Last month, I started a sermon series on the encounters people of the New Testament had with Jesus. I began the first sermon by playing the iconic music from the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Today, we have another encounter with Jesus and this one was set to music. The song lyrics begin this way,
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 was a wee little man, but a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day, and a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he.
It is not often that an encounter with Jesus leads to the honor of a song. Zacchaeus is one so honored; even if he is known primarily by his small size.
But beyond the words of children’s song, what do we see in this encounter with Jesus that has meaning for us today? Does Zacchaeus story matter? Does your story matter? Does my story matter? If your story and mine matters, to whom does it matter?
Let’s see if we can explore those questions through the perspective of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus. Let’s turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 19, and begin at verse 1.
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. [Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.] 2 A man was there [in Jericho] by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.”
As we read the opening to this story, we need to keep in mind two things. First, tax collectors were despised by the people because they collected taxes for the Roman government who ruled over Israel. Zacchaeus was not just a tax collect, he was a “chief tax collector.” Zacchaeus had several tax collectors working for him. Each tax collectors collected more for themselves than what was required by Rome and Zacchaeus took his cut from each tax collector. This system thrived on dishonesty, exploitation, overcharging, and abuse of those being taxed which lined the pockets of these tax collectors. So, Zacchaeus, as a chief tax collector, was thought of as “the worst of the worst,” and was universally disliked by his neighbors.
Secondly, Zacchaeus was wealthy. This is not surprising given Zacchaeus’ line of work. However, in New Testament writing, a person of earthly wealth usually had a spiritual problem; they loved money more than God. In the Gospel of Luke, we would hear Jesus say, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Lk. 6:24). We would also hear Jesus say, “It is the rich who stores up things for themselves, but they are not rich toward God” (Lk. 12:21). Finally, Jesus told a parable of two men: a nameless rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. When the man and Lazarus died, Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven. The rich man, who cared only about himself and his money, was buried and went to hell (Lk. 16:19-31). There are more examples in the Gospels about the problem of wealth and distant it creates from God, but I think you get the picture. Zacchaeus was wealthy and had a spiritual problem.
If we set aside that Zacchaeus is a tax collector and wealthy, what we would see is a man who is disliked by his neighbors and has little or no relationship with God. I think this is a better lens to understand the story because I suspect we all know or have known someone like this Zacchaeus. It is likely that we know or have known a neighbor most people disliked and that that same neighbor displayed little or no relationship with God. We may have been that person at a time in our life when we had few genuine friends and felt very separated from God.
As we return to the text we find something surprising is happening to this man. There is a commotion that caught Zacchaeus’ attention. People around him are gathering into a crowd and are excited about a man walking through the city. A man named Jesus of Nazareth. The excitement and interest of Zacchaeus’ neighbors has stirred something within him. In verse 3, we read, “He [Zacchaeus] wanted to see who Jesus was.” This seems a little odd. A man who seemed to care only about himself, now wants to see the man people call “Lord,” “Son of David,” and who call to Jesus for mercy. Zacchaeus wants to get a glimpse of this man of God called Jesus. But there is a problem. The balance of verse 3 says, “But because he [Zacchaeus] was short he could not see over the crowd.” Zacchaeus was exceptionally short and the people in the crowd were much taller than he. So, Zacchaeus could not see Jesus and because Zacchaeus was disliked, none of his neighbors would make an opening to let Zacchaeus stand in front to see Jesus. Between Zacchaeus and Jesus stood a wall of people unfriendly to him blocking Zacchaeus’ chance to see Jesus. The crowd rejected Zacchaeus and it kept him isolated.
We learn through this moment that sometimes to behave in faith requires that we overcome obstacles. To live by faith, requires that we breakthrough the isolation others impose us, or we impose upon ourselves. For within Zacchaeus, as there is with everyone who wants to see Jesus, was a building passion that caused Zacchaeus to act. Being a person of faith is never passive, it is always active. Verse 4 says, “So he [Zacchaeus] ran ahead and climbed a sycamore or fig tree to see him [Jesus], since Jesus was coming that way.” Think about that scene for a moment. Zacchaeus, who was disliked by neighbors and distant from God, outran the crowd, managed to climb a tree, high enough to see over the crowd for one purpose. To see this man called Jesus. Zacchaeus was acting completely out of character. This is the how an encounter with Jesus begins to show. When we have a desire to see and know Jesus, we begin to live differently from our natural character or the character other people have set for us. Zacchaeus was demonstrating a change in character. But there were more surprises ahead for Zacchaeus and the crowd.
