Flashback Episode — Lessons from a Tax Collector: Luke 19:1-10

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All throughout Jesus’ ministry, people of all types and from all backgrounds came from near and far to see Him. However, one man stands apart from the rest, because while he wanted to see Jesus, instead of seeking Jesus out, he waited until Jesus was traveling through the city he lived in, and he figured out the route Jesus was taking through town.

After figuring all these things out, this man ran ahead and climbed up a tree just so he could see the celebrity Preacher who everyone was talking about. The gospel of Luke shares the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man named Zacchaeus, and what happened when Jesus came to the tree that Zacchaeus had climbed and how Jesus surprised this notorious tax collector.

Let’s read what happened, from Luke’s gospel, chapter 19, using the New Century Version. Starting in verse 1, Luke tells us that:

Jesus was going through the city of Jericho. A man was there named Zacchaeus, who was a very important tax collector, and he was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but he was not able because he was too short to see above the crowd. He ran ahead to a place where Jesus would come, and he climbed a sycamore tree so he could see him. When Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down! I must stay at your house today.”

Let’s pause briefly reading here to draw our attention onto a couple fascinating details in the first part of this event. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus simply wanted to see who Jesus was, and perhaps hear a glimpse of what Jesus was preaching about at that time. While trees are great when one needs to climb above the crowd and see past other people, trees are not great for people who want to hear the entire message of someone who is walking along a road while sharing a message.

All the time Jesus was slowly approaching the tree Zacchaeus had climbed, the anticipation of finally seeing Jesus and even hearing a little of His message built. In Zacchaeus’ mind, it would be amazing if Jesus happened to stop, or pause near enough to the tree, so that he could hear just a little more of Jesus’ message.

But while Zacchaeus may have wanted his tree climbing adventure to remain hidden, Jesus was not oblivious to what this tax collector was looking for. In reality, Jesus knew what Zacchaeus wanted and needed even better than Zacchaeus himself did.

Picking back up in verse 6, on hearing Jesus invite Himself to his home, Luke tells us that:

Zacchaeus came down quickly and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to complain, “Jesus is staying with a sinner!”

I am always surprised when reading this, since this was not the first or last time Jesus would take the time to associate with sinners. However, it is interesting to note that this reaction is not a reaction by the religious elite, but of the crowd in general. The crowd likely had Pharisees, Sadducees, and others in it, but Luke describing the complaint coming from the crowd, we can see this hierarchical nature existing in more of the first century culture than simply among the religious elite.

The people in the first century are like us today. There are some people we cannot help but look up to, while there are other people we cannot help but look down on. There are people we want to associate with and people who we would rather not associate with.

Jesus’ counter-cultural attitude where He associated with everyone, regardless of their lifestyle or background would be just as counter-cultural today as it was back then. While tax collectors are not the most likable people, if this event were to happen today, Zacchaeus could represent any number of marginalized or looked down upon groups.

But Jesus didn’t go to Zacchaeus’ home just because Zacchaeus was hated by everyone else. Jesus invited Himself over because He knew what was in Zacchaeus’ heart, and He wanted to give this tax collector a second chance.

While the crowd was complaining about Jesus’ time spent with a sinner, Luke tells us that Zacchaeus made a bold statement. In verse 8, we read:

But Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “I will give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I will pay back four times more.”

Jesus said to him, “Salvation has come to this house today, because this man also belongs to the family of Abraham. 10 The Son of Man came to find lost people and save them.”

Zacchaeus’ response has several interesting angles we can learn from. First, let’s do a little math. Zacchaeus begin’s his response by pledging half of his wealth to the poor. This is a big deal because in an instant, Zacchaeus loses half his net worth. We could say that with this pledge, Zacchaeus is now at 50% of his former wealth.

Next, Zacchaeus promises to pay back 4 times over anyone who he had ever cheated. The only way for this statement to be possible without Zacchaeus becoming indebted to the entire city of Jericho would be if he had cheated less than twelve and a half percent of his wealth. While it is possible that Zacchaeus cheated to accumulate 10% or so of his net worth, that still leaves almost the entire fortune Zacchaeus had accumulated to business deals and transactions that were fair for all parties.

In Zacchaeus’ response, he challenges those present, and everyone else that he had ever dealt with using the word if. Zacchaeus says that “if” he had cheated anyone, he would pay them back four times more. By saying “if”, Zacchaeus challenges the stereotype that all tax collectors were cheats and extortionists because using the word “if” implies that he had conducted his business differently.

After hearing Zacchaeus respond, Jesus replied by saying in verse 9 that, “Salvation has come to this house today, because this man also belongs to the family of Abraham.

We might be tempted to think that Zacchaeus just pledged to buy his way into heaven, but this is not true. While Zacchaeus’ statements and promises regarding a newfound generosity seem to prompt Jesus’ statement of approval and salvation, I believe there is something deeper at work here.

From looking at how Zacchaeus responded, it doesn’t appear as though he would shift how he conducted his tax collecting business. Before Jesus, Zacchaeus pushed away the stereotype of a cheat, and this shouldn’t change afterwards.

Instead, I believe it is the first part of Zacchaeus’ response that brought salvation into his home. When Zacchaeus blanket-pledges to give away half his wealth, this opened the door to another realization. Likely up to that point, Zacchaeus might have been known as a saver, and instead of being generous with the money he earned, he horded it away in case he would ever need it. Zacchaeus had lots of money, but it was at the expense of being generous.

The 180-degree turn in Zacchaeus’ life is that after meeting Jesus, the money seemed to matter less, and instead of building hedge of protection with a large, nice looking balance sheet, Zacchaeus shifted his foundation onto Jesus. Echoing the truth that we cannot serve both God and money, Zacchaeus makes the leap from serving and saving money to serving God and giving money.

Zacchaeus’ shift towards having faith in God and redirecting the focus of his heart led to Jesus’ statement about Zacchaeus now being saved. Salvation is never bought through anything we can pay or do, but we can receive it when we place our faith, trust, hope, and belief in Jesus – which means that we trust in Jesus regardless of the size of our net worth.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I want to leave you with:

Intentionally place your faith, hope, trust, and belief in Jesus. Look to Him first when facing struggles or difficulty, and lean on Him for help with the problems you face.

Also, study the Bible for yourself to learn more about Jesus, and to grow closer to Him, because when we have given our hearts to His, money, stuff, and status become less important.

And as I always end each set of challenges by saying, never stop short of where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Flashback Episode: Season 3 – Episode 35: Cam discusses some things we can learn from Zacchaeus, the tax collector, and the major life change that took place following his encounter with Jesus.

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