Sunday school children always get to learn about Zacchaeus, a short man who had to climb a tree to see Jesus. We see that no one liked Zacchaeus much and found Jesus’ interest in Zacchaeus rather offensive. But Jesus proclaimed that salvation had come to him. It’s salvation, not the tree climbing, that makes Zacchaeus worth knowing about.
In Luke 19:1-10, Jesus is passing through Jericho. The people of the city knew he was coming and lined the road into town to welcome him. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, too. He was the chief tax collector, so nearly everyone hated him. He was a short man, but no one would let him stand in front of the crowd. So he climbed a tree.
I knew a tax collector once. He was a member of my church. He was a fine fellow and mostly easy-going, but he often became defensive about working for the I.R.S.
Our modern tax collectors are civil servants who get a salary. They work for our government. We might like them as individuals, but we don’t like tax collectors.
In ancient Judea, on the other hand, tax collectors worked for the hated Romans. Society regarded them as traitors, no better than Gentiles. They were notorious cheats.
Zacchaeus was rich. Of course he was. As chief tax collector, he had other cheats working for him. He took as much from his henchmen and townspeople as he could.
No wonder everyone hated him. He got rich by overtaxing them and getting fat off their money.
And yet when Zacchaeus knew that Jesus would be passing through Jericho, he at least wanted to get a glimpse of him passing by. So casting all dignity aside, he climbed a tree.
The gospels only record one time Jesus was in Jericho. He had probably never met or heard of Zacchaeus. But when he saw him in the tree, he called him by name and invited himself to his house.
That Jesus wanted to be the guest of such a notorious sinner offended the crowd. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, immediately offered to give half his possessions to the poor and repay fourfold anyone he had cheated.
In other words, he offered to beggar himself. Surely, he wouldn’t have much left if he only kept half of what he had come by honestly!
Jesus told the whole crowd that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house. He reminded them that he was a son of Abraham in good standing.
Modern Christians tend to think of salvation in terms of going to heaven instead of hell when we die. Christian doctrine on salvation must necessarily depend heavily on Paul’s epistles. So whatever the crowd at Jericho understood by Jesus’ declaration, it couldn’t have been that.
The Greek word, soteria, means, in addition, deliverance, preservation, and safety. It is derived from sozo, which means to keep safe and sound.
The crowd was looking for a Messiah who would deliver the nation of Israel from people like Zacchaeus. And here Jesus lets Zacchaeus in on salvation—in the full Christian understanding of it.
Not long ago I came across an article with a title something like “Would You Like to Spend Eternity with a Mass Murderer?” Well, why not, if he repents and turns to Jesus for salvation? Yet plenty of people bristle at the thought.
No one can claim to be an inherently better person than Zacchaeus—or mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. Jesus said that being angry enough to kill someone is the moral equivalent of murder. If God won’t accept Zacchaeus, why should I think he’d accept me?
And notice that Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to decide on his own to come down from the tree and repent. He knew Zacchaeus’ heart. His being on the verge of repentance was what impelled him to climb the tree in the first place.
“The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” If he welcomed a crook like Zacchaeus, he’ll even accept me. Or you.