Up a Tree and Out on a Limb

Luke 19:1-10

I know, I know, you can’t really tell the story of Zacchaeus without flannelgraph. And who can forget that classic song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man…” But as compelling as the story is to children, it has a powerful effect on us adults. It appeals to a longing deep inside everyone of us to unconditionally and recklessly cut loose the world’s apron strings and follow Jesus with all of our heart. I often toy with the question of what it would really take and what it would really look like to say, “Jesus here I am – all of me – not a mite and not a moment would I withhold – I’m all yours, use me as you will.” That’s Zacchaeus. He has the heart I long to have, make the break I wish I could make. But that’s the end of the story.

Let’s back up for a moment and meet Zacchaeus B.C. (before Christ). What the Bible tells us and what we know about tax collectors paint a picture of a man whom none of us would ever think would be interested in Jesus. He had too much to lose, following Jesus would cost too much.

The Bible tells us that Zacchaeus was a short man. He must have been remarkably short for Luke to mention it – so much so that it was the quality that would identify him most prominently. And that’s not to pick on short people, but I suspect that, coupled with knowing Zacchaeus’ occupation and the vehemence with which people viewed tax collectors, he probably wore a chip on his shoulder the size of a boulder. I don’t suspect that he was a very congenial person, probably rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and created an air of antagonism before a word was ever spoken. I’m just imagining, but I’ve met a Zacchaeus or two in my lifetime, and I imagine I’m right.

Zacchaeus is a tax collector. I’m sure I don’t need to say much about the attitude of the Jews toward tax collectors. They were despised and hated, not just because they dipped into people’s wallets, but that they did it for the Romans, the Jews’ oppressors. Tax collectors were Jews who were in league with the Romans, doing their dirty work. They were viewed as parasites by the Romans for feeding off the system, and with contempt by the Jews for being disloyal to their own people. And most tax collectors took advantage of the system by collecting more than required and skimming off the top. They were like loan sharks and debt collectors the way the preyed on the people and made their living off of peoples’ misfortune. They became rich by cheating and stealing and extortion. It’s no wonder that the very mention of tax collectors brought blood to peoples’ eyes.

And Zacchaeus is not just a tax collector, he’s the “chief tax collector.” And if tax collectors were hated, you can be sure the chief tax collector received an even more vicious loathing from the people with whom he came in contact.

He’s belittled because he’s short, he’s hated because he’s a tax collector. Zacchaeus was not a popular man in the town of Jericho.

And Jesus is coming through Jericho – on his way to Jerusalem. On the outskirts of town, Jesus had paused and healed a blind man. Everyone was buzzing about the miracle they had just seen. “A blind man receiving his sight. Maybe there really is something to all these rumors. Maybe Jesus really is the Messiah. There’s no doubt he is like no one we’ve ever seen.”

Now, even Zacchaeus has heard of Jesus, his reputation precedes him as keeping company with “tax collectors and sinners.” Zacchaeus isn’t sure even he would keep company with someone like himself if he wasn’t one. So, what kind of a man must this Jesus be? That would be worth shutting down the tax office for a couple of hours to see.

As he heads for main street, he realizes everyone else in town has had the same idea. The crowd is so thick he can hardly push his way through. Those who recognize him make it just a little more difficult, pushing and shoving him, poking him with their elbow in the ribs or the eye as he passes (“Oh, excuse me was that your eye? I am sooo sorry!”) And because he’s short, he can’t see a thing. Finally, he comes up with a plan. A sycamore tree stood at the far edge of town, beyond the mass of the crowd, and Jesus would have to pass right beneath it on his way out. He ran ahead of the crowd and shimmied up to the lowest branch and huffed and puffed his way to a seat where he could see what was going on. And then he waited.

It didn’t take long. The crowd came rolling forward like an ocean wave surrounding Jesus. Everyone was walking, but keeping their eyes on Jesus. Jesus was walking and talking as he went, asking questions, telling stories, challenging people to follow the Lord. The crowd approached the tree and surged around it, a mass of people flowing beneath him. Then all of a sudden, the crowd stopped. And Zacchaeus lost track of where Jesus was. He scooted this way and that, wiggled around and looked over his shoulder, but Jesus was nowhere to be found.

And then, he heard his name – “Zacchaeus!” It didn’t sound the way it usually sounded when people spoke his name – “Zacchaeus (spit).” It almost sounded… friendly. “Zacchaeus!” Who was calling his name? He looked around, and then he looked down. And there he was – Jesus, right beneath him – and he was calling his name! “Zacchaeus, come down immediately! I’m staying at your house today!”

I can only imagine what was running through Zacchaeus’ mind at that moment: How does he know my name? Why is he coming to my house? What would Jesus want with a man like me? What will I feed him? Whatever was going through his mind, he didn’t hesitate for a moment. Luke says, “So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.”

Now, I hope you realize what has just happened (as well as what didn’t happen). Jesus didn’t stop by the synagogue and visit with the rabbis. He didn’t stop by town hall and spend some time with the mayor and board of elders. All the places a good, respectable preacher who wanted to make a good impression would stop – he didn’t. Instead, he walks up to the most despised man in town and invites himself to dinner. And it did not go unnoticed. Look at vs. 7 – “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’”

I’m not sure what kind of a dinner Zacchaeus threw together. Who did he quickly invite? How many showed up? What did he serve? In fact, Luke skips right over all that – not a word about dinner, guests or anything.

When we get to vs. 8, dinner is over and something amazing is about to happen. You never know what’s going to happen when Jesus comes to dinner, but something always does. Somebody is healed, a prostitute washes his feet, a debate might break out, a parable might be told, someone always goes away mad. What could possibly happen at Zacchaeus’ house?

At the end of dinner, Zacchaeus stands up and makes an announcement: “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.”

You could have knocked them over with a feather. “You’re going to do what?!? Where did that come from?”

Where did it come from? As far as we know, there was no conversation like Jesus had with the people in ch. 9, who, when Jesus told them to follow him came up with all kinds of excuses. Nor like the rich young ruler in ch. 18, who lacked one thing, and when Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor and follow him, went away very sad because he had great wealth. Or the crowds in ch. 14, to whom he said, “any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus was constantly challenging people to walk away from it all and follow him. But not a word of that conversation with Zacchaeus. This declaration came from inside Zacchaeus. He was ready for something to change, and all it took was Jesus’ presence and concern to bring it out.

Perhaps it was the empty life that Zacchaeus lived every day. It’s not much of a life when your excitement comes from gouging people out of their life’s earnings. There couldn’t be a lot of fulfillment in having everyone in town run when they saw you coming and know they despised your very existence.

Maybe Jesus saw beneath the hard crusted veneer on the surface and saw the broken heart waiting to be released. Maybe just the fact that Jesus, of all people, would come to his house and show that God cared about people like him made the difference.

The thing is, you never know what it is that’s going to make the difference. Oh, Jesus knew. This meeting and this visit was not by chance – there was no happenstance meeting and circumstantial coincidences. Jesus knew when he walked into Jericho that afternoon that Zacchaeus would be in that tree and that the soil of his heart had already been prepared.

You and I might not have a clue that someone we’ve thought would never be interested in the good news has been waiting for us to say a word, express some interest, offer them an invitation to dinner. It is amazing the kind of people who would be interested in Jesus, but we’ll never give them a chance to find out.

We’d take one look at Zacchaeus and write him off as unapproachable and uninterested. People like that don’t follow Jesus. People like Zacchaeus don’t walk away from it all. And we’d be wrong. Just like we’re probably wrong about so many people we’ve dismissed with a judgmental flick of the wrist as never being interested in the gospel.

If we learn anything from this story, it is that there is nobody who should be summarily dismissed because we can’t imagine they would be interested in hearing about Jesus. Zacchaeus was the one man in Jericho nobody would have considered a second time, and yet he was the one man Jesus knew was ready to change his life.

And what a change. I don’t know if you were listening to what Zacchaeus just committed to. Read that again: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor…”

Half of his possessions to the poor. There is a good chance that Zacchaeus was probably the richest man in town. Jericho was a wealthy center of commerce. There were a lot of rich people who owed a lot of taxes. And Zacchaeus took a cut off every one of them. Half of his possessions would be a sizeable amount by anyone’s standards. And he’s just going to give it away to the poor. And that would have been an amazing and noble thing if he had stopped there. But he didn’t.

“…and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

And you know he had. That’s why tax collectors were so hated and despised. They were dishonest. Too many chances, too much freedom, too big an opportunity. And the culture supported it. It was expected, so why not? Everybody does it, so why should I be different? Yes, Zacchaeus had cheated a lot of people out of a lot of money, and he was determined, not just to make it right, but to make it more than right.

He wasn’t just going to give their money back, but four times the amount. You do the math. How much do you think Zacchaeus will have left after he’s done making restitution? There’s not going to be anything left. He’s walking away from it all.

The thing that the rich young ruler sadly would not do when Jesus asked him, Zacchaeus did joyfully out of his own conviction, just from being in the presence of Jesus. Jesus still has that kind of effect on people. People don’t need to be coerced or tricked into following Jesus. They don’t need Christianity painted as an easy road or a “have-it-your-way” proposition. I believe people still long to give themselves – all of themselves – to following Jesus. We just need to make the introduction.

What does Jesus think of Zacchaeus’ announcement? He is absolutely delighted. Nothing could have pleased him more. This isn’t just lip service Zacchaeus is offering – he is literally putting his money where his mouth is. “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.’”

We have so theologized the words “saved” and “lost” that we forget their roots. Before they take on spiritual meaning, they take us to a desperate situation in which something precious has been lost and is in danger – a boat out on the sea in a storm, a sheep who has wandered off from the flock in the wilderness… a person who has wandered off from God. There are terrible and tragic consequences to being lost. And so a search is made, a rescue mission is launched, a shepherd leaves the 99 to go find the one lost sheep.

And when the sheep is found, when the ship is brought safely back to port – they have been “saved.” Zacchaeus needed rescuing. He had lost his way. He had wandered so far away that he no longer even remembered that he was a “son of Abraham.” He had lost sight of what it even looked like to be a child of God. And Jesus says, “Salvation has come” – he has found his way home.

And Jesus reminds us, that’s what it’s all about. “ The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” People are lost, not because they don’t know the right doctrine, but because they don’t know God. The right doctrine is important, but knowing God is everything.

And if Jesus’ mission was “to seek and save what is lost,” what do you suppose his church’s mission ought to be? Our mission isn’t going to be fulfilled sitting here in the safety and seclusion of these four walls – it is out there, on a rescue mission, seeking out the Zacchaeuses of this world who have wandered off and lost sight of God, and need to be brought back to him. God wants them home, just like at one time, he wanted us home. And now he has sent us out to seek them out and bring them back to him.