He has just finished counting the “profits” from the past week when he hears a low murmur from outside.
Zacchaeus looks out the window and sees people who normally are busily bustling about their daily business but at the moment seem collectively distracted. Their gazes are fixed on something down the street, beyond his line of vision.
He sighs as he closes up his money bags and then places them carefully in their hiding spot, sliding a basket full of old blankets over them to complete the camouflage. He stands up and runs through the door out into the street wondering what the brewing excitement is all about.
Shorter than most, he can see only the backs of others as they make their way towards their goal. He listens carefully now to those around him and soon hears someone excitedly say to another, “It’s Jesus, the Nazarene!”
“Jesus? Here in Jericho?” A tiny spark of soul hunger is ignited in an aching void down deep inside his soul. As well off as he is, Zacchaeus has yet to feel whole. There still seems to be a missing piece inside. Collecting taxes for the Romans, he has made a profit and contributes to society, yet as the community’s opinion of him has turned from disapproval to dislike and even lately to real enmity, he cares less now about doing something meaningful with his life and settles for simply making a living. Lately, he’s not been able to resist overcharging his clients just a little bit to line his pocket just a little more. So what if his former friends call him a thief? They’ve already made up their minds that he is a traitor.
He draws near to the crowd and finds it so thickly mustered together that he cannot see Jesus as He walks into town. The men and women who notice Zacchaeus pointedly ignore him, muttering something about cheats and traitors. He chews his lip nervously and then spies a large sycamore tree with a few low hanging branches. The faces of the crowd are turned still to the right: Jesus hasn’t yet passed by.
The little tax collector runs ahead, springs up as high as he can and catches hold of the lowest branch. With some animated kicking and clawing, he manages to pull himself up onto the branch. He looks around, wondering if he should be embarrassed but no one seems to have noticed him: the eyes of all are fixed on the Man entering the city.
The tax collector perches on his branch watching the approach of the Man so many have said must be from God. Hmm. He isn’t driving a fancy chariot or riding in on a royal steed. In fact, He seems dressed rather plainly. Yet, there’s something very strange about the Man. There’s a sense of something whole and pure about Him… something holy. Zacchaeus looks upon this Man and realizes suddenly that God is near. He is suddenly a mass of conflicting thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, he’s both relieved that he’s stuck up in a sycamore tree and not along the street. On the other hand, he feels terribly disappointed.
Although he had climbed the tree to see Jesus better, it occurs to him that he is also nearly invisible amongst the leaves. “It’s just as well,” he thinks. “I would have been too embarrassed to talk to Him… too ashamed.” He watches Jesus calmly walk through the crowd gathered about Him. “Besides,” Zacchaeus muses, “there were so many important people around that Jesus surely would never have time for me.”
As Jesus’ walk brings Him close to the sycamore tree, He suddenly stops and slowly turns His gaze upon Zacchaeus seated right above Him. Little beads of perspiration abruptly appear on Zacchaeus’ face and he can feel himself blushing. The deep eyes of the eternal Son peer into his own and Zacchaeus can feel his heart opening up before the Messiah like a book.
The thought takes shape and grows that Jesus will turn away in disgust from the selfishness and sin that He sees there. Zacchaeus’ own eyes shift uncomfortably down to the ground. “I’ve wasted too much of my life,” he thinks. “I’ve stolen from people and cheated them. I’ve been selfish and now I’ve got all this ugly junk in my past and in my heart: He can’t possibly want me now. He can’t even remotely pretend that He really loves me.”
But Jesus’ gaze remains fixed. He calls out loudly, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus blinks for a moment as Jesus’ words sink into his mind. “Stay at MY house?” He clambers down a bit clumsily but then hops beside Jesus as they head off towards his house. Others who witnessed what has happened murmur a little bit amongst themselves, as puzzled as Zacchaeus, although their comments are not even slightly favorable. “Humph!” they grumble to each other, just loud enough for both the tax collector and Jesus to hear, “Looks like He prefers the company of sinners!”
But Zacchaeus doesn’t care what they say … not anymore anyway. After all, this One called the Son of God has stopped in the middle of His busy schedule just to come and dine with him! It doesn’t matter that Zacchaeus is short. It makes no difference that Zacchaeus is a cheater, a thief and a traitor. The diminutive tax collector has finally found what he’s needed all this time. He has finally discovered the one missing piece that will bring completion to his scarred heart and aching soul.
They go to Zacchaeus’ house and celebrate even as the tax collector’s life undergoes the great transformation of salvation. What he once was, Zacchaeus no longer is. Those things he once trusted and believed to be true have lost their luster and are finally revealed for what they were all along: fakes, phonies and counterfeits. Money hasn’t been able to fill the empty place in his life; nor has the power of being in charge or the prestige of being a “business success”.
Only experiencing God’s gracious gift of the forgiveness of sins and walking in fellowship with his Creator matters now.
His heart welling up with gratitude and thanksgiving to the point that it feels like it might burst, Zacchaeus means to be sure that there is no going back. He pulls out his hidden treasure and sets it front of Jesus that it might no longer have power over him. “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Jesus smiles at the man before Him who is finally free of chains of sin and selfishness. The man has finally found in Jesus Christ the one piece missing from his life. “Today,” says Jesus, “salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10 ESV).
Pastor Thom Mollohan leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at [email protected]