We had two good climbing trees on our property when I was growing up, and by far the best was a sycamore in our back yard. It had one branch low enough that you could jump up and throw your leg over it to get started, and sturdy branches that could take you up above the roofline so you could “spy” across the street. It’s no wonder, then, that it was a sycamore tree that Zacchaeus, a very short man, scrambled up to get a better look at Jesus who was coming his way with a large crowd around Him.
But the real wonder was that Jesus stopped when he was under that tree, looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Murmurs ran through the crowd because Zacchaeus was a wealthy chief among tax collectors known for being crooks by skimming off of what they collected from their fellow Jews for the Roman government. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,” they muttered as Zacchaeus made his way down the tree.
Clearly moved by being called out by name to host the controversial rabbi at his home, Zacchaeus immediately proclaimed a change of heart. “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.”
By inviting Himself to the tax collector’s home, Jesus was proclaiming Zacchaeus acceptable. It was an offer of mercy and forgiveness to which Zacchaeus immediately responded. Jesus could see into the heart of Zacchaeus, and He saw a man who wanted to do the right thing for the right reason, and was already troubled by the wrong in his life. Zacchaeus knew that accepting Jesus into his home meant that his life had to change. His wealth had come at the expense of his people. This was his chance to set things straight and he took it. By his willingness to do right, Zacchaeus was not earning his salvation; he was showing the genuineness of his heart. The salvation came, as it always does, as a gift of God.
“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.”
This would have really burned the Pharisees — calling a chief tax collector a son of Abraham — but Jesus was announcing that He came to save the lost, not to gather together the holy.
As Christians in the world, we have lost track of our calling to do the same — to seek and save the lost. We’ve spent way too much time and effort separating out the found. We have used our place in the world to push social morality rather than to invite ourselves into the lives and homes of sinners all around us as Jesus did. The main thing that makes us different from Jesus: the lost are sinners like us. We need to refocus on why we are here.
For the entire story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, see Luke 19:1-10.