Topical Scripture: Luke 19:1–10
It’s been a confusing week in the news.
Prince Harry and Meghan have been negotiating with the Queen of England to resolve their status as members of the royal family but not. They will give up their royal titles and duties and repay the funds used to refurbish their UK home, but they can maintain their private patronages and associations.
President Trump signed an historic trade agreement with China on Wednesday, then the Senate ratified his revised North American trade agreement on Thursday; in between the two events, the House delivered formal impeachment articles against him.
The manager and general manager of the Houston Astros have been penalized for their role in the sign-stealing scandal, but the team retained its World Series title. The manager of the Boston Red Sox was fired for his role in the same scandal, but his team retained its World Series title. Now the Los Angeles City Council will vote on a resolution urging baseball to award both championships to the Dodgers, who lost to the two teams.
We live in a confusing, performance-driven culture based on grades. Jesus offers us a simplified, purpose-driven life based on grace.
This season, as we walk from Christmas to Easter, we’re focusing on the uniqueness of Jesus. Last week we discussed the uniqueness of his power. If he could heal a leper with just a touch and a centurion’s servant with just a word, his power is greater than our needs, whatever they might be.
Today we’ll focus on the uniqueness of his grace. Despite what the world thinks of us, despite what we have won and what we have lost, Jesus focuses not on what we have done or what we have but on what he can do with us. No matter your past burdens or your present problems, God has a future in mind for you that is greater than your greatest dream.
We’ll meet a man whose story proves that fact, then we’ll decide whether to make his story our own.
“He was a chief tax collector”
Our text begins: “[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus” (Luke 19:1–2a). His name means “pure one,” which was tragically ironic until Jesus made it true.
What did our Lord see in this man?
It was certainly not what he had done: “He was a chief tax collector” (v. 2b). In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were the most hated people in any town, for two reasons.
First, they were traitors. They were Jews collecting money for the hated Romans. If you’re a Jew living in Poland when the Nazis capture your town and the next week your neighbor comes knocking, collecting taxes for the new government, you’d be no more outraged than the people of Jericho were with Zacchaeus.
Second, they were corrupt. Rome charged a certain amount per person in taxes, then allowed the tax collectors to take anything above that they wanted for themselves. Zacchaeus could stop you on the road and charge you tax for the road. He could tax you for your cart and each wheel on it, for the animal drawing the cart, and for the bags it carried. And Roman soldiers stood guard to protect him and enforce his greed.
As a result, people like Zacchaeus were the social lepers of their day. They were grouped with murderers and robbers in the mind of the public. They were barred from the Jewish synagogue. A Roman writer says with amazement that he once saw a monument to an honest tax collector.
Yet, Jesus chose him.
It was not for what he had, either. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus “was rich” (v. 2c). He had grown wealthy through his corruption. In fact, some scholars believe that he was likely the wealthiest man in his city of one hundred thousand people. Given its size and location, this was one of the greatest taxation centers in the entire region of the Empire.
This is how we know he was abusing the system. If he had merely collected what Rome asked, he would have been provided for, but he would not have become rich. His extreme wealth shows the level of his corruption at the sacrifice of his fellow Jews.
Later on, Zacchaeus gives half of his belongings to the poor and has enough left over to repay the people of Jericho four times what he had taken from them. He was extraordinarily rich.
But Jesus didn’t choose him for his wealth.
“I must stay at your house today”
Our Lord focused not on what Zacchaeus had done or what he had, but on what he could be.
The story continues: “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature” (v. 3). He was so hated by the people that they would not let him through. And he was so short that he could not see over them.
So “he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way” (v. 4). This is a wide-open tree with a short trunk and low branches. It is easily climbed. It would become associated with Zacchaeus from his day to ours.
What came next must have shocked Zacchaeus as much as it did the rest of the crowd: “When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today'” (v. 5).
Note three facts.
First, Jesus “looked up.” In such a crowd, others would have been looking down and around, but Jesus “looked up.” He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go out looking for the one.
Is he looking up at you today?
Second, he called Zacchaeus by name. We have no evidence that the two had ever met. But just as God called Moses by name at the burning bush, and Samuel by name as a boy, and Saul by name on the road to Damascus, he calls this notorious sinner by name.
Did you know that he knows your name?
Third, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. In fact, he says, he “must” stay at his house that day. He did not wait for Zacchaeus to come to him—he came to this man. To this notorious, hated man, Public Enemy #1 in his city. Imagine the most ungodly, hated, despised person in your town, then imagine Jesus inviting himself over.
Does he want to go to your home today?
“Today salvation has come to this house”
Zacchaeus did not wait: “He hurried and came down and received him joyfully” (v. 6). Unsurprisingly, when the crowd saw this, “they all grumbled, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner'” (v. 7).
Now watch what happens: “Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor” (v. 8a). He calls Jesus his “Lord,” his Master. Then he proves his witness by his works, giving half of what he has to the poor in his city. This is present tense, indicating an action he is performing right now, perhaps through his servants.
Even more astoundingly, he adds, “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (v. 8b). Jewish law required that a man caught stealing return what he stole four- or five-fold (Exodus 22:1). But, if the thief admitted his crime voluntarily, he was required only to return what he had stolen plus one-fifth (Leviticus 6:5; Numbers 5:7).
Zacchaeus gave back far more than he was required to give. But he has experienced the uniqueness of Jesus’ grace, and he must give grace to others in response.
Jesus responded: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (vv. 9–10). Now he calls us to give the world what he has given to us.
Jesus is looking at you now and calling your name. He wants to come home with you and make your home his own.
If he could forgive Zacchaeus, he can forgive you. If he could use Zacchaeus, he can use you. What the crowd says about you doesn’t matter. What the Christ says about you is the truth.
Our problem is that we measure ourselves by what we think we can do for Jesus. And we all know our failures, our faults, our frailties. We all know how little we can actually do for the God of the universe.
The question is not, what can you do for Jesus? The question is, what can Jesus do with you?
Is Jesus in charge of every dimension of your life? Is he in charge of the money you keep as well as the money you spend and donate? Is he in charge of your time in private as well as public? Is he in charge of your marriage and family, every moment of the day? Is he in charge of your weaknesses as well as your strengths?
He can do so much more with us than we can do for him. To limit to our finite capacities the One who stilled the storm, healed the leper, and raised the dead, is the sin of self-reliance. To be used by the Son of God to change our Jericho is the result of self-surrender.
Whatever it takes, whatever he asks, whatever the cost—that’s the formula for eternal significance.
Tony Evans is right: “God will meet you where you are in order to take you where he wants you to go.”
Is Jesus calling your name today?