“A Tree, a Table and a Transformation”
Dr. Robert F. Browning
Calvary Baptist Church
I wonder if Zacchaeus had second thoughts about climbing that tree. No one in his position and with his wealth would do such a thing. So, he knew he would be the talk of the town and the subject of even more ridicule than usual if he did it.
In spite of this, he climbed up on a low hanging branch, and it turned out to be the best decision he ever made. Listen as I share the details with you.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in Jericho, a wealthy community on a main trade route fifteen miles northeast of Jerusalem. This meant he made a lot of money due to the heavy traffic passing through Jericho and the high level of commerce, but it came with a high price.
He was considered by his fellow Jews to be a turncoat or traitor because he collaborated with the Romans to collect taxes on everything from personal property to tariffs, toll roads and customs fees. In all likelihood, Zacchaeus bid for the opportunity to have this position by guaranteeing to send a certain amount of money each year to Rome. Any money collected over this figure was his to keep.
This method of collecting taxes offered many opportunities for exploitation and fraud by the chief tax collector and those hired to help him. It appears Zacchaeus could have been overcharging people and pocketing exorbitant profits, which was of no concern to the Roman officials. As long as they received the taxes they were promised, they were content to let Zacchaeus run this business however he chose.
In today’s text, what did Zacchaeus do that seemed out of character for him? He climbed up a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he and the disciples were passing through Jericho on their way to Jerusalem to observe Passover.
Since Zacchaeus was short in stature and Jesus was surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of other pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, Zacchaeus was unable to see over their shoulders to see Jesus. As a result, Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed onto one of the many branches on a sycamore tree.
There is a bit of irony and humor in the way Luke tells the story. In all likelihood, Zacchaeus was surrounded by poor people in that tree because they commonly ate the figs which grew on Sycamore trees. It was not a high quality fig, so rich people avoided it. You can imagine many people looked twice when they saw one of the wealthiest men in town sitting at a poor man’s lunch counter.
What happened as Jesus approached the tree where Zacchaeus was sitting? He paused, looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5b)
Surprisingly, Zacchaeus offered no resistance. He promptly and gladly descended that tree and escorted Jesus to his home.
I can only imagine the reaction of the people as they watched Zacchaeus and Jesus walking shoulder to shoulder to Zacchaeus’ home. They had to be shocked, dismayed and irritated. Instead of publicly rebuking Zacchaeus as they hoped Jesus would do, Jesus bestowed a degree of honor upon Zacchaeus that none felt he deserved.
This was the not the first time Jesus disappointed people by being nice to the neighbors they despised. He was repeatedly criticized by some of the religious leaders for associating with undesirable people, the ones they shunned and condemned.
Jesus continued this practice, though, because he was far more concerned about transforming lives than shoring up his reputation. He was always looking for ways to bring outcasts back into community, as opposed to those who valued protecting ritual purity over restoring people.
Luke does not tell us about the dinner conversation that occurred between Jesus and Zacchaeus in the privacy of his home, but he does share the results of it. As their time together ended, Zacchaeus stood up and said, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor. If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)
Four times? By law, someone who confessed to stealing was required to pay back the amount they stole plus 20%. A four-fold reimbursement was reserved for those who used violence to take what was not theirs. Zacchaeus’ self-imposed penalty was meant to send a clear message to his neighbors that he was a changed man who was serious about restitution and redemption.
To Zacchaeus’ delight, Jesus responded by saying, “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 19:9-10)
What was it about this encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus that captured Luke’s attention? After all, this story is found only in the third gospel. It was the decision Zacchaeus made to change the way he conducted his business and lived his life after talking with Jesus.
This man who had a reputation for being selfish, greedy and corrupt became a man of integrity, compassion and generosity.
From Luke’s perspective, this was rare. As a matter of fact, this was probably the only time Luke had heard of a sweeping transformation like this. It was the equivalent of a moth becoming a butterfly.
You need to know that Luke had no affinity for rich, powerful people. His gospel rarely portrays them positively.
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus told the rich young ruler who rejected his invitation to follow him. (Luke 18:25) Luke wanted to make sure his readers heard these words from Jesus. It is obvious he felt the same way.
But then, there was Zacchaeus. He was an exception, and Luke told his story.
Perhaps this is why Luke placed Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus soon after the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-25). When this young man met Jesus, he turned down Jesus’ advice to make changes in his life and refused his invitation to follow him.
This is why Zacchaeus’ story was so remarkable. Unlike the Rich Young Ruler, he did change, and he squeezed through the eye of that needle.
Zacchaeus changed his outlook on life. He changed his attitude. He changed his values and priorities. He changed his business principles. He changed his lifestyle.
He did not merely tweak around the edges.
He changed everything! He rearranged the price tags and placed the highest value on those things he had previously discounted.
This man whose life had been characterized by taking from others was now going to give over half his wealth away.
This man who did not hesitate to exploit and defraud his own neighbors was now passionate about paying back those he cheated.
This man who seemed to have no concern for the poorest of those around him now felt responsible for making sure they had life’s necessities.
“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor. If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
What a contrast. What a miracle. What a transformation.
Now Zacchaeus was determined to live up to the meaning of his name, ‘pure and righteous one’.
This may be the quickest and most radical reorganization of values, priorities and business principles recorded in scripture. It appears a man whose highest priority had been figuring out how to fleece people became the chief agent of justice and mercy in Jericho.
Luke was so surprised by Zacchaeus’ turnaround that he decided to include Zacchaeus’ story in his account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Zacchaeus’ testimony was simply too powerful to ignore.
What message did Luke hope to send to his readers, including you and me?
If Zacchaeus could make changes in his life in order to become a better person, so can we. By God’s grace, we, too, can change our values, priorities, attitude and lifestyle and become more like Christ.
What changes would Jesus like to help you make today? From what do you need to be delivered?
I used that word, delivered, intentionally. This is the meaning of the word, salvation, used in the final verse of our text.
Speaking of Zacchaeus’ transformation, Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:9a)
To be saved is to be delivered from those things that are harmful to you and those around you. In Zacchaeus’ case, this was greed, selfishness, dishonesty, indifference and a host of bad habits.
To be saved is to be united or reunited with a community of faith that will help you make those changes and pursue that good life. It is to be connected to family, friends and professionals who can help you chart a new course forward.
From what do you need to be delivered? What changes could you make that would free you up to be a better person and help you to have a better life?
Jesus wants to help you make these changes. Yes, Jesus loves you the way you are, blemishes and all, but Jesus also loves you too much to leave you where you are.
The encounter Jesus had with Zacchaeus was not an intrusion or inconvenience for the Son of Man who came to seek and save the lost. This was his life’s purpose and divine mission.
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
Can you hear Jesus calling your name this morning? I hope you will respond as Zacchaeus did.