I invite you to look at a great text you all know and love: "Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector." That is a loaded phrase, especially the way he put it: "The chief tax collector, and rich."
"And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way." The sycamore tree is a leafy tree, unlike the olive, which has tiny leaves. He could sit in this tree and see Jesus if he came, but also in effect be hidden. Maybe that's why Luke particularly noted it was a sycamore tree. You'll see that Zacchaeus was a smart man. He figured which way Christ was going and wanted to go on ahead and get up in that tree. Maybe he even said to himself, Maybe he will stop nearby and argue with the Pharisees. I understand he is always arguing with Pharisees, and maybe there will be a group of those laymen down from Jerusalem that will be arguing with him. And maybe I could get it all on my recorder and take it to the tax collector meeting. Think of all the things that may have gone through his mind as he saw Jesus coming.
I've always had a soft spot for Zacchaeus because he was short. I've always been short, too. One thing about short people is they tend to think ahead. I remember when Nehru came to Berkeley when I was an undergraduate. I was taking a course on the politics of Pakistan and India, and I was excited to see him. I saw a huge limousine outside the Greek Theater with some Secret Service men around it, and, just like Zacchaeus, I figured, Now that's where he's going to go after that meeting. And so, the moment the meeting was over, while people were still applauding, I ran down to get next to that limousine so that I could see Nehru up close. It worked. I stood as near as from here to the microphone from Nehru when he walked by. So you see, Zacchaeus is a man after my heart. He saw which way Jesus was going, and he got in the tree.
Jesus restored Zacchaeus as a son of Abraham
But you'll see by this account he got a little more than he bargained for. So "he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed into the sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus.' " This makes this account a theophany, an account like Moses being addressed by the burning bush, Saul on the road to Damascus—"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" And now here, " 'Zacchaeus—I see you in that tree!—make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.' So he made haste and came down, and received Jesus joyfully. And when they saw him, they all murmured, 'He has gone into be the guest of a man who is a sinner.' " Now we know the special use of the phrase "chief tax collector, and rich"—they all murmured. I think this is the only place in the New Testament where they all murmured. We hear in some places where scribes and Pharisees murmured or the Sadducees murmured, but here it's "they all murmured." The scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, zealots, disciples—everybody was murmuring: "He has gone in to be a guest of a man who is a sinner."
We must appreciate tax collecting. It was a vicious institution in the first century. The Romans used the same practice as the Persians when they conquered. They did not take the people back to Rome and show them off as hostages, because then they would have had to feed all those prisoners. They learned from the Persians not to take the prisoners back but to set them up in their own economies and then tax them. But in order to tax people, especially when they didn't have bank accounts, the tax collectors needed people on the inside who knew where the wealth was. So they got collaborators. They found someone like Zacchaeus and elevated him to become a chief tax collector. They protected these people with Roman garrisons so no one dared tamper with them, and yet gave these citizens the right to point out where the wealth was. They said to the Roman officials, "Now that person has 90 sheep up in Bethlehem. I've known this family for years. You'd never know it to look at his house, but that man's loaded." So the Romans could tax him all the more.
Notice how the tax collector got it both ways. We know there was corruption in the tax-collecting institution. People would come up to a tax collector and say, "Hey, don't tell them I've got 90 sheep up in Bethlehem. It will ruin me." He says, "All right, I won't tell them. But what do I get for it?" So then a little bribe would pass under the table. And then he would tell the Romans anyway. What could the man do? He bribed the tax collector and hated him for forcing the bribe. The citizens despised the tax-collecting institution. The tax collectors used a privileged relationship to exploit their own people.
The next sentence goes like this: "Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, 'Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.' " That's repentance. I don't know what happened between this man and Jesus Christ, but here is a man who is repenting. He repents in a concrete way. He doesn't say a lot of drivel about how sorry he is. He just says, "Fourfold I will restore to those I've defrauded" (it's a nice way of admitting that) "and half of my goods I give to the poor." Repentance in the biblical sense—metanoia—means to turn around, and whether or not you say you are sorry, you turn around, change, and do something. That's what he does.
Then our Lord spoke to him, and these last two sentences are incredible sentences: "And Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house.' " Salvation is the Greek word soteria. It's one of the words used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word shalom. Did you know the great Hebrew word shalom, used about 175 times in the Old Testament, is translated by three Greek words in the Septuagint? One is the word teleios, which means end or complete. Another word is soteria (salvation), which is this one. And the other word is eirene, the Greek word for peace. But it's interesting this word soteria is one of the words used to translate shalom. That's why I believe in the New Testament eirene, the Greek word for peace, means just the absence of war. This word salvation becomes the big word to express the peace of the Old Testament, which means health, restoration, wholeness. So our Lord says, "salvation has come," and he means "shalom has come—salvation has come—to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham."
Notice our Lord then restored Zacchaeus as a son of Abraham. The very thing he gave away was the dignity of being a Jew, exploiting that for the benefit of the Romans at the expense of his own people. Our Lord restored his sonship in front of everyone. The last sentence is important: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."
