A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Jerusalem
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Jerusalem
The sun is rising. Spring’s flowers are awakening. The fragrance of irises, tulips, and orchids fills the air. The calendar shows it’s mid-week, early April, circa 30 A.D. Jesus is just beginning to stir from a restless night’s sleep.
Jesus: On the Road to Jerusalem
“Morning, Lord. Do you want something to eat before we hit the road?” Jesus and his Twelve have been travelling for weeks—or, is it months?—headed towards Jerusalem.
As Luke tells it, the journey started way back in 9:51. The good doctor spends the first third of his Gospel recounting how Jesus got from Bethlehem to Galilee, and the last two-thirds on how he got from Galilee to Jerusalem. Really, though, the journey began before then. Jesus was practically born on the road to Jerusalem. When he turned his back to leave heaven, he set his face like a flint towards that ancient city.
Last night ended awkwardly. For the sixth time, Jesus had taken his disciples aside to discuss what lay ahead.
We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again. The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about. (Luke 18:31-34)
Jesus couldn’t have been any plainer. The disciples couldn’t have been any more confused. They all went to bed frustrated.
The next morning, that Wednesday morning, they awakened in a camp surrounded by thousands of pilgrims on their way to celebrate Passover. Their number has been growing daily and with every passing mile.
Once on the road again, tambourines jingle and jangle, feet dance, friends laugh, and together they sing the songs of Zion. Well-wishers turn out to line the route, cheer the parade, and catch a glimpse of anyone worth seeing.
Jesus is now a recognized rabbi and a controversial figure. The common people revere him. The elite revile him. So, his Twelve form a wall, guarding and guiding him through the great throng.
Jerusalem towers on the horizon, seventeen miles to the southwest. The road ahead is steep, winding, as rocky and barren as the backside of the moon, and infested with thieves. The pilgrims will ascend 3,300 feet, equivalent to 350 flights of stairs spread out over seventeen long miles, before arriving at their final destination. Jericho will be the last stop before they start to climb.
Jericho: The City of Palms
The ancient city Jericho boasts of a history like few others. Archaeologists claim it’s one of the world’s earliest continual settlements, where civilization took its baby steps. They speculate that agriculture and irrigation developed here thousands of years before Christ. It was an early urban center, home to nearly 2,000 people, surrounded by a protective wall. As the years passed, the walls toppled, the city was overrun, and its citizens wandered off until a new group of settlers arrived to rebuild—over and over again.
You don’t have to be a scholar to know that Jericho is famous in biblical history. It was the first place attacked by the Israelites under Joshua’s command after they crossed the Jordan River (Josh. 6). You probably sang about it in children’s church.
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho.
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,
And the walls came tumbling down!
And those walls stayed down for a long, long time; the city burned to the ground. The Bible reports:
At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: At the cost of his firstborn son he will lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest he will set up its gates.” (Josh. 6:26)
Five hundred-thirty years later, while that vile toad Ahab squatted on Israel’s throne, a man named Hiel made the grave mistake of putting Joshua’s curse to the test. The Bible says, “He laid its foundation with Abiram his firstborn, and with his youngest son Segub he set up its gates, according to the word of the Lord, which He had spoken through Joshua the son of Nun” (1 Kings 16:34).
One visit to Jericho and you would understand why people kept rebuilding it. The word “Jericho” means “fragrant place.” Deuteronomy 34:3 calls it “the city of palms.” The temperature is warm year-round, like San Diego but with hotter summers. The ground is rich. Groves of aromatic balsam trees perfume the air, like citrus trees in south Florida.
Herod the Great established his winter residence in Jericho to escape Jerusalem’s cold. He died there in 4 B.C., but not before refurbishing the city and fortifying its walls with strong fortresses on each of its corners. His palace included reflecting pools and fifty niches in its walls for statues. For the public, he built a multi-purpose complex that housed a theater, gymnasium, and stadium for horse and chariot racing.
All of this sat at an important intersection, linking major roads leading north and south, east and west. Travelers and traders alike, with all manner of expensive and exquisite cargo, pass daily through Jericho’s gates. It’s no wonder that she draws beggars, thieves (like the ones in Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan), and tax collectors. They come like flies to honey.
A Nameless Nobody: Blind and Begging
Speaking of flies, they’re everywhere on the road to Jerusalem. As the cities have grown, so too have these swarms of insects. They’re more than a nuisance. They pose a serious threat to public safety. Among other diseases, these flies carry ophthalmia—an infection that causes heavy crusting of the eyes, droopy eyelids, loss of eyelashes, and clouding of the cornea. If left untreated, ophthalmia can result in total blindness.
