Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 30, 2022

Luke 19:1-10 Commentary

Both Zacchaeus and Jesus are depicted as seeking in this story. In fact, seeking, or seeing, is a central and repeated theme in the passage. Zacchaeus wants to see, Jesus is seeking, the crowd sees.

We readers are even pulled into the story through seeing: Luke starts with giving us details about Zacchaeus, but does so with that special Greek word, idoú (“Look! Behold!”) Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and he is wealthy. Given what we know about the tax system, there is a good possibility that Zacchaeus got rich through oppression: he had the right to set the tax rate in his region and could keep any money he collected above the standard tax rate.

Next, we come to understand that Zacchaeus is “trying to see who Jesus was” but because of a combination of things, he’s not able to position himself to be able to see. (A) He’s a short man, and (B) the crowd has no love for him—no one is going to make room for the tax collector. This detail underscores how un-respected Zacchaeus is in Jericho (to say disrespected implies Zacchaeus deserves respect). No one’s heart warms or softens when they see Zacchaeus.

And yet, there is something about this Jesus of Nazareth that makes Zacchaeus really want to see him, so Zacchaeus tries to get ahead on the road where the crowd won’t be an issue. To try to get this view, Zacchaeus does two rather undignified things. Based on the helpful background information on cultural norms that Kenneth Bailey provides, a grown man would never want to be seen (1) running or (2) climbing a tree. Zacchaeus risks being seen doing both in order to be able to get his eyes on Jesus.

Did Zacchaeus think that no one would see him in the tree? Who knows. What we do know is that he climbed into that tree so that he could see Jesus as Jesus walked by.

Instead of walking by, Jesus looks up and sees Zacchaeus. Jesus says to him, “Hey! Zacchaeus! Come on down from there. I need to stay at your place today.” I find it quite compelling that Zacchaeus’s eager desire, which compelled him to break social norms, is now matched in Jesus’s own actions of breaking social norms: Jesus will become unclean by spending the night at a tax collector’s home.

Jesus says that he must stay with Zacchaeus, but doesn’t give a reason why—just as we do not know exactly why Zacchaeus felt so compelled to work so hard to see Jesus. They have seen one another, they are connected. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus, seemingly without any sense of embarrassment of being caught in the tree, hurried down and was happy to welcome him. Maybe Zacchaeus did not know until this very moment why he had wanted to see Jesus so badly. He didn’t know how the Holy Spirit was at work, making his heart a welcoming place for Christ.

But we aren’t done seeing in this story. Everyone that had followed Jesus saw what happened between him and Zacchaeus and were not happy with what they have seen. Tsk, tsk, tsk. There is truth in their words; everyone knows it, Jesus and Zacchaeus included. Notice that Jesus doesn’t call Zacchaeus down to demand he repent; no, in his kindness, Jesus follows the work already begun by the Holy Spirit and invites himself smack dab into the middle of Zacchaeus’s existence. It’s as though Jesus trusts the repentance and transformed life will happen. Instead of Zacchaeus needing to be perfect, or sinless, or holy or righteous first, Jesus invites himself in because Jesus knows that he is what Zacchaeus has been searching for: the rest will work itself out in a life of long obedience in the same direction.

We perhaps see that fruit already happening in our story. It isn’t clear whether verse 8 happens immediately, or if we are further into the evening when Zacchaeus says, “LOOK!” (it’s the word idoú again) “I’m going to give half of my wealth to the poor, and for those I have cheated, I’m going to make it more than right.” So, we have to wonder, is he saying this to Jesus? to the crowd who are grumbling? to himself? to all of the above?

Kenneth Bailey argues that though Zacchaeus is likely exaggerating about what he will do with his riches, the very fact that Zacchaeus exaggerates is an indicator of his commitment to be transformed in every area of his life. Unlike today in North America, no one in the Middle East two thousand years ago would have believed Zacchaeus unless he said something so over the top. And the fact that he stood there in order to say it means he wants others to hear him. (If it was later in the evening, then he probably stood from reclining at the meal, choosing to make his speech for everyone.)

Based on what Jesus says in verse 10, Zacchaeus’s commitment appears to mostly be a result of encountering Jesus, leading us to believe that he is saying it to Jesus, with others witnessing. But what we know about the way God makes faith work in his people means that it’s also for the crowd to hear (and hold him accountable to) and for himself: a commitment to repentance and restoration. Zacchaeus is being made right by God, and by that internal work, Zacchaeus is compelled to make himself live right; he is staking his purpose now, feet firmly planted on the ground.

Jesus draws upon the seeing theme one more time in verse 10. He says that Zacchaeus has received salvation (divine passive), because this tax collector (i.e., oppressor) is also one God’s children (a son of Abraham). Jesus wants those listening to see Zacchaeus for what he is: one of them.

And then Jesus says something about himself: the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost. The reference to being the Son of Man is purposefully used here, I think. By emphasising his connection to humanity, Jesus is describing how God saw us, came and invited himself into the very middle of our lives. In the incarnation, Jesus invited himself to dinner and told the world that he must stay here as one of us; it is part of our salvation. He must do so because he’s looking to save all who are lost. And he promises to find us, even if we are trying to hide in a tree.

Textual Point

This story is often paired with the healing story right before it, where a blind man is given sight. SEE! There is sight and seeing again. Another way that the two stories parallel one another can be considered in the two characters: whereas the blind man suffers from oppression and is forced to beg for sustenance, Zacchaeus is the oppressor who has built his wealth on the hard work of others. And yet, both are seen, saved, and reformed by Jesus Christ.

Illustration Idea

Justo González makes another connection to the “Son of Abraham” image Jesus gives to Zacchaeus. Abraham was chosen by God to follow God into the unknown. For someone like Zacchaeus, living converted to Jesus and his ways is going to be a lot like entering into the unknown. Zacchaeus will have to learn how to live and work with integrity, he will have to do the steady work of repentance as he learns righteousness. Sometimes we can forget that this is what being found means when we are lost: learning from God a whole new way. As we are described in this story and throughout Luke, the word lost in verse 10 is a perfect tense verb, meaning that when we are lost, we stay lost until God finds us. And when God finds us, we begin to unlearn and put off the old self and all its ways so that we can be renewed in the image of our Creator, putting on the new self (Colossians 3). Like Abraham and Zacchaeus, we are given a new purpose, a new hope, and we have no idea what it’s actually going to look like until we get to it.


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