Conversations: Jesus and Zacchaeus
Text: Luke 19:1-10
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
We are continuing through the season of Lent with our series of sermons on Conversations with Jesus. And today we come to a conversation that Jesus himself initiates with an unlikely man who is in an unlikely place to have a conversation. And Jesus does the unlikely thing of inviting himself over to the man’s house for lunch, along with all his disciples!
It's the story of Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke 19:1-10. And I preached on this story just a couple of years ago, but I want to take a little different tack on the story in light of this series of sermons on conversations.
So turn with me to Luke 19, and listen once again to what is probably a familiar story.
So at this point in Jesus’ ministry, he is actually headed to Jerusalem for the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover. And as we saw last week, he has set himself to go to Jerusalem knowing full well that the religious leaders there are going to reject him, arrest him, and have him killed as a false Messiah.
And at this point he is leading his disciples through the town of Jericho which was on the way to Jerusalem. And a whole crowd of other pilgrims are marching along with him. They are all on their way to Jerusalem for the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover. And of course, Jesus is not just one more pilgrim walking along amongst that crowd.
He is a celebrity! He has been healing the sick, casting out demons, preaching and teaching about the coming Kingdom of God all over Israel. All kinds of people believe he not a false Messiah, but the long-awaited Messiah, who has come to restore the nation of Israel. And now he is on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover! The crowd is all a-buzz with talk about Jesus. Some people are probably trying to inch their way closer to him so that they can just touch his cloak and be blessed.
It’s in that setting that Jesus does this most unlikely thing: He stops the whole parade for a man up in a tree.
And a most unlikely man to be up in a tree, a well known tax collector from the town of Jericho named Zacchaeus.
Now you have probably all heard that tax collectors were not popular people in Jesus’ day. IRS auditors aren’t the kind of people we want knocking at our door in our day either.
But Zacchaeus wasn’t an auditor of people’s taxes. He was a collector of people’s taxes. He was a Jewish man who worked for the hated Roman government. He made a living from forcing his own countrymen to pay what the Romans demanded. And not only that, such tax collectors were notorious for bullying people to pay more than what was due and keeping the excess to line their own pockets.
And Zacchaeus we are told here was not only a tax-collector, but the chief tax collector of the town, and Luke says quite straightforwardly, “he was wealthy.” That tells us all we need to know about this Zacchaeus’s popularity in town. It also is a good indication to us of how odd it would have been for a wealthy man like Zacchaeus to have been found up in a tree watching the parade. And how odd it was for Jesus to stop the whole parade in order to talk to Zacchaeus in the tree and invite himself and all his disciples over to his house for lunch.
Luke says in verse 5 that when Jesus came to the spot, he looked up in the tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
I mean, isn’t that rather forward of Jesus? He orders him out of the tree and tells him he’s coming to stay at his house for a while. Can you think of any other time when Jesus does such a thing? There are times we have seen when others invite Jesus over for lunch, but I can’t think of any other time when Jesus invites himself over for a meal. But here he does it without batting an eye. And it’s amazing that Jesus knows him by name. And there’s no indication from Luke that Jesus had ever met him before, or that anyone had told Jesus who the guy was up the tree.
In fact, I am not sure the people of Jericho would have told Jesus who he was even if they’d been asked. They hated this tax collecting traitor and wouldn’t want Jesus to have anything to do with him. Luke says in verse 7, that when the people of the town saw that Jesus was going to the man’s house to break bread with him, they began to mutter, “He’s gone to be the guest of a sinner!” You see, they won’t even say his name.
There was not a decent person in all of Jericho who would cross the threshold of Zacchaeus’s house. But Jesus was about to do just that, of his own accord, by his own initiative, by inviting himself over.
But here’s the other fascinating thing about this encounter and conversation: Zacchaeus has somehow been drawn to Jesus like a magnet already. And he is ripe to respond to Jesus in an unlikely way and amazing way.
Do you notice how determined Zacchaeus seems to have been to see Jesus as he paraded by? What motivated him to go so far as to climb a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus? Did he want to see what this celebrity Rabbi from Galilee of all places looked like? Or had he heard that Jesus had a soft spot for tax collectors and sinners? Or was he tired of being hated by everyone in town, and was looking for a new way of life?
We don’t know. But we can see his actions. And his actions indicate a determined desire to see Jesus first hand. And when he discovers he is too short to see over the others who are gathered along the side of the road to watch Jesus pass by, he runs ahead and climbs a tree to look down.
Can you imagine that scene? A wealthy man, who at other times was probably quite concerned about his appearance and his nice clothes, now is motivated to hike up his expensive robe and climb a tree to watch a parade? It’s unlikely behavior for a rich man, but it tells us something about his earnest desire to see this man, Jesus.
And so how do you think he feels when Jesus stops the whole parade to engage him in conversation right there in the tree? How do you think it makes him feel that Jesus seems to know him by name?
Well, again we aren’t told how he feels, but we do get to see his actions. He responds to Jesus immediately. He gets down out of the tree, and gladly welcomed Jesus into his home. There was no talk of it being inconvenient for Jesus to come over on the spur of the moment bringing 12 other hungry guys with him for lunch.
No, instead, while the crowd outside was muttering about Zacchaeus being a sinner, Zacchaeus was inside responding to Jesus with his whole heart. “Lord,” he says, and this is Zacchaeus’ side of the conversation; “Lord, here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
And Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
Do you hear that spontaneous change of heart in Zacchaeus’s words? He can’t believe that someone besides his own mother has spoken his name with kindness and not venom. He can’t believe that this Rabbi whom he wanted so much to see has actually come to his house to spend time with a guy like him. He can’t believe he is being loved and accepted by a man like Jesus.
And whatever else was said between them in the conversation over lunch that day, the result was that Zacchaeus whole life was changed. His heart was converted, his mind and values were changed, his affections were rearranged so that he now treasured the love of Jesus more than all his wealth or possessions.
My friends, that’s the gospel. Conversations with Jesus change us. And Jesus initiates conversations with unlikely people in unlikely places all the time.
None of Jesus’ disciples on that day would have chosen to take the time go to a tax collector’s house for lunch, or even to hang out with a guy like Zacchaeus. But Jesus did, and called his disciples to go with him. And you know, he was constantly doing this, and they were constantly amazed at who he chose to spend time with. And they were constantly amazed at what happened when Jesus did spend time with these people, and the way that Jesus talked to people.
Well, guess what? Jesus hasn’t stopped doing this! He’s done it again and again in my life, and in so many of your lives, too. And in our following of Jesus, we will probably discover that Jesus leads us into similar situations with people and places that on our own we wouldn’t have chosen to go to or be with.
This past Monday night on my shift at the Malden Warming Center, a guy who was new to me came to the door a little later than most. And he was worried that we might be all filled up already, but we had one more spot open. So I told him just sort of offhandedly that we had one more spot we had saved just for him, and welcomed him in. And you know what, he was so thankful that I made him feel like we actually wanted him there. After the intake, and after he had gotten himself settled in his spot, he came back up to me and started telling me all about how he had been treated at another pretty well known homeless shelter in the Boston area. He told me about the job he now had washing dishes at a restaurant, and how he got out of work late and that’s why he wasn’t able to get to shelters until a lot later than most of those who had no jobs. But that so many other shelters treated him badly for arriving late, and made him wait outside, and then begrudgingly let him in, and he went on and on. He told me how he didn’t make enough washing dishes to be able to afford housing, and how he hated washing dishes but it was a job and he needed the money. And he told me he knows he’s a doofus, that was the word he used. He knows he’s a doofus, but the people at that other shelter didn’t need to treat him so disrespectfully when he is trying his best. And he thanked me again for being nice to him and welcoming him in that night. And I told him God loved him, and we did, too, and then they called his name to come up and get dinner.
I’m telling you, I didn’t do a whole lot. I just smiled at him and told him we had a spot just for him and welcomed him in. And I’m not going to tell you that he accepted Jesus that night and turned his whole life around. But he did discover someone who cared about him, and he got listened to. And it mattered to him not to be treated the way he felt so many other people had treated him.
For all of us, we need to remember that that the Son of Man is still out there every day seeking and saving the lost. And he invites us, his disciples, every day to join him in this. Making time for unlikely people is part of what following Jesus is all about. This is what our church has always been about. We have always been a place that welcomes strays, and helps people who have been hurt out there in the world, or hurt at other churches find a community of grace and peace.
It’s a large part of why we exist here in the City of Malden. It’s who we are and what we do. We help people discover that Jesus came, in fact, for people just like us and just like them. We help people discover Jesus actually knows us all by name and wants to actually have a conversation with us. We help people like Zacchaeus, who feel far from God, discover that Jesus actually came of his own initiative to bring God close to us.
And Zacchaeus is a prime example of how that truth can change a person’s live. Jesus coming right to him melted his heart that day. And he responded with repentance and thanksgiving, and a love for God that was heartfelt and sincere.
My friends, it’s the gospel. And as disciples of Jesus it is our great privilege to share that good news with people in our lives and our community.
It should never cease to amaze us. I mean, who are we that the Son of God should stop what He is doing and pause along his way, and call us by name, and honor us with his presence?
Who are we that He should love us in spite of ourselves?
Jesus invites us to not only believe and receive that truth for ourselves, but to follow him in taking that good news to other unlikely people who come across our paths every day.