Today’s Bible reading presents the famous story of the “wee little man”, Zacchaeus.
From an early age, I felt like I could relate to Zacchaeus. Those of you who have met me know why. Neither Zacchaeus nor I will ever be the tallest man in the room! It doesn’t bother me so much now compared to my “wonder years”. At some point, I finally embraced the fact that it is what it is.
But Zacchaeus’ stature isn’t what the story is about. The Sycamore Tree isn’t what the story is about. The central focus of the story is Zacchaeus’ radical transformation from being a greedy tax collector to a repentant Christ-follower after his encounter with Jesus.
As I just typed that, I realized how strange that redundancy should sound: a repentant Christ-follower. Every Christ-follower should be marked by a changed life as a result of encountering the One we follow. And following Him involves — even requires — repentance: Turning from us and turning to Him.
Tax collectors weren’t the most popular people of Jesus’ day. Evidently, tax collectors lined their pockets with whatever extras they could exact from their taxpayers. And from Dr. Luke’s description, Zacchaeus was really good at his job. Dr. Luke even hints at that in naming Zacchaeus a “Chief Tax Collector”. (Luke 19:2)
Other than the disdain of the religious leaders that Jesus had gone to “stay with a sinful man”, Dr. Luke doesn’t give us any details of Jesus’ visit to Zacchaeus’ home. He only gives us the result of the encounter: Zacchaeus will never be the same. His behavior changes because his heart changes. An encounter with Jesus is always a heart encounter first. Then it overflows into a behavior change. In expressing his repentance (Luke 19:8), Zacchaeus promises restitution to those he has wronged. This is straight out of the Law (Leviticus 6:5, Numbers 5:6–7)
Philosophers will sometimes use the “Prime Mover Argument” in an effort to prove God’s existence. It says that everything in the universe is in constant motion. Therefore, there had to be a Prime Mover who set the first thing into motion; that Prime Mover is God.
Zacchaeus climbed the tree because he wanted to see Jesus. But before Zacchaeus needed the tree, God put that tree where Zacchaeus would need it. God is always the “Prime Mover”. God is the One Who seeks. Jesus said that the Father seeks spirit-and-truth worshipers. (John 4:23) That’s a good thing! Because on our own, not one of us would seek God! (Romans 3:10–12) And in our reading today, Jesus said that He was sent to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10) And the day our first father sinned, it was God who was seeking. (Genesis 3:8–9)
The religious leaders criticized Jesus for being with sinners. The underhanded accusation was that Jesus was with hanging out with sinners because he was one, too. But note that in every situation where Jesus hung out with sinners, the sinners changed but Jesus didn’t. Every situation. He never compromised on the Truth of His message. And neither should we.
It is admirable when Christians reach outside our comfort zone and roll up our sleeves to rub elbows with people unlike ourselves. But in reaching out, we must be very careful to “love the sinner” and not share in their sin, nor encourage them in their sin. Like Jesus, believers should love the sinner out of, and away from, his/her sin.
In case you’ve missed this major theme, everyone is a sinner. Our goal in discipleship/becoming more like Jesus is to become in our experience who we already are in Christ Jesus. In Jesus, we are saints. But until we cross over to the other side of eternity, we will struggle with becoming more saintly in our beliefs, our attitudes and our behavior, and less as a sinner.
The Christian life isn’t about behavior change. If it were, it would be just like all of the other religions. Instead, the Christian life is about having a relationship with Jesus Christ. But as we grow in our relationship with Jesus, our behavior will change. Just like Zacchaeus!