By Dr. Mark Scott
“The gospel is for sellouts.” That is how our oldest son, Casey, began his senior sermon in Bible College chapel. His text was the story of Zacchaeus. He turned the message in two directions: first Zacchaeus was a sellout to Rome, and second Zacchaeus was a sellout to Jesus.
This is one of the most well-known stories in the Gospels. It is the final personal encounter that Jesus has in the travel narrative (Luke 9:51–19:28). Some of us remember it on flannelgraph. It pictures joyous faith—at least for Jesus and Zacchaeus. The peoples’ joy had gone to seed.
Jericho was one of the oldest cities in the world. From here Jesus would begin his 3,700-foot, 17-mile climb to Jerusalem. Jesus had healed a blind man (Matthew 20:29-34 says that there were two people healed). Now he would heal a chief tax collector from greed. A portion of one verse is devoted to Zacchaeus’s occupation and status, but two whole verses are devoted to his stature.
Zacchaeus (whose name ironically means “innocent” or “pure”) was not a local customs official like Matthew. He was a chief tax collector. As such he oversaw other tax collectors. The text says succinctly and was wealthy. He sold his soul to Rome and had the financial portfolio to prove it.
The Bible is amazingly brief in its descriptions of people, so when attention is drawn to some physical aspect we should pay attention. The author of Genesis does not have to tell us that Esau is not the sharpest knife in the drawer—Esau tells us himself by how he asks for some “red stuff” (Genesis 25:29-34). King Eglon was fat, and Ehud was left handed—details that matter to the telling of the story (Judges 3:12-30). Zacchaeus was vertically challenged. How short was he? So short that he could not see over the crowd and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see Jesus. (Figs and dates are still grown today in Jericho.)
Jesus came knocking on Zacchaeus’s tree. He called Zacchaeus by name. There is no record of Jesus having any former encounter with Zacchaeus, so we assume Jesus knew his name by divine revelation (John 10:14). Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s home. This might seem very forward in our culture. But given the hospitality and shame/honor contexts of the ancient world in the Middle East, this was not forward at all. Even if it was, Zacchaeus was all in. He welcomed him gladly. (The word welcomed means “to fully receive.”)
The people of Jericho, who might be headed to Jerusalem themselves for Passover, did not understand divine appointments. They began to mutter. This is the same word for what the Israelites did in the wilderness and what Christians are commanded not to do (Philippians 2:14). But Zacchaeus did not mutter. He was filled with a joyful faith. Evidently the mere presence of Jesus was enough to send him into joyful repentance. “Look, Lord!” (Look is a word of biblical surprise—“behold.”)
Zacchaeus must have stunned the crowd with the level of his repentance. There were probably several people waiting in the wings to be his accountability partners to see that he followed through. He agreed to give half of his possessions to the poor. This could be a significant sum of money. He also agreed to pay back anyone he had cheated (a strong likelihood) four times the amount. This is repentance on steroids. Joyous faith does what it can do to set things right. We cannot miss the sociopolitical nature of this repentance.
Jesus took the occasion not only to commend Zacchaeus but also to declare afresh his own mission. In light of the nearness of the crucifixion, this makes the text larger still. Verses 9, 10 are filled with salvific concepts (salvation, son of Abraham, and seek and save the lost). Zacchaeus had been rescued from greediness and thus saved. Jesus might have been speaking prophetically, but to Zacchaeus it must have sounded heavenly. Son of Abraham means Zacchaeus was restored to the covenant family of Israel. The outsider had become an insider (one of Luke’s favorite themes).
Jesus had a laser focus on his mission. He saved a short, greedy man by a divine appointment. As the church participates in Jesus’ large mission, chance meetings turn into great evangelistic opportunities. The last line of our son’s chapel sermon was, “How do you get back people like Zacchaeus? You buy them.”
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.