For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at a couple of men whose lives were changed by an encounter they had with Jesus. Two weeks ago, we looked at Jairus, the synagogue leader, and we saw that Jesus brings hope when voices around us tell us that there is no hope.
And then, last week, we looked at Matthew the tax collector, and we saw that Jesus extends mercy when others are not willing to do so. This morning, I want us to take a look at another tax collector who met Jesus. We read about him in Luke chapter 19., but before we get there, I want to share with you a couple of my favorite cartoons that relate to the I.R.S.
Here’s one from Peanuts. Snoopy writes, “Dear IRS. I am writing to you to cancel my subscription. Please remove my name from your mailing list.”
And this one where the IRS agent says, “You’re not really a bad person, so we’ll just confiscate everything you own and let you off with a warning.”
If they had cartoons in the first century, they would have looked something like this, but, of course, it wouldn’t have been the IRS, it would have been the tax collectors. Last week, we talked about what it meant to be a tax collector in the first century. We saw that tax collectors were basically outcasts from Jewish society.
And I raised the question last week, what would cause a man to want to become a tax collector? And I’m sure the answer to that question varied from person to person. But I think it’s accurate to say that people in general, but men in particular, are prone to worship money and power. Money and power. Right, men?
If you had to vote, would you rather have money or no money? It’s an easy choice – we’ll take the money. Which you rather have, power or no power? No need to take a vote, it’s unanimous. People in general, but men in particular, when given the choice, prefer money and power.
And often, what motivates our desire for those two things is that there is something else that we want: we want control, we want to be recognized as being successful, we want status, we want comfort, we want security, we want people to fear us. Money and power can contribute to achieving all of those things.
And what happens is that some men and women achieve those objectives. Over the course of their lives, they receive money and power. But what happens is, it’s not always pretty. You may be well-known, but not well-loved. You may be very rich, but not very generous. People may fear you, but they don’t really know you. And people will talk about you, but they don’t really have a relationship with you.
And this happens in every culture, in every generation. Every generation has some of the most note-worthy and notorious examples of people who worshiped money and power and how it did not end well for them. Perhaps our generation’s most tragic example is Bernie Madoff. You may recall the story, the greatest Ponzi scheme perhaps in the history of the world, where Madoff allegedly cheated people out of billions of dollars.
And that was what it was like to be a tax collector in the first century. They were typically crooks and thieves with their own kind of Ponzi scheme. They ripped people off and they were very rich and very powerful
And one of these tax collectors was a man by the name of Zacchaeus. Now, if you grew up going to VBS, you already know who Zacchaeus was because his song has got to be one of the greatest VBS songs of all time. Sing it together with me:
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.”
Now, I’m not sure why we call Zacchaeus a “wee little man”. It makes it sounds like he’s Scottish or something. Let’s just call him what he was – Zacchaeus was short. Luke 19:3 says, “he was small of stature”.
Now, obviously, I can’t relate to what it’s like to be short. Most of my life I’ve been taller than average. When I was younger, everybody would always say to me, “You’re so tall, do you play basketball?” And I would respond, “No. You’re so short, are you a horse jockey?” OK, I never actually said that, but there were plenty of times that I wanted to.
But most of the people I know who are short wish they were taller. They wish they could reach things on the top shelf. They wish they could see over the person sitting in front of them. They wish that people wouldn’t look down on them (literally and figuratively).
But the good news is that Jesus has a different way of sizing up a person. So, in verse 1, “[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich.
“And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way.” (Luke 19:1-4)
Zacchaeus was a wee little man. He was short. But if you had asked the people in Jericho, they would have said Zacchaeus was not only short in stature; he was also was short in integrity, short in character. Remember when we talked about Matthew last week, we learned that tax collectors were Jewish people who turned their backs on their own people to work for the Romans. And it was their job to collect as many taxes as possible from their own people to support the Roman armies. So, they weren’t just cheaters, they were also traitors.
And Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector; he was a chief tax collector. He was the number one tax collector in that region. He was like the district manager — all the other tax collectors worked for him! So Zacchaeus didn’t just benefit from a corrupt system, he ran it. This was a powerful high- ranking position.