Visual impairment is a common problem in the first century. Newborn babies are especially vulnerable. Mothers often pass along germs through their amniotic fluid that result in irreversible eye problems for their kids.
Adults are also vulnerable. Apart from accidents and extreme forms of punishment, they can sustain loss of vision due to illnesses like malaria, prolonged exposure to sandstorms, and sun glare in the desert.
Ask any of its victims, and they’ll tell you that blindness is one thief that never stops taking—stealing your job, your income, and your home. That’s why blindness and begging go hand-in-hand on the road to Jerusalem, especially around wealthy cities like Jericho and particularly as religious folks pass through, heading to the Temple. After all, God commanded them to take care of their poor brothers and sisters.
Besides income and home, blindness eventually steals your name. People start referring to you as “that blind man” or “that poor blind woman.” You stop being you and become the embodiment of a condition, a nameless face in a pitiable class.
That’s whom Jesus meets on his way into Jericho—a nameless nobody, blind and begging. As Luke describes it:
As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord, I want to see,” he replied. Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God. (8:35-43)
Though the man could not see, he possessed insight that others lacked. He “saw” that Jesus was the long-promised heir of David. When he first learned that Jesus was passing by, he called out. When the crowd tried shushing him, he bellowed, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Don’t get the wrong idea when you hear Jesus ask the man, “What do you want me to do for you?” Lots of other beggars and blind folks were lining the road that day, nearly all of them asking for money. But not this man. He believes, believes with all his heart, that Jesus can do far more than offer him a few coins. “Lord, I want to see,” he answers.
Then Jesus says far more than the man might have hoped. “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Did you catch it? Jesus doesn’t say, “Your faith has therapeuo’ed you.” He says, “Your faith has sozo’ed you.” The man would have been thrilled with therapy. Jesus gives him salvation! No wonder that he follows Jesus into Jericho, praising God every step of the way.
Zacchaeus: The Palm City Godfather
As thick as the crowd was outside the city, it may be worse inside. Here we encounter a different group of people asking for money—tax collectors. Never popular in any place or time, tax collectors are particularly reviled, like flies, by the faithful in Jesus’ day.
They are traitors to Israel, siphoning off money to send to Rome. To make matters worse, they’re crooks—taking bribes from the rich while breaking the backs of the poor. They handle unclean money, Gentile money, all day long—the kind of money from which they can’t pay their tithes. That makes everything they own unclean. So, what does that make them? Sinners of the worst sort, no better than the girls down at the brothel! That’s why “tax collectors and sinners” are often spoken of in the same breath. But you can’t avoid them. You have to do business with them. They know you, and you know them.
These tax collectors come in all shapes and sizes. The most common and most detested are the tax farmers who bought the rights to tax traffic within their districts. They make their living on commissions collected on tolls and customs. Although the commission system is regulated, their true power comes from their ability to assess the value of certain goods. Any goods that aren’t declared for the purpose of taxation, they can seize.
Tax farming is a rich man’s racket. Rome demands payment up front. That means that groups of investors sometimes combine their resources to acquire the contract, then hire muscle to collect their loot. It’s less Internal Revenue Service than it is Cosa Nostra. That makes the guys running everything the godfathers. Jesus’ disciple Matthew, author of the Bible’s first Gospel, was once a low-level collector. But the man that Jesus meets inside Jericho is another story. Again, let’s listen to Luke as he tells us about him.
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. 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.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
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.”
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 the lost.”
Zacchaeus is a “chief tax collector.” That means he’s either a shrewd entrepreneur overseeing a network of collections agents or, in less flattering terms, the godfather of Palm City. Either way, he is wealthy (Luke 19:2). Not a little wealthy, but extremely wealthy! After all, this is Jericho, home to the rich and famous, site of Herod’s winter palace, and queen of commerce’s crossroads.
People might envy Zacchaeus for what he has, but no one envies him for what he is. His name is practically a joke. Zacchaeus means “just one.” A godfather named “Just” is as laughable as a prostitute named “Chastity” or a town drunk named “Temperance.”
Funnier still, Zacchaeus, the “big man” of Jericho, is short! Most people of that time ranged from 5’ 1” to 5’ 7”. Zacchaeus stands near the bottom of that scale, which poses a problem when he hears Jesus is passing by. He can’t see around or over the crowd, no matter how far he stretches or how high he jumps. So, he runs ahead of the parade and climbs a tree. Watching any grown man, let alone a shrimp of a big shot like Zacchaeus, climb a tree in broad daylight is like tuning into C-SPAN and seeing a game of hopscotch break out on the Senate floor! Ridiculous.
Why’d he do it? Curiosity? Conviction? Maybe he’s hoping to find something to tax. No one really knows. Adam and Eve once stitched fig leaves together and hid among the trees to escape God’s sight, but Zacchaeus climbs a tree to catch sight of God’s Son. How ironic.
