“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.” I’m sure those words are familiar to some of you. As children many of us learned that song about short Zacchaeus and his meeting with Jesus in Jericho. There’s no doubt that the story of Zacchaeus appeals to kids. It could be because the kids themselves are usually short and they can relate to having to crane their necks to see what’s going on amongst the adults. A couple of weeks ago, after one of the services, there were a bunch of kids here at the front of the church. I invited them to come up on the pulpit to check out the view – perhaps a seed might also be planted for a young boy or two to think about the ministry. All these little kids needed to climb up on the chair up here to see over the pulpit. For the kids who could read, I also pointed out a little sign on the back of the pulpit. Only the minister can see it. It’s a quote from John 12:21, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”
That’s what Zacchaeus wanted to do that day in Jericho. He wanted to see Jesus. As we briefly look at this story this morning, we need to do so with that goal in mind too. This story is not about Zacchaeus by himself, but about Zacchaeus as he encounters his Saviour. We need to fix our eyes on Christ, not on Zacchaeus as such. This story is included in the Bible to impress us more with the abounding grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus.
Christ was on his way to Jerusalem to die for our sins. Along the way, his journey took him through the lovely city of Jericho. Jericho was a paradise in the wilderness, a beautiful city, renowned for its tree-lined streets. It was strategically located in terms of trade through the region – it was on an important trade route. It was only logical for the Romans to have a tax headquarters in this city. The Romans charged taxes for several kinds of things, including having trade items pass from one region to another. They contracted out the collection of these taxes. Certain individuals would sign a contract with the Romans to collect the taxes for them. These men would make their money by adding a surcharge to what the Romans were demanding. That surcharge could vary from tax collector to tax collector. Some tax collectors became very wealthy as a result of this system. Amongst the Jews, they were also greatly despised. They were viewed not only as friends of the Romans, but also as crooked men who took advantage of everyone to make themselves fabulously rich.
Zacchaeus was one of those tax collectors; in fact, he was the chief tax collector in Jericho. That made him public enemy number one. He would have been regarded with disgust by almost everybody. They would have thought of him as a slimeball, the lowest of the low. He was rich and he had become rich through corrupt means. His name tells us that he was Jewish and that name means “righteous.” However, he was anything but. If you had asked the citizens of Jericho about who were the most notoriously wicked people of the city, Zacchaeus would undoubtedly have been on the list.
Now Jesus is passing through. For some reason, Zacchaeus was curious to see him. We don’t know exactly why. But we do know that there was a crowd and Zacchaeus had a problem. He was what they call vertically challenged. He was much shorter than average and unable to see Jesus over all the heads and shoulders of the crowd. He was indeed a wee little man. But he was also resourceful. He knew how to get around problems. He knows the route that Jesus is walking and so he runs ahead and he finds a convenient tree. Remember what I said earlier about Jericho and its tree-lined streets. Some of the trees were sycamore trees and the branches of these trees usually begin low to the ground. That makes these trees easy to climb, even for a wee little man. So that’s what Zacchaeus did. He climbed up into the tree so that when Jesus would pass by, he could get a look and no one would notice.
Except someone did notice. As our Saviour was walking by that tree, he stopped and looked up. There in the tree was the little rich man who everyone hated so much, the chief of sinners in Jericho. Jesus looks up to him in the tree and then calls out to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” These are amazing words. They’re amazing because, first of all, our Saviour addresses him by name. He knows who Zacchaeus is; he knows his name and he knows everything about him. It could be that Jesus had been to Jericho before and heard about this wicked little man. The Bible doesn’t say. What Scripture does say further in our passage is that Zacchaeus was redeemed to be part of God’s people. That means that Jesus suffered and died specifically for this sinner. Christ’s redemptive work was done with the names of all the elect on his heart. He knows his sheep. He knows them all by name. Therefore, he surely knows the name of Zacchaeus, this is a name that is near and dear to our Saviour. Everyone else hates Zacchaeus, but Jesus has a special love for him because he too has been chosen from before the foundation of the world.
He therefore calls to Zacchaeus. He says that he must stay at his house today. Christ doesn’t request it. He doesn’t suggest it. His words are very direct – it’s absolutely imperative that he come to the house of Zacchaeus and stay with him. Why? Because our Lord Jesus knows that Zacchaeus is one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Our Saviour knows that redemption must come to this man and to his house for the glory of God, to display how his grace is lavished on the most notorious of sinners. The way redemption will come is through the ministry of Christ to this lost sinner in his house.
Zacchaeus clambered down from the tree and then Luke tells us that he “received him joyfully.” That means that Zacchaeus eagerly welcomed Jesus to his house. He was joyful that Jesus wanted to stay with him, share a meal with him, talk with him. Christ had taken the initiative in going after Zacchaeus, but Zacchaeus responded positively. Commentators like John Calvin see this as the beginning of the work of the Holy Spirit in his life. When someone wants to meet with Jesus, that reflects the stirrings of life in the heart of a sinner. A dead sinner would want nothing to do with Jesus. A slave to sin would ignore Jesus’ call to come down and take him into his house. Those who are unregenerate would not want Jesus to minister to them. But not Zacchaeus – he responds with joy and that undoubtedly reflects the initial work of sovereign grace in his heart.