Not to mention that he had one of the best locations in all of Judea. Jericho was a beautiful and prosperous community. If I had to pick one city in the United States that is most like Jericho, it would be have to be Palm Springs. Because this was where the rich people lived. In fact, King Herod built a vacation palace in Jericho. It was an ideal place to collect taxes.
And that means that while Zacchaeus was a short man, there were two things he was not short on. He was not short on money because he was one of the wealthiest men in Palestine, and he was not short on enemies. Because everybody hated this guy.
And I’ve got to assume that Zacchaeus was probably a tough guy. He had to learn how to survive growing up in a world of people taller than he was. Growing up the brunt of jokes. Growing up the kid who got pushed around.
But, Zacchaeus learned to stand his ground and to fight back. And so, as he climbed the ladder of success, he stepped on everybody who got in his way. He would show them. Someday they would look up to him.
The bottom line is that Zacchaeus was a man who was driven by power and position. A man who was more interested in being respected and feared than having a good reputation.
And then he heard that Jesus was coming to town. And he desperately wanted to see Jesus. We’re not told why. Maybe it was just a fleeting curiosity. Zacchaeus wanted to see this new guy in town that everybody was talking about. Or maybe there was something deeper going on. Maybe deep down in his soul, he was tired of being the guy that everybody looked down on. And not just because he was short.
Zacchaeus was wealthy and powerful, but he knew that something was missing in his life. And I would guess that Zacchaeus wasn’t a very happy person. I mean, how could he be?
As a tax-collector, he was rejected by his community. He was forbidden to ever enter a synagogue. He was disowned by his family. And he made his fortune off the suffering of his people. And he knew he was a sinner. Zacchaeus knew there had to be something better.
And he had heard rumors. Some of the tax collectors that he had known, the ones that he used to go with to seminars on how to cheat your neighbor, Zacchaeus heard that they’ve quit their jobs, and now they’re following this guy who’s coming through town. He had heard about Jesus’ nickname – a “friend of tax collectors and sinners”. So, Zacchaeus wanted to see this man named Jesus.
And in verse 5, “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.” (Luke 19:5-6)
I find it interesting that Jesus is just walking along and he looks up and he says, “Hey, Zacchaeus! I’m free for lunch! Let’s go to your house!” And Zacchaeus is taken aback, because it’s hard for us to imagine God paying attention to us when we haven’t paid that much attention to him.
But he’s excited. It says that “he received [Jesus] joyfully”, or as the NIV puts it, “he welcomed Him gladly”. But then in the next verse, it says, “And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7)
Usually it was the religious leaders, the Pharisees, who reacted this way, but this time it says that it was all of them. Everybody in town is shocked that Jesus would go to this man’s house and eat with him!
In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning tells the story of a man who had sinned greatly. His church excommunicated him, and he was forbidden to ever come into the church again. He repented. He wanted healing, so he went to the Lord, as the story goes, and he said, “Lord, they won’t let me in because I am a sinner.” To which the Lord replied, “What are you complaining about, they won’t let me in either.”
And I think the point of that story is that sinners never fare well in churches that refuse to admit that we are all sinners and we are all desperately in need of salvation
The Jewish religion of the first century offered little comfort to sinners. A religion that requires tithes to support a leadership who spent their time arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin is not a very attractive message to people who are burdened with guilt, who are searching for meaning and purpose in life.
In verse 8, “Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:8-10)
It used to be that we referred to people out there in the world as “lost”. But somewhere along the way, we stopped using that term. And we created new words to describe people outside of Christ. We started calling people like that “unchurched”, and for a while we referred to them as “seekers”. But the truth is that the lost people in the Bible are not referred to as seekers. Because in the Bible, people don’t seek God. God is the one who seeks us. Zacchaeus didn’t find Jesus. Jesus found Zacchaeus.
And Jesus said to all the critics in town, “You need to understand, I came to pursue and to redeem lost people. That’s why I’m here.” And when it comes to those that need to be found, everybody’s name is on that list, including yours and mine. Because when it comes to righteousness, all of us are wee little men and women because none of us measure up to the righteousness of God.
