Is change possible?
An incident on a Melbourne bus in late 2012 made international headlines. You might remember it. A passenger on the bus witnessed a horrible misogynist and racist tirade. He recorded part of the rant on his phone and uploaded it to YouTube. It’s had 4 million hits so far.
I’ll briefly describe what happened. A French girl on the bus starts singing in French. Others in the bus start up a competitive chant of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”. Then a middle-aged man starts shouting abuse, swearing, telling the French girl to “speak English or die”, threatening awful sexual violence against her. Other passengers encourage him. Someone offers him the use of a knife. The man then starts talking about black people too and how they should be segregated on the bus and finally smashes a window and charges off.
That man, David Graham, was sentenced to 21 days’ prison just last week. Now what do you think about David Graham? Do you think he could ever change? Do you think his 21 days as a client of the Victorian correctional services will “correct” him? Do you think the anger management class he’s been ordered to attend will take control his anger? Or maybe you think people basically just stay the same? Yes, we might change our outward behaviour. But who we are is who we are, and that’s it! You might think David Graham, along with his supporters, are just bad eggs with no hope.
Well today we are looking at the story of a man who did, in fact, change. He changed radically. His name was Zacchaeus. Now if you’ve been around Christian things for a while, you probably know this story really well. It’s a great story for children, isn’t it? A short man climbing a tree! It appears in most children’s Bibles. We’ve done it in kids’ church recently. In fact, this story was the scheduled lesson for my classes at Neutral Bay Primary School Scripture this week! But the beauty of the Bible is that it works for everyone. The message is simple enough for a child to learn and understand, yet so deep that none of us can exhaust its encouragement and challenge. The way Luke has told the story is full of little details that bring out extraordinary nature of this event, and teach us a whole lot of things about change–how and why change is possible.So will you read this story with me now, and notice with me some of these details?
Zacchaeus: A man of contradictions (Luke 19:1-4)
Let’s start with the setting.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through (Luke 19:1)
Jesus is here coming close to the end of his final, decisive journey. This journey actually takes up a large amount of Luke’s gospel. The journey started in Luke 9:51, in the far north of Israel, where it says:
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.
For ten chapters, Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem. Why Jerusalem? It’s the place where he’s going to die (See also Luke 13:22, 13:33, 17:11, 18:31). Jesus is knowingly heading towards his death on the cross. During the journey he’s gaining a following, teaching people, and preparing his disciples for his upcoming death and resurrection. As we read about the journey, we read about how to follow Jesus, what kind of people follow him, and what kind of people don’t follow him.
At this point, in chapter 19, Jesus is passing through a place called Jericho. Jericho is close to Jerusalem, about 20km away. It’s a trade centre for goods from the east. But really, it’s not the final destination. You’d think it’s just a place for Jesus to pass through on his way to Jersualem, so we’re not really expecting him to stop.
A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. (Luke 19:2)
Zacchaeus is a tax-collector, someone you’d expect in a trade centre like Jericho. Tax-collectors have featured quite a lot in Luke’s gospel so far. The tax-collectors of Jesus’ day weren’t exactly the same as ATO employees of our day. They were more like private operators who acted as fee collection agents for the Roman government. They collected customs duties, commercial fees, that sort of thing–a bit like the companies who collect our tolls for the bridge and tunnels and motorways. But there’s a twist: the Roman overlords weren’t that interested in regulating the industry or the prices. They didn’t care so much how the tax-collectors got the fees, as long as they gave