What does Jesus do? He stops the parade and orders Zacchaeus to come down. “I must stay at your house today.” Must? Says who? Today? Why today?
Zacchaeus promptly complies, and the crowd immediately complains. “Can you believe that he has gone to be the guest of a sinner?” This is now the second time they are coming between Zacchaeus and Jesus.
Jesus is unphased. We can only imagine what the Son of God and the Palm City godfather discussed that evening. The next morning, though, Zacchaeus is a new man. “Lord, here and now, I pledge to give half of what I own to the poor. With the other half, I will make restitution to those I’ve defrauded—at a rate of 4 to 1.” Truly, salvation had come to Zacchaeus’s house. He was in Rome’s pocket before, but now he’s a true child of the Abrahamic covenant—an heir of God’s promises by faith.
The next words that Jesus speaks not only summarize what has just transpired inside Zacchaeus’ house but what transpired the day before outside Jericho’s gates. More than they that, they encapsulate everything that Luke recounts about Jesus’ life. Says Jesus, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
Us: On the Road Again
Jesus and his Twelve rejoin the procession. It’s Thursday morning. Three days from now, it will be Palm Sunday. In eight days, Jesus will be crucified. In ten, he will rise from the dead.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s try to make sense of what we’ve just witnessed. That nameless beggar and that notorious bagman had more in common with one another and with us than you might imagine. Blindness kept one of them from seeing Jesus. Shortness of stature prevented the other. What keeps you from seeing Jesus?
The crowd came between both men and the Lord. They told the blind man to be quiet. They turned their backs on Zacchaeus. I wonder, who is getting in your way to the Lord?
The nameless beggar cried out. Zacchaeus climbed up. Both men persisted. How far are you willing to go to get to Jesus? How long are you prepared to cry or how high to climb?
Nameless confessed his blindness. Zacchaeus owned up to his mess. Neither tried to hide anything. What are you afraid to admit?
After encountering Jesus, the blind man went on his way seeing and praising God. Zacchaeus, according to one ancient source, went on to become the bishop of Caesarea. Has turning to Jesus made any real difference in your life?
Jesus told the formerly blind man, “Your faith has saved you.” Upon hearing Zacchaeus’ pledge, He said “Salvation has come to this house.” Nameless and Zacchaeus were equally lost, and they were equally saved.
Lostness takes many forms. You can be a lost nobody or a lost somebody. You can be lost and living on the streets or lost and sleeping in a mansion. You can be lost in your personal darkness or lost in a crowd.
Jesus gave three pictures of lostness just days before entering Jericho. He said that to be lost is to be like a sheep separated from its flock—alone and vulnerable. To be lost is to be like a coin that has fallen between the cushions of a couch—valuable but useless. To be lost is to be like a runaway child—exploited and famished.
When you can’t find the road back home, you’re lost. When you can’t find your way forward in life, you’re lost. When you can’t find yourself in the mirror, you’re lost. That’s because the more of this world you gain, the more of yourself you lose. Yes, lostness takes many forms. Have you come to terms with your own lostness?
The funniest thing of all is that while Nameless and Zacchaeus were both seeking to see Jesus, Jesus was already seeking them. Jericho offered lots of attractions to capture anyone’s attention—bustling crowds, opulent homes, a renowned theater, horse track racing, and Herod’s winter palace, to name but a few.
None of those sights caught Jesus’ eye, but a wee little man perched among the branches of a sycamore tree did. It wasn’t his stature that drew Jesus’ gaze. It was the fact that the man was looking for Jesus. Jesus is always looking for people who are looking for him. That’s why he came to earth. Jesus came to seek and to save lost folks like us.
You have to give Nameless and Zacchaeus credit. Out of the thousands passing before them, they focused their attention on getting to Jesus only. A sincere faith is a wonderful thing, but sincerity alone is not enough. The efficacy of faith isn’t in its subject, that is, the person who believes. The efficacy of faith is in its object—that is, the person who is believed upon.
Nameless and Zacchaeus were saved because they believed upon Jesus. Have you placed your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? If you have, not only should you now see life in a whole new way, but others should be able to see a real difference in you.
Yes, it’s true. “Jesus gets us. All of us.” But not all of us get Jesus. Jesus came to seek and to save lost folks like us. All of us. But only the willing are ever found.
Author’s Note: This book, How to Preach Narrative (Dallas, TX: Fontes Press, 2022), by Jeffrey D. Arthurs was the inspiration for this sermon. Arthurs uses Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus through his book to exemplify the principles he discusses. I took from his insights, added to them, and expanded beyond Luke 19:1-10 to include what happened the day before outside Jericho.
Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.