Verse 5, “When Jesus reached the spot [where Zacchaeus was in the tree], he [Jesus] looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So, he [Zacchaeus] came down at once and welcomed him gladly.” I am sure Zacchaeus was surprised. Zacchaeus expressed a little interest in Jesus by climbing a tree to make sure he could see Jesus as Jesus passed by. In response to a little interest, Zacchaeus received the reward of a personal relationship with Jesus. This teaches us that God does not give as we give. God will out give us every time. Zacchaeus wanted a glimpse of Jesus and now Jesus wanted to stay at Zacchaeus’ home. What is the reaction to God outgiving? In a word, Zacchaeus expressed joy. This joy is something we too have when we reach out in faith to Jesus. If you are not feeling the joy of God, ask yourself. “Am I reaching out to Jesus?”
Now there is a sad truth about reaching out to God. Not everyone will be happy with us. When we reach out to God, we will change; it is impossible to encounter Jesus and remain unchanged. That we might reach out to Jesus and change upsets some people. That Jesus might receive us upsets others. Look at what happened in Jericho that day in verse 7. “All the people saw this [Jesus and Zacchaeus welcoming one another] and [they all] began to mutter, ‘He [Jesus] has gone to be the guest of a sinner [Zacchaeus].” All the people were upset because neither Zacchaeus’ action nor Jesus’ response made any sense to them. Zacchaeus was the worst of the worst and Jesus was the best of the best. How in the world could Jesus and Zacchaeus share the same table? But this is the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ. No one is beyond the redemption. No one is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. There is no one whom Jesus cannot say, “Today, I must stay with you.” But we must be willing to open the door to Jesus.
I was speaking to someone the other day who was expressing a concern for someone they love. This person said to me, “I just wish that God would take some action to help them.” I reminded this person, “Jesus never healed anyone against their will.” There are so many people who are angry at God because of their circumstances and yet many of these same people refuse to open the door to Jesus, to open the door to forgiveness, or to open the door to the body of Christ, his church. Strangely, they prefer the isolation from their neighbors and distance from God and their own anger.
We see in today’s story a progression of faith in Zacchaeus. He got excited when he heard something about Jesus. He tried to see Jesus, but other people blocked him. He did not give up. He found a way to see Jesus by climbing a tree to see over the crowd. Zacchaeus saw Jesus and then received an invitation from Jesus. Zacchaeus acted and invited Jesus into his home. Zacchaeus did not say to Jesus, “Could we do this later? It is not convenient right now? I need to change first, I need to clean up my act first, before I let you in?” Many people say such things to God all the time. “Lord, I am not worthy – let’s do this later.” Folks, you are worthy of a relationship with Jesus because he says you are. Do not wait. Open the door.
Zacchaeus did not wait and Zacchaeus did not know how Jesus would change him. Zacchaeus was tender in his faith in Jesus. He was a baby in faith and like all babies they progress through learning. Jesus entered Zacchaeus home to stay with him and that is when things really changed for Zacchaeus.
Verse 8, “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.’” Zacchaeus was changing on the inside and now it was showing in his behavior on the outside. Zacchaeus repented and now wanted to serve others and make amends for his past sins. We are changed in marvelous ways when we let Jesus stay with us and when we share the table with Jesus.
Zacchaeus was giving again; this time with some money. God then again out gave Zacchaeus. Verse 9, “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” God gave Zacchaeus eternal life with salvation through Christ because Zacchaeus repented and accepted Jesus.
We too can have great joy if we answer Jesus’ call, “Today, I must stay with you.” Have you invited Jesus into your life? If not, find out why. Is there someone blocking your view? I would welcome Jesus into my life but the person in front of me is a terrible Christian, who wants to be like them. If that is your reasoning, then run ahead of them and get your eyes focused on Jesus. Is there someone who believes you don’t deserve to be in Jesus’ presence? Ignore them and climb the tree to glimpse Jesus. Know that whatever you give to Jesus a sign of your desire for him, he will out give you.
Today, Jesus has set a table for you. It is a reminder of his love for you, whether you are popular or disliked, whether you are close to God or feel distant from Him. This table is for you. No one is excluded for Jesus said, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with Me.” I urge you to come to the table for Jesus is saying to each person here, “Today, I must stay with you.” Let us pray.