Then look at how the crowd reacts to all this. They see Jesus walking with Zacchaeus to his house. He’s a rich man, so he probably has a beautiful place. That house is beautiful because Zacchaeus rips everybody off. It’s a monument to his wickedness. They see Jesus entering in that house along with public enemy number one. He’s going to stay overnight there. He’s going to eat there. He’s going to talk with Zacchaeus and his family. This is absolutely scandalous. No self-respecting rabbi would hang around with this type of low-life. Because of the sheer scandal of it all, they murmur. They grumble. The original Greek here uses a vivid form of onomatopoeia – this is a literary device where the words resemble the sounds. In English we see that bees buzz. Here in Greek the word is an intense form of the verb gonguzo. It’s one of the most notable examples of onomatopoeia in the New Testament. Gonguzo sounds like the grumbling and mumbling of people who are upset at scandalous behaviour.
“He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” What they mean is that he is a wicked, notorious, public sinner. And now Jesus is saying he is okay because he is staying with him, eating with him, having fellowship with him. They can’t handle it that Zacchaeus is receiving grace from the Lord. The Lord should be casting down hell-fire and brimstone on him, but instead he’s sitting with him and ministering to him. He should get what he deserves. There should be justice for all the times that “Mr. Righteous” has ripped off the public.
Brothers and sisters, what we see here in stark detail is the scandalous nature of God’s grace. There’s something in sinners that wants to see other sinners, especially ones that are perceived to be worse than ourselves, receiving exactly what they deserve. It happens throughout the ministry of our Lord Jesus that when grace is shown to great sinners, other “average” sinners react with indignation. Grace is nice for us, but not for them. They don’t deserve it. When anyone thinks that way, they’re missing the whole point of grace. No one deserves grace. No one deserves to have Jesus call them by name, to have him bear their name on his heart as he suffers and dies. No one deserves to receive the ministry of Jesus through the Word and sacraments. Because the reality is that while we may not all be notorious and public with our sins, if we are honest we know that we are all great sinners in need of a great Saviour. We have all been lavished with extravagant grace from the beginning to the end of our salvation. The more we see that, the more we will grow in patience with others who are either not yet in the kingdom or who are slowly being brought into the kingdom. The more we will rejoice when we see God’s grace given to others, even to others who are notoriously sinful.
The story of Zacchaeus has a remarkable ending. As our Saviour is leaving the next day, the wee little man demonstrates that he has had a huge change of heart. What we read in verse 8 is evidence that Christ’s ministry to him was effective. Zacchaeus was brought to faith and then his faith immediately bore fruit. He calls Jesus, “Lord.” He is now a disciple of Christ, a follower, a student. He says that that he will give half of his wealth to the poor. Then he adds, “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” This is an incredible statement. In the original, there is actually a confession in that statement. When he says, “If I have defrauded anyone of anything,” we need to understand that he is saying, “and I have.” He has come to a point of honesty about his sins. Moreover, he’s going to do something about it. He will restore four times what he stole. That went far beyond what the law of God required of him. The Mosaic laws of the Old Testament required a thief to pay back what he had stolen, plus a fifth. But Zacchaeus was led by the Holy Spirit living in him, so he was going to go way beyond. He had been an extreme sinner, but his repentance was also going to be extreme. This is how he responds to the gracious ministry of our Saviour in his house.
And Jesus says that because of that ministry, salvation has come to the house of Zacchaeus. Covenantal language seems to be used there. No, we’re not told whether Zacchaeus had a wife and children. But if he did, the pattern we see elsewhere in the New Testament is that when the head of the household repents and believes, that has a bearing on everyone in the household. That could have happened here too. But what we do know for sure is the Zacchaeus received the gift of faith and entrance into eternal life. So, when Jesus suffers and dies on the cross shortly after this, he will suffer and die with the name of Zacchaeus on his heart. Zacchaeus is not only physically a Jew descended from Abraham, but also, through faith, a spiritual son of Abraham. This is all because of Christ’s ministry to him in his house that day. All because of grace.
Then we find those incredible words of verse 10, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” He came to look for great sinners like Zacchaeus – and like me and you. He came to save those who are lost, not the people who think they have it all together. He came to bring amazing grace for the broken and the despised. Loved ones, this is our Saviour and this is why he came. Zacchaeus wanted to see him and what he was about. He got to see it. And, you know what, so do we.
This morning, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we have our Lord among us. He is present and he is ministering to us with his Word and shortly he will minister to us again with his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. He has welcomed us as guests in his house and he graciously shares with us a meal. None of us deserve a place at this meal. None of us deserves to have Jesus minister to us this morning. Yet he does and that should not cease to strike us as amazing. The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace and the grace lavished here is surprising when we think about it. Loved ones, eat and drink in faith this morning. Eat and drink fixing your eyes on Christ, the one who has sought and saved you, the lost. Receive his ministry to you with great joy! AMEN.