My earliest encounter with Zacchaeus suggested he wasn’t much to look at. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man,” I sang with my Sunday school classmates, “and a wee little man was he.” Despite these words (and the accompanying hand motions), the song’s point is not to poke fun at Zacchaeus. Instead, the words closely follow the account in Luke 19, showing Jesus calling a person off the sidelines to a life-changing encounter with Himself. The story calls disciples of Jesus to consider a life of radical encounters with those on the margins.
Zacchaeus responds “gladly,” while the crowd complains about Jesus’ openness to sinners.
The story in the song is a fairly simple one. Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector in the city of Jericho, wants to see Jesus, probably to put a face on this well-known healer who was making His way to Jerusalem for Passover. The crowds gathered, as they always did for Jesus, so Zacchaeus couldn’t see. He ran ahead of the procession to climb a sycamore tree that would give him a better view. Jesus sees him and invites him to come down and play host. Zacchaeus responds “gladly,” while the crowd complains about Jesus’ openness to sinners. The encounter radically transforms Zacchaeus, and he announces a drastic response that includes giving half his wealth to the poor and paying back his extorted money with restitution. “Salvation,” Jesus says, “has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
As readers of this story, we shouldn’t miss some important facts—beginning with who and what Zacchaeus is. Although the song defines him by his physical appearance, it’s his cultural status that most threatens to exclude him from the crowds around Jesus. He is a “rich” man, according to Luke, and “a chief tax collector” (Luke 19:2). Despite his outward success, the crowd’s grumbling response to Jesus’ socializing with Zacchaeus gives us some idea of a tax collector’s real status in first-century Israel. Such an official in Roman-controlled Judea has routinely over-taxed his countrymen, thereby extorting their money. To them, he is a “sinner,” and some would call him a traitor to his people.
We also shouldn’t miss that while Zacchaeus makes a move toward Jesus, running ahead and climbing the tree, Jesus initiates their encounter. In other words, Jesus attends to and pursues Zacchaeus. The last verse in the story drives Jesus’ point home: He came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). And this mission statement—illustrated so beautifully in the story of Zacchaeus—should arrest us as disciples of Jesus. Especially in our busy and distracted culture, this story is a call to join the Savior in His rescue mission.
Joining Jesus requires us to embrace humility, as Zacchaeus does. His name means “pure” or “innocent” in Greek, and while his own account belies this, some commentators have seen him as an important illustration of the beatitude that the pure in heart will see God (Matt. 5:8). Others have heard in Jesus’ command to “come down” an invitation to humility. In Eastern Orthodox churches, for example, the story of Zacchaeus is read on the fifth Sunday before Great Lent, the 40-day season of repentance and preparation that precedes Easter. Zacchaeus enjoyed greater status in the occupying Roman culture, and with those who accommodated it. The Jericho house known today as the House of Zacchaeus is a large, opulent tower. But he has used his neighbors’ money to buy his status with Rome, which causes his own people to reject or sideline him. Jesus’ pursuit of Zacchaeus illustrates the upside-down nature of the kingdom of heaven. Rejected by God’s chosen people, God the Son chooses to restore another reject to his rightful place as a “son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). The critics in the crowd, who trust their own choice and righteousness rather than God’s, ultimately have the harder road.
Unlike blind Bartimaeus, whose persistence in trying to meet Jesus annoys the crowd (Luke 18:35-43), Zacchaeus climbs a tree to escape the crowd. From there, he probably looks more like a child than the rich tax collector he has become. He might have been easy for those with Jesus to miss, but Luke tells us that the Lord “looked up” (Luke 19:5). We might extrapolate from this that Jesus has been paying active attention, seeking—like the characters in His recent parables about seeking the lost (Luke 15). When Zacchaeus climbs down, he becomes a real-life lost sheep rescued, a lost coin found, a lost son returned home. And just as those parables end with rejoicing, so Zacchaeus receives Jesus “joyfully” (Luke 19:6 KJV).
We have the opportunity to reenact Zacchaeus’s story when we look past the distractions of our life to those outliers, the sideliners, struggling to see Jesus. It’s tempting to see ourselves among those with Jesus, but we must take care not to be one of the crowd—the ones obscuring the Lord from view for those like Zacchaeus. Paying careful attention, praying that God will open our eyes to see those our Savior is seeking, we join Jesus in His mission to seek and save the lost. More importantly, though, paying attention to our place among the crowd can remind us that we need to see Jesus too, and we can invite those on the margins to join us in our journey to Him.