As Paul put it in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Now, we sometimes don’t want to admit that we fall short. We struggle to see our own shortness, because we can always find someone shorter than us. Wherever we go, we can always find a Zacchaeus.
There’s a Zacchaeus in your school. There’s a Zacchaeus at your job. There’s a Zacchaeus in your neighborhood, wherever you hang out. And we have trouble relating to people like Zacchaeus because we think to ourselves, “I may not be perfect, I’ve got a few faults – but at least I’m not a Zacchaeus.”
But Jesus comes along and he doesn’t say that we all sin the same amount, because some people do sin more than others. And he’s not even saying that all sin has the same consequence. Some sin causes more damage than other sin. But what he is saying is this — “All of you sin!” And it only takes one sin to separate you from God
All have sinned. None of us measure up to the righteous standards of God. We are all Zacchaeuses. But here’s the good news – Jesus is anxious to find us and to redeem us. Because nobody is beyond the reach of the grace of God. And there are some of you here this morning who may need to really hear that message – nobody is beyond the reach of the grace of God.
I love this quote from Jerry Bridges – “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”
And when Jesus finds Zacchaeus and he reaches out to him, Zacchaeus is a changed man. The impact in his life is that he becomes a new person. Because that’s what salvation does for you.
Jesus forgives Zacchaeus and that changes him. The attitude of a Christian is not “just keep doing whatever you want to do, God will forgive you.” Rather, we were used to doing what we wanted to do, but we meet Jesus, and we realize that what we were doing was wrong, it was sinful, and we realize that Jesus is offering us something better. And so, we don’t want to continue sinning because something happens inside us — we change.
The Bible calls it being born again. You become a new person. You now have a new power through the Holy Spirit. You now have a new Lord in Jesus Christ. You now have a new authority in Scripture. And you now have a new nature that has new desires. You don’t want to keep living the way you used to live. You want to change. You want to be different. You want to be like Jesus.
- Not so that he’ll love you, but because he already does.
- Not so that he’ll forgive you, but because he already has.
No, the reason you change is because the love of Jesus compels you to be a better person. That’s why Paul says in Romans 6 that at the point of baptism, “our old man was crucified” (6:6) and buried in the waters of baptism, and we rose from the waters to walk “in newness of life” (6:4).
And it’s why Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” I think there are some Christians who don’t really believe that. For some folks, all the gospel did was to wash the old person. You’re still that same old person; you just don’t smell quite as bad as you used to.
But that’s not what Paul said. He said that that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a “new creation.” The old life is not just washed! It’s gone. A new life has begun. The gospel is not just about forgiveness; it is also about formation. What God does for us in Jesus Christ is to make us into the person that God always intended for us to be.
And, as Zacchaeus shows us, one evidence that this is happening in your life is that you will make the change from being a taker to being a giver. Now, there are many different ways of categorizing people in this world John Richardson once said, “There are three kinds of people — those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”
Mark Twain said, “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things.” He said, “The first group is less crowded.”
It’s also been said that there are two kinds of people in the people – givers and takers. And I do believe that’s true. And after Zacchaeus was converted, he changed from a taker to a giver. He said, “Lord, from now on, I intend to start giving.” Why? Because he’s a new person, he’s got a new passion. The old Zacchaeus lived for money and power. He lived for what he could get. But the new Zacchaeus lives for who he can bless.
And, by the way, every day, whether you intend to or not, you make a decision to focus on one of those two things. You either focus on what you can get or you focus on who you can bless.
Zacchaeus says, “Lord, I’ve cheated some folks and I need to make that right. So I’m gonna give back four times what I stole. And, Lord, all my life, I’ve always turned my back on those who are poor. I’ve built up my little empire and I’ve only cared about me. But that’s the old Zacchaeus – he’s dead and gone. From now on, I’m living for who I can bless.” You see, one of the evidences that you have actually become a new creation is that you change from being a taker to being a giver.
