And he entered and was passing through Jericho. And behold, a man called by name Zacchaeus; and he was a chief publican, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the crowd, because he was little of stature. And he ran on before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way.
And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and said unto him, “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to-day I must abide at thy house.”
And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.
And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, “He is gone in to lodge with a man that is a sinner.”
And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have wrongfully exacted aught of any man, I restore fourfold.”
And Jesus said unto him, “To-day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:1-10).
Zacchaeus is famous for being a “wee little man,” a character that small children learn about in Bible classes. Yet there is much that grownups can learn from Zacchaeus and his interaction with Jesus.
When the Jews saw Zacchaeus, they saw a little weasel who sided with the oppressor against them. As a publican, or tax-collector, he was equivalent to a Gentile, and probably seen as much worse (cf. Matthew 18:17). If you were trying to find the ultimate example of a sinful person in first century Judea, you would speak about the publican (cf. Luke 18:9-14)!
The publicans were seen as evil because the job attracted some of the least reputable and most corrupt persons in society. They were told to go and collect a given amount from the people, and their salary was whatever they could obtain beyond that amount. Not a few tax collectors would extort double, triple, or even quadruple the necessary funds from the people in order to line their own pockets. You can certainly understand why they were universally disliked!
Therefore, we can understand that when the people of Jericho saw Zacchaeus, they saw one of the most insufferable sinners in their midst– he is not just a tax collector, but is the chief tax collector! The people of Jericho likely could barely stomach the idea that he was a child of Abraham like they were. They would, no doubt, be assured that he would suffer greatly in the pit of Sheol because of his profession and extortion. To them, he was a good-for-nothing tax collector!
But what did Jesus see in Zacchaeus?
Did He see a sinful man, one who was quite guilty of sin? Undoubtedly. Did Jesus understand how Zacchaeus would be perceived by his fellow man? Absolutely.
But Jesus saw a side of Zacchaeus that the rest of the people refused to see. He saw the possibility of repentance in such a man despite his great sin. He perceived how Zacchaeus was extremely interested in seeing Him. Jesus, therefore, did the most unbelievable and amazing thing, at least in the eyes of the inhabitants of Jericho: He decided to lodge with Zacchaeus, of all people!
Were there not many more righteous men in Jericho? In the eyes of the people, certainly. There were probably a few Pharisees in town, maybe a priest or Levite or two. But Jesus stays with the ultimate sinner! Tongues began to wag. People begin to question. If Jesus really was the Son of God, why would He stay with such a man?
Jesus is vindicated by Zacchaeus’ response. Since Jesus was willing to show Zacchaeus love, compassion, and mercy, and to give him a chance, even if entirely undeserved, Zacchaeus responded with repentance. Jesus gently rebukes the crowd by demonstrating how salvation has come and that Zacchaeus is a child of Abraham, even if the people saw him as “too sinful” to “deserve” that status. And we see how Jesus’ ultimate purpose was fulfilled: He came to seek and save the lost.
There is a lot that we can learn from this story. For those who are in sin and separated from their Creator (Isaiah 59:1-2), you can take courage by the example of Zacchaeus, and know that Jesus has provided you love, compassion, and mercy, even though you do not deserve it (Romans 5:5-11, Ephesians 2:1-10). You also can change your ways and begin serving the Lord and be saved, no matter what you have done (1 Timothy 1:12-16).
All of us, however, can learn from Jesus and what He saw in Zacchaeus. If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that we have played the part of the people of Jericho far too often. We have seen terribly sinful people and believe that there was almost no chance for them to be saved. We have despised such people in our heart, especially if those people have oppressed us or harmed us in some way. We certainly could not see how any truly righteous person would have anything to do with such people!
The witness of Scripture is clear: all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of the Father (Romans 3:9-23), and that means that none of us have the right to so judge and condemn anyone (Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 14:11-12, James 4:12). The only reason that any of us have a prayer is because God showed us love, compassion, and mercy, and that despite ourselves (Romans 5:5-11, Titus 3:3-8). Those “terrible sinners” have just as much right to obtain God’s grace, repent of their sins, and be obedient as any of the rest of us do. God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11)!
Therefore, when we encounter “terrible sinners,” let us remember that just as Jesus would show them love, mercy, and compassion, even though they do not deserve it, so we should also show them love, mercy, and compassion. It may very well be that we have little influence on their actions or their lives. But you never know when the person that you have written off as a “terrible sinner” may turn out to be a Zacchaeus, one who will hear and change his ways. Let us all strive to maintain humility and reflect the love of Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry