to go out of our way to extend ourselves in love.
I see a number of lessons in this story for modern-day disciples:
- No one is beyond redemption and repentance, even those whom we see as gross sinners. They are all susceptible to sensing Jesus’ love for them.
- Love changes people. Acceptance and openness which were Jesus’ modus operendi must become ours, too.
- We disciples must not be overly concerned about tarnishing our reputation. Yes, we are to be wise and discrete and avoid the appearance of evil. But we must not be more concerned about ourselves than we are for the lost. We need to be willing to take the shame of their sin upon us, as it were, so that we might bring Jesus’ love to them.
- Our Master’s mission is active, not passive. He doesn’t wait for people to come to him. He actively seeks the lost in order to save them.
- God can give us both natural and supernatural insights into people so that we might help them.
- Our ministry to others may require a boldness, an edginess that calls on us to invite ourselves for dinner, if that is what is required.
- Disciples of Jesus are no longer enamored with money, but with Jesus and his righteousness.
Perhaps you can see some more lessons. In this story I see Jesus as the Great Shepherd, relentlessly seeking and relentlessly saving one lost person after another. And you and I are his assistants, his disciples, his co-workers. His mission is our mission. His clients are our clients. His sorrows, our sorrows. And the joy in Jesus’ eyes as he watches an enthusiastic, short sinner, scramble down from a tree and be changed in an instant into a saint — that joy, too, is ours to share.
Jesus, as I read about Zacchaeus, I think of my own selfishness. Sometimes I am impatient with people, despairing of people for whom you died. Forgive me for my lack of vision. Help me to see you at work in people around me. Help me to be willing to risk whatever reputation I have to join in your search and rescue campaign. I long to see your salvation shine more brightly through me. In your holy name, I pray. Amen.
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10)