About twenty years ago, there was a couple who lived outside of Louisville, Kentucky. A few days before Christmas, they saw a large object covered in plastic at the end of their driveway. They went out to see what it was. And when they took the plastic off, they were surprised to find a wicker rocking chair which had been stolen off their porch about 18 years earlier.
With it was a note. And the note said, “To whom it may concern: Approximately 13 to 17 years ago my husband stole this wicker rocking chair from the porch of this house. I am ashamed of his behavior and am returning this stolen item. I have since been divorced from my husband and have since been “born again.” My life has completely changed and I want to undo any wrongdoing to the best of my ability. I know this chair is not in the same condition as when it was stolen and I apologize. I now live in another state and am rarely in this vicinity. I realize the cowardly fashion in which I am returning this, but the reason is obvious. I will not bother you again. Please forgive us. Sincerely.”
That’s the kind of change that Zacchaeus experienced. He wanted to make thing right. And he wanted to start giving. And I want you to notice that there was no reluctance. Zacchaeus didn’t say, “Well, I guess now that I’m saved, I’m gonna have to start putting something in the collection plate every Sunday.” No, he was excited to share! He was a cheerful giver.
And the Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver. Because cheerful givers love God. Cheerful givers realize just how much God has done for us. How, by his grace, he brought us into his kingdom. By his grace, he saved us. And when you are so overwhelmed by that, you just have to express your love for God.
And one of the ways that you express your love for God is by expressing your love to people around you. Our lives need to change like Zacchaeus. Don’t try to tell me about your spiritual devotion if it isn’t affecting your material decisions. Don’t try to tell me how much Christ is in your heart if it hasn’t reached your wallet. A transformed life will always change us from being a taker to being a giver. Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” He wasn’t saying that generosity is the means to salvation. He was saying that generosity is the evidence of salvation.
And that’s why I love the story I once heard about a factory worker in Detroit who worked for the Ford Motor Company. Throughout his years of employment, he did what a lot of employees did – he took a lot of tools home. But then, one day, he started going to church and he decided to obey the gospel and it changed him. He surrendered his life to Christ, he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit immediately went to work.
And he realized that all those tools he had taken over the years didn’t belong in his house. So he made a decision the following morning to return everything he had ever stolen, knowing it could cost him his job. He went to his foreman and he explained, “I’m a Christian now, it’s wrong for me to have these. I’ve brought them back and I ask for your forgiveness.”
His foreman was so caught off guard that he wasn’t sure what to do – Should he punish the man? Should he reward him? So he asked his supervisor, but his supervisor didn’t know what to do. Nobody had ever done anything like this before.
Finally, somebody said, “We need to ask Mr. Ford”, who happened to be in Europe, visiting a plant over there. So they sent a telegram to Henry Ford describing the situation and they asked what they should do. And here was his response. He said, “Dam up the Detroit River and baptize the entire plant.” Because salvation always changes who we are.
And not just the individual. I want you see that by transforming Zacchaeus, Jesus was also transforming his community. Most people in this world live by the question — “What can you give me that I don’t already have?” But saved people live by the question — “What do I have that I can give you?”
And saved people want to partner with God in the wonderful work of renewing this world. They don’t just see the gospel as saving an individual so that that person can waltz into heaven, but they see the gospel as changing that individual, so that he can march into this world and demonstrate the love of God. To give this world a glimpse of heaven. That’s what saved people do.
I want you to see that the gospel compels us to make a difference in this world. I think we sometimes think the message of the gospel is that we need to hide behind our walls and protect ourselves and just hope Jesus comes to get us all soon. But we need to see that the gospel is calling us to enter the world of darkness in a way that demonstrates the love of God.
And because Jesus has made a difference in our lives, we in turn want to make a difference in the world around us. So, like Zacchaeus, we want to give. Feed the hungry, help the orphans, defend the unborn, build schools, call for justice. And when we do those things, we help people to see Jesus a little better.
Because if we have truly found Jesus, it will change who we are. And we will no longer live in this world as takers, but as givers – givers who are determined to make a difference in the world around us in the name of Jesus.