The ultimate objective of preaching and teaching is not just conveying information. It is achieving transformation (Andy Stanley, Communicating for a Change). Believers often know more Bible than they are living. If anyone needed a transformation of his whole life it was Zacchaeus of Jericho.
The story of the transformation of Zacchaeus could be a template of the entire Gospel of Luke. It contains many of Luke’s favorite themes—the call of the rich to help the poor; outsiders being brought into the family of God; who really belongs to Abraham’s family; the Messiah’s mission; and salvation understood in its broadest sense.
Luke’s travel narrative (9:51–19:41) was coming to a close. Jesus drew near to Jerusalem for the final time before his death. Before beginning his ascent to the Holy City he passed through Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world—just five miles from the Jordan River and 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Topographically it sits low in the Jordan valley and therefore its temperature is warm most of the year. This was probably New Jericho (built to the south of the original city) since the original city was destroyed by Joshua and anyone who tried to rebuild it would do so at the cost of his firstborn (Joshua 6:26).
Zacchaeus was not only short of stature. He also had a shrunken heart. He was a chief tax collector (the only time this phrase occurs in the Bible) and had therefore sold his soul to Rome to collect their taxes against his own people. The text says he was wealthy (the same word used in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19).
We could assume that his money had not brought him happiness. For whatever reason (probably more than just curiosity) he wanted to see Jesus. This phrase is used of only one other person in the Gospel record, namely Herod (23:8). While Herod’s motives were suspect, Zacchaeus’s seemed genuine. His desire to see Jesus drove him to run ahead of the crowd and find a sycamore-fig tree to climb. Its low-lying branches provided just the right climbing apparatus for one so vertically challenged.
The encounter with Jesus was brief but life transforming. Jesus initiated the dialogue by calling Zacchaeus by name (compare this to John 10:3). Had they met before or was this an indication of omniscience? Jesus said that he must stay at Zacchaeus’ house. In the ancient world that was not a forward request. It would not have seemed odd in the shame/honor world of Middle-eastern hospitality. Just as Jesus had to go through Samaria (John 4:4) so he must (divine necessity) stay at Zacchaeus’ house. What was a short life would be enlarged. What was a shrunken heart would be transformed. Zacchaeus’ welcome (to receive with open arms) of Jesus indicated a strong desire to change.
All people are in need of transformation (Romans 3:23). Some just do not recognize it. This was the case of the people in Jericho. They muttered (complained—the same root word used in Philippians 2:14 and something believers are not to do) as they griped about the kind of company Jesus kept. People avoided tax collectors like the plague. They were so despised that their testimony was not accepted in court. And to eat with someone meant acceptance of them.
Did Zacchaeus overhear their muttering? Did their criticism of Jesus’ keeping company with Zacchaeus spawn his voluntary repentance or was being in the presence of Jesus enough to cause him to gush forth? Regardless, his two-fold repentance was evidence of his genuine life transformation. First he agreed to give half of his possessions to the poor. That was stunning generosity. Second, if he cheated anyone (the “if” clause is asked in a way that means he most likely had cheated) he would pay it back fourfold (Exodus 22:1; 2 Samuel 12:6). This amounts to a confession of sin.
The peoples’ muttering and Zacchaeus’s repentance were not as large as Jesus’ own transforming statements (Luke 19:9, 10). He made a statement of affirmation, a statement of inclusion, and a statement of mission. Jesus interpreted Zacchaeus’s repentance as salvific. His repentance pointed to his deliverance. For Jesus to call Zacchaeus a son of Abraham (i.e. in God’s family) must have sounded too inclusive. Finally Jesus rooted what happened in Zacchaeus’s house as fitting his mission. The Son of Man (Daniel 7:13) came to seek and save the lost—as Jesus had done with Zacchaeus. This missional statement helped Jesus “resolutely set out” (Luke 9:51) to ascend 3,700 feet in 17 miles to Jerusalem to die on a cross for the salvation and transformation of all people.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Lesson study ©2018, Christian Standard Media. Lesson based on The Lookout’s Scope and Sequence ©2018. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.