7 Surprised People in the Bible, Part 6


 Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with a wee little man by name of Zacchaeus.  Even if we haven’t read the Biblical account of his visit with Jesus, we sung the song in Sunday School and Bible camps.

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.

Nobody knows who wrote this little ditty.  It’s been around for so long though.  But just who was the wee little man, Zacchaeus?  Did he really climb up a tree?  I guess the reason the song and the man are so memorable to us is because as kids, we were “wee” and “little,” so we could relate to a small guy climbing up a tree to something or somebody.  The story of this vertically challenged man is found only the gospel of Luke and nowhere else.  That makes it special and worthy of our attention.  If ever there was a man who got the surprise of his life, it was Zacchaeus.  Let’s see what happened to him that day when he climbed up a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of the Savior as He passed by.

A rich man gets a surprise

The story of Zacchaeus starts in Luke 19, but if you want to understand it in context, you really  need to go back a chapter.  Dr Luke was no dummy, and there’s a reason why these two chapters and their stories are placed back-to-back.

In chapter 18 of Luke’s gospel, the good Dr relates a number of incidents in the ministry of Jesus designed to teach us something about the qualities our Lord is looking for in those who would follow Him and those whom He would bless.  Very, very quickly, with the speed of lightening, here they are:

Always persist, Luke 18:1 – 8.  In this, the parable of the unrighteous judge, Jesus isn’t trying to teach us something about widows or God’s nature.  The point of the story is that if a secular judge will finally hear an appeal, how much more quickly will your Heavenly Father, who loves you with a perfect love, hear you and respond?  So don’t give up no matter what the odds.  The persistence refers to not giving up and throwing in the towel.  It doesn’t refer to bugging God to answer a prayer.  If you reach what seems to be an impossible situation, instead of panicking, and going all distraught, just call out to God and He’ll see you through.

Be humble, Luke 18:9 – 14.  The simple lesson of this parable is that our opinion of ourselves will determine our opinion of who God is.  The giver who thought highly of himself saw God, not in a loving, personal and intimate way, but in a very cold, distant and impersonal way.  The humble giver, though, was awed by God.  He is the one who would experience God’s grace and compassion because he needed to.

Be child-like, Luke 18:15 – 17.  God want us to be child-like, not childish.  There is a world of difference.  It’s not that God thinks children are more virtuous than adults; they really aren’t.  They’re just as selfish, devious, and conniving as their parents are.  It’s that God wants us to depend on Him as a child depends on his father.  

Be single-minded in your devotion, Luke 18:18 – 23.  That’s the whole point of the rich, young ruler story.  It’s not about the impossibility of a rich man going to heaven, although that’s what we common folk like to think.  It wasn’t his wealth that was the problem, it was his attitude.  The rich, young ruler loved Jesus, no doubt, but his wealth was more important to him.  He just couldn’t give it up.  By the way, giving up wealth is not a prerequisite for following Christ.  You can certainly be a wealthy disciple.  What Jesus wants are people who will be completely devoted to Him and the Kingdom.  He knows what will come between you and your service to Him, and that’s what He asks you to surrender.  For most of us, wealth probably isn’t the problem.  Maybe it’s the lack of wealth. Or ambition. Or career goals.  All kinds of things and people can stop you from being completely devoted and committed to Christ.

This sermon series is about surprised people in the Bible, and I guess the rich, young ruler was surprised by our Lord’s response to him.  

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  (Luke 18:22 | TNIV)

The call to give away his wealth wasn’t just a challenge to the young man, it was a call to faith.  He already admired Jesus and was serious about how he was living.  He was scrupulously keeping the commandments.  But for all his hard work, he just didn’t understand the commandments he was working so hard to keep.  

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.  (Luke 18 23 | TNIV)

He claimed to love God – that was one of the commandments he kept – but when faced with the choice, his love for God was really an empty love; he couldn’t serve God if it meant giving up his wealth.  Like so many so-called Christians today, God really didn’t have first place in his heart.  No wonder he left Jesus sad.  

Another rich man gets a bigger surprise

That’s the background most people don’t associate with the story of Zacchaeus, the short fellow.  They should, because as you’ll see, Zacchaeus essentially did everything right without the benefit of reading Luke 18!  Leon Morris makes the observation:

Coming so soon after the emphatic statement about the difficulty of the salvation of the rich, this incident must be seen as a striking manifestation of God’s grace.

Not just a “striking manifestation,” but a powerful contrast, as we shall see.

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.  A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.  (Luke 19:1, 2 | TNIV)

Our Lord was slowly making His way to Jerusalem for the last time. Jericho was a very prosperous trade city, located in the Jordan valley, some five miles from the Jordan River and about seventeen miles from Jerusalem. It’s location made Jericho an important city. Dead center on an important trade route, the world literally came through Jericho and, as some historians have noted, there was likely a large Roman custom house located there.