There is a series of surprises in this incident, and I want to reflect on four of them. The first surprise is that Jesus noticed one person in a great crowd. We don't expect that from famous people. If you've ever met a famous person, the one thing you don't expect is to have that person take time to talk to you. If you've ever been in a line where you have had a chance to shake the hand of the President of the United States, protocol people stand right next to the President, get your name, and say your name to the President. Then, while he's shaking your hand, he's looking to the next person. That's how they move the line along. You'd be rather surprised if he stopped and said, "How's it going in your church? How's that problem with the carpet?" Yet our Lord Jesus Christ, throughout his entire ministry, gives everyone his full attention. It's one of the marks of Christ's ministry.
You see it here. Jesus was sensitive to everybody he met. You never get the feeling in the New Testament that Jesus was talking to someone and juggling oranges at the same time. He gave that person his full attention.
The second surprise is that Jesus accepted the hospitality from a person who is so hated by the people (and for good cause). We saw in the text the result of that.
The third surprise was that a man like Zacchaeus, who made his whole fortune by being hardhearted, became so repentant and generous.
The final surprise is that a man who did so much real harm in his life should be restored publicly by Jesus as a son of Abraham.
All of these surprises (and there are probably more) come together in one interesting and intense sentence: "They all murmured, 'He has gone in to spend the night with a sinner.' " If you can understand why they murmur, why they are so upset, then you'll be able to understand the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The people were upset because they expected a Messiah who would conquer evil
The people were upset, it seems to me, for a very basic reason: they expected the Messiah, and many of them were hoping that Jesus would be that Messiah. Make no mistake, our Lord was famous at this point. He was in the very territory where John the Baptist had said so many things about him. Even this Zacchaeus character was very impressed by the faith of Jesus and had gone ahead of the great crowds and climbed in a tree. So the people were expecting the Messiah. Here I want you to follow me closely, because it is important theologically to understand the Lord's ministry and to understand this text. They were yearning for a Messiah who would conquer evil, and you're going to see in a minute how our Lord disappointed that expectation. I've often said one of the most elegant and most incredible proofs of our Lord's messiahship is how wonderfully he both fulfills and disappoints every expectation we have.
Take a look at Luke 3. Luke was very interested in John the Baptist, and he gives us a long narration of John the Baptist's speeches. Just pick it up at verse 15. The people were "in expectation, and all men are questioning their hearts concerning John the Baptist, whether perhaps he were the Christ." Think about how famous John the Baptist was. Did you know in some ways he was more famous in many parts of the Holy Land than our Lord was? Even after our Lord's resurrection, there were followers of John the Baptist still in North Africa. One of them was Apollos, who came up to Corinth and had never heard about Christ. He was still looking for the Messiah. He was a John-the-Baptist follower. Some people wondered if he was the Messiah.
"And John answered them all, saying, 'I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I'm not worthy to untie." That one line appears in all four gospels and also the Book of Acts. "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,"— now listen closely—"and with fire." (By the way, John does not mean fire to warm your heart. He means fire to burn up the evildoers.) Do you know what a winnowing fork is? It's a huge fork that's used to clear and to slice away. "His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary" (that will be the good people, the sons of righteousness and God's beloved), "but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." That's what John the Baptist expected of the Messiah.
As you know, a few days after he said these words, Jesus appeared and John said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world." Raymond Brown, in his commentary on John's gospel, says it's probably not correct for us to think that John was thinking of Isaiah 53, the suffering servant lamb, because all Jews by the time of the first century thought of Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel, not to the Messiah. The Messiah would be the ensign who would startle the nations. Raymond Brown wonders if maybe what John had in mind when he said, "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world" was the last chapter of Malachi, where it tells of the calf who will trample down the evildoers.
Look at the last chapter of Malachi, which gives you a great clue to John the Baptist's preaching because it sounds just like this. Note where chapter 3 starts: "Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me." And then chapter 4: "For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble." It sounds just like John the Baptist's speech. "The day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch," the same exact line we have in John the Baptist. "But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings." Now we're getting a messianic hope. "You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on that day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. … Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."
So we know from this text from John the Baptist, and we know from first-century expectations that the Jews were looking for a Messiah who would conquer evil. He would reach his hand into the horrible wheel of Roman injustice, take hold of that wheel, and right it. He would destroy the evildoers.
Zacchaeus gained ground, but Jesus lost ground
Now what does Jesus do? He gets under the tree and says, "Zacchaeus, I see you up in that tree!" He's starting out well. If he had campaign managers, at this point they'd say, "Right on!" Now the next line should be "You snake in the tree! You come down and grovel!" Maybe he should say, "Look, people. There's the chief tax collector. I know his name." And the people would cheer and say, "This man is Messiah, because he fulfills John the Baptist's expectations. He knows the evildoers." Remember that scene where the woman came into the Pharisees' dinner party and wept tears on Jesus' feet? The Pharisees said, "If he were truly a prophet, he would know what sort of woman this was." That shows the expectation that the Messiah would know evildoers and how to conquer them.
