“The Joy of Zacchaeus” (Luke 19:1-10)
The story of Zacchaeus is a very famous and familiar story in the Bible. Most of us probably remember it from our Sunday School lessons and from that children’s song we all learned. You know the one I’m talking about. It goes like this:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he;
He climbed up in a sycamore tree,
For the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down from there!
For I’m going to your house today!
For I’m going to your house today!”
And besides its appeal to children, who like it I think because it’s about a guy who’s about their height–besides being a “cute” story for kids, it also has a serious side as well. It’s a story of sin and repentance and salvation. It’s a story about Jesus, who says of himself, in the very important and profound verse that concludes this text, and which many consider a theme verse for the entire Gospel of Luke–Jesus says: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Now with all that going for it, you would think you would have heard a sermon about Zacchaeus somewhere along the line. But I checked my files, and I couldn’t find that I had ever preached a sermon on Zacchaeus. I wondered why that was. It isn’t that this text, Luke 19:1-10, doesn’t appear in the church’s lectionary. It does, on a Sunday during the third year of our three-year cycle of readings. But then I discovered what the problem was. You see, in that three-year series of readings, which cover all the Sundays and major festivals of the church year, there are probably close to a couple hundred texts of just the Gospel readings. But this particular reading, about Zacchaeus, is one–and perhaps the only one–you never hear preached on.
Why? Because the Sunday for which Luke 19:1-10 is assigned is the Sunday that falls in the period of October 30 through November 5. And what do we always do on the Sunday from October 30 through November 5? If it’s the last Sunday in October, we always celebrate Reformation Day. And if it’s the first Sunday in November, we always celebrate All Saints’ Day. And those festivals have different readings. So every time Zacchaeus has his turn in the lectionary, he always gets bumped. Always. Well, he was a short guy, so maybe he’s used to being overlooked.
But not tonight! Tonight I myself have come to seek and to save the lost–the lost story of Zacchaeus! Why tonight? Because this story fits our midweek Lenten theme of joy in the Gospel of Luke. This series, “A Little Lenten Lukan Joy,” tonight concludes with “The Joy of Zacchaeus,” a little man who discovers joy when Jesus comes to his house.
OK, so just to review the basic facts of the story: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He passes through the town of Jericho. By this time, Jesus is quite well known, and he attracts big crowds. So if you want to catch a glimpse of this celebrity, it helps to be tall. You can look over people’s heads and see things more easily. But tough luck if you’re short. All you can see is the backs of other people. And, as you all know, this Zacchaeus was a wee little man. His “stature of limitations” is causing him problems. If he wants to see Jesus from ground level, it’s going to be a short story indeed.
So, he’s a clever guy, and he comes up with a solution. He climbs up in the aforementioned sycamore tree to get a better look. Which he does. But being perched up there also gives Jesus a better look at Zacchaeus. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Or, to put it more colloquially: “Yo, Zacchaeus! Come on down from there! Let’s talk! Guess who’s coming to dinner? I am!” Jesus basically invites himself over. Zacchaeus, you wanted to see Jesus? Well, you got your wish.
So, any problem with this? Yeah, ya think? “This fellow Zacchaeus–Jesus, I don’t know how you knew his name, but are you sure you know enough about this guy? His background, his occupation, his reputation? You know, you’re supposed to be a pretty pious religious teacher, Jesus, but, well, this Zacchaeus–are you sure you know what you’re doing, going to his house?” “And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’”
Here’s the problem. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Now none of us here probably enjoys paying taxes, so a tax collector generally isn’t a real popular fellow anyway. But in those days, in that culture, the tax collectors had a most unsavory reputation. For one thing, they were working for the enemy, the hated Roman occupying force. But beyond that, the tax collectors had a fairly well deserved reputation for being dishonest, for overcharging, for skimming money off the top to line their own pockets. So besides being looked down upon, literally, for being short, Zacchaeus also was looked down upon for being a crook, for being a tax collector, for being a notorious sinner. And a good religious teacher like Jesus–he ought not to hang out with a guy like that!
But he does. Jesus likes to hang out with sinners. It’s his opportunity to call them back home to God, to call them to repentance and faith–faith in him, the Savior of sinners. So Jesus invites himself over. He must go to Zacchaeus’s house today.
And Zacchaeus “receives him joyfully,” our text says. Zacchaeus is happy to see Jesus, up close and personal, not just from up in a tree. What causes this joy of Zacchaeus? Why does he receive Jesus so joyfully? It’s evident that it’s because Jesus comes bringing forgiveness into that house. That’s just what Zacchaeus needs. It’s what we all need, really, only sometimes people don’t realize their need for forgiveness. But, thank God, Zacchaeus does.
Zacchaeus apparently had been a typical tax collector of that time, ripping people off, making himself rich by cheating people. But now he says: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Christ’s coming to him has caused a big change in the little man. This is repentance happening here. Zacchaeus has come to grips with his sins, he’s acknowledged them and is turning away from them. Jesus has that effect on people. Even though repentance in this case may end up costing Zacchaeus a bundle of money, he’s glad to part with any ill-gotten gain and also to repurpose his wealth to help the poor. But that’s OK. What Zacchaeus is receiving from Jesus is worth far more than all the money in the world, and Jesus is giving it to him free of charge. Forgiveness, salvation–tax-free? Such a deal!
The joy of Zacchaeus is the joy of repentance. It’s the joy of finding forgiveness in Christ for all your sins. It’s the joy of finally being found, when you have been lost, lost in your own messed-up life of sin.
Zacchaeus realized his need for forgiveness. And you do, too, don’t you? You know that line from the song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man”–“wee,” as in “w-e-e”? Well, tonight let’s rephrase that and make it “Zacchaeus was a ‘we’ little man”–“we,” as in “w-e.” For Zacchaeus was a lot like “we” are, you and I. He was a sinner weighed down with a load of guilt. Just like we are. Zacchaeus was a little man who did the little things, the shady things, to work to his own advantage. Just like we do. Maybe fudging on the figures just a bit. I’m sure that in the ledger book of sins, God could find sins that we do that are in the same bracket as those of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a “we” little man in more ways than one.
But Zacchaeus also was a sinner for whom Jesus died. Just like we are. Remember, Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Very shortly he will be there. In order to do what? Jesus is going to pay off the big debt that we all owe. Jesus is the great sin collector of all time. He takes up all our sins and carries them to the cross and pays them off with his holy precious blood. All of Jesus’ goods–his righteousness, his forgiveness, his life, his salvation–behold, the whole of his goods–not half of them, but all of them, he gives to the poor, to poor miserable sinners like you and me and Zacchaeus. Our tax bill now reads: “Debt, Paid in full. Date, Good Friday. Signed, Jesus of Nazareth.”
Our Lord told Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation comes where Jesus goes. Now today, this day, Jesus has come to this house, this house full of sinners right here. Salvation is here, because our Savior is here. And, like Zacchaeus, we receive him joyfully! The joy of Zacchaeus is our joy, too. For Zacchaeus truly was a “we” little man with a great big Savior.
Dear friend, no matter how tall or how short you are, no matter how rich or how poor, whether you’re up in a tree or out on a limb, if you know you’d be lost without him, then Jesus is looking for you today. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”