Jesus was just passing through this metropolis, but this gave a man by name of Zacchaeus a chance to see Him.  Apart from these ten verses in one Gospel, Zacchaeus is completely unknown to us.  All we know about him is found here.  He was short, and he was a “chief tax collector.”  That title is also unknown to us as it isn’t found anywhere else.  But we assume he was higher up the state revenue collection chain than the other tax collector we are familiar with, Levi.  As a matter of fact, Levi was probably the kind of man that Zacchaeus would have employed.  Oddly enough, given his scandalous occupation, Zacchaeus had a good name, for it meant “pure” or “righteous.”  

Jericho must have been the perfect location to be a tax collector.  It was very prosperous, full of people needing to pay their taxes and businessmen and tradesmen who also would have to fill Rome’s coffers with some of their hard-earned dollars.  It’s no wonder little Zacchaeus was rich.  He could hardly be anything else living and working in Jericho.  In spite of his great wealth, though, he likely had no social life.  Who would want to associate with a tax collector?

He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.  So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.  (Luke 19:3, 4 | TNIV)

Somehow, his man heard of Jesus and wanted to see him. That was surely commendable.  But what was more commendable was that  Jesus wanted to see him!  That seems surprising to us, but it shouldn’t be.  Remember, Jesus had the “bad habit” of associating with people of questionable character: prostitutes, for example.  As much as prostitutes were hated and shunned by society, tax collectors were probably hated even more because nobody could really shun them!  Everybody would have to see the tax collector in order to pay his taxes.  

Zacchaeus had a problem. In addition to being a hated tax collector, he was short.  With the crowds surrounding Jesus as He walked through Jericho, how could a short fellow hope to see Jesus?  Zacchaeus didn’t become the chief tax collector for no good reason!  He thought of the perfect solution.  He would scamper up a tree.  Wouldn’t you have done that?  The fact that this grown man would do what a child would do reminds us the previous chapter, doesn’t it?  

But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  (Luke 18:16 | TNIV)

He did what a child would have done.  Nobody would have made way for him, so he did what a child would have done.  

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”  (Luke 19:5 | TNIV)

Now we know why Jesus was passing through Jericho: the divine imperative.  He told Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today.”  He “must” stay at the tax collector’s house that very day.  Jesus had to talk to Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus had an appointment to keep with the Son of God, even though he didn’t know it.  God was working in the background, for who knows how long, drawing this short collector to the place where he would have to face Jesus.  

So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.  (Luke 19:6 | TNIV)

That’s a remarkable sentence.  With all the speed he could muster, Zacchaeus, apparently without question, scrambled down the sycamore tree and welcomed Jesus gladly into his home.  Just a few minutes earlier, all Zacchaeus wanted was to catch a glimpse of Jesus, a man he had heard about, like so many others had heard about Him.  And all of a sudden, he’s opening up his home to this stranger!  You may not have done that.  I may not have done that.  But when God is working on a lost person’s heart, he will find himself doing what God desires him to do.  

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”  (Luke 19:7 | TNIV)

You can always depend on your fellow man to misinterpret what he’s looking at if he’s looking at you.  They looked at Zacchaeus and all they saw was was a sinner. Jesus looked at Zacchaeus and He saw a sinner in need of saving.  

But 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.”  (Luke 19:8 | TNIV)

The word “but” seems out of place.  Older translations use the word “and,” but “but” is correct.  Luke used “but” to set what Zacchaeus did in contrast to the grumblers.  While onlookers murmured and grumbled about Jesus deigning to eat with a tax collector, Zacchaeus “stood up…”  There’s formal tone in about what he was about to say and do. He was almost standing at attention as he was about to say and do something of great import.  What he said was proof positive that Jesus’ visit to his home had changed him in dramatic fashion.  Dr Luke hasn’t told us that Jesus had told Zacchaeus to do any of what he was announcing he would do, but it’s telling that the tax collector, the man who took money from others legally and illegally, would make restitution and then some!  

This incredibly generous spirit and genuine desire to make right any past wrong shows how much this man’s heart had been changed by the Spirit of God.  The short speech Zacchaeus made, he made not to the people, but to Jesus.  This wasn’t an effort to convince anybody else that he was sincere.  It was the spontaneous response of a man who saw the wrong in his life and the necessity to make it right.  It was the response of a heart recreated and made clean and of a spirit given a new and eternal life.  He was willing to give half of his wealth away – suggesting that half of his wealth was gained in devious ways, and he would help the poor.  He said this of his own accord, not prompted by Jesus, as far as we know.  This is in sharp contrast to the rich, young ruler of the previous chapter, who wouldn’t give up his wealth to follow Jesus.  

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.”  (Luke 19:9, 10 | TNIV)

This man was saved, not because of what he did, but because “this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”  Penance wasn’t what saved this man’s soul, it was because he was in solidarity Abraham, the man who experienced God’s free grace.  Zacchaeus became a true member of Abraham’s family, unlike those miserable grumblers and those who murmured about Jesus fellowshipping with a tax collector.  

And verse ten is the one of the most important verses in all the Bible and the key verse in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus came to seek the lost.  In this case, the lost man Zacchaeus was seeking Jesus, and Jesus was seeking Zacchaeus. And as a result of all this seeking, salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house. 







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