What does Jesus do? "Zacchaeus, I see you in that tree. Come right down. I'd like to spend tonight in your house." Imagine what his campaign managers and all his friends are saying! No wonder they all murmured. How can Jesus ever have a following now? But look what Jesus does: "I want to spend the night in your house." Jesus reveals Zacchaeus. Then he identifies with Zacchaeus. Then he heals Zacchaeus. Notice he uses the word salvation, which is the word for healing. He saves Zacchaeus. And then he restores the identity of Zacchaeus. It almost sounds like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the story that Jesus himself told about a father who said, "Put a ring back on that boy's hand." (Remember how angry the elder brother was?) "My son was dead but is alive." So there was a great party. Here, Jesus does it. This is not a parable. He does it. He identifies with Zacchaeus. He saves him. He restores the identity of Zacchaeus.
As a result, Zacchaeus gained ground, but Jesus lost ground. Make no mistake about it: Zacchaeus gained ground. I've been in ministry long enough to tell when the grace of God has gotten hold of somebody's life: body language. Their hands loosen up. They become generous. They want to give half of their goods away. They want to restore all those they've defrauded. They don't go around saying they are sorry. They don't go around playing games. They do something, because Christ has come into their hearts. This man gained ground if ever I've seen a man gain ground. Notice it says "received Jesus joyfully." Zacchaeus became generous, expansive.
But Jesus lost ground. Make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters; the shadow of the Cross was over this event. I've often wondered, Where did Jesus lose Judas, Judas who probably was a zealot, a young revolutionary? Where was it that Judas said, "I can't go anymore with Jesus? " Was it just that he wanted money and took a bribe to betray Jesus? No, I think it's probably more complicated than that. I wonder if right here Judas was one of those who murmured and said, "Well, you can't trust Jesus," because in the next scene at Bethany, he says the churlish thing about the nard. Judas was already bitter at that point. Something has caused Judas to become bitter toward Jesus. Is this the event that triggered it? "What kind of Messiah is Jesus? He doesn't point out the evildoers or conquer evil. He spends the night in Zacchaeus's house!"
Let me give you a twentieth-century example. Suppose you were a campaign manager for Jesus. You land at a Las Vegas airport, and Jesus steps off the plane. Over on the edge of the tarmac is a long, black Cadillac with those tinted electric windows. Don't you hate them? The windows go down just a few inches, and you see eyes peeking out. Jesus says, "Hey, Joe! I see you in there!" It turns out this is Joe Rigallo, Mafia chieftain for Las Vegas. "I want to spend the night in the Sands Motel you own." Now you tell me, if you were one of Jesus' leaders, how would you sustain Christ as Messiah? He would go to spend the night with that guy! The Washington Post will write an article about that. They would have cameramen waiting all night outside the door. That's what Jesus did.
So Zacchaeus gained ground, but Jesus lost ground. The people were expecting a Messiah who would conquer evil. They expected the defeat of evil. But no one in the first century expected that Jesus would defeat evil in the way he chose. Listen closely to the way our Lord chose to defeat evil. This passage gives an important clue: Jesus would defeat evil by taking it upon himself, by absorbing its anger, its power. Then he, himself, would disarm that power. And Jesus would defeat evil by identifying with the sinner. Notice, "the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." He would identify with you and me. He would then go to the Cross.
Notice Jesus found Zacchaeus. He started out all right, and just like Elijah, he would say, "Line up all those false prophets." He would line them all up, and just about the time we would take the Uzi guns and mow them down, Jesus would do something totally surprising. That's why I say the shadow of the Cross was over this event. Just at the moment where we would mow down the four hundred false prophets, Jesus Christ would take their place. He would die. It would be the lamb of Isaiah 53 that he would fulfill, not the calf of Malachi. He would conquer evil by absorbing it, by taking it to himself, by identifying with the sinners. "He who knows no sin will become sin, so that we might be in the righteousness of God."
Have you ever noticed that our Lord, after his resurrection, did not come back to Pilate or Caiaphas and defeat them? This is certainly what you'd expect from what John the Baptist has said. Caiaphas went right on as high priest for another seven or eight years. Pilate went right on as procurator. Life went on as usual in a way. What he did defeat were the weapons they had: death and fear. He conquered those and the power of the Devil. Jesus Christ fulfilled Elijah's prophecy. He fulfilled John the Baptist's prophecy, but in a way that no one expected. He identified with Zacchaeus, and now Zacchaeus gained ground because of that identification.
Brothers and sisters, we have just seen the love of God. This is not a parable about love, an illustration. This is the very thing itself. You want to know what love is in the New Testament? It was Jesus touching a person with Hansen's disease. It was Jesus talking to Nicodemus and giving him that hard blow: "You must be born all over again, Nicodemus." It was Jesus talking to the rich young ruler, saying, "Follow me." It was Jesus spending the night with Zacchaeus, identifying with Zacchaeus, absorbing in himself all the tragedy of Zacchaeus's life. That was how he set Zacchaeus free.
Here we have love that comes alongside us, love that's an event, love that's powerful and able to give new life, a love that totally surprises all of our expectations. Even the Lord's own disciples are totally surprised by what Jesus does. Now we know that the rock he claimed to be is a good rock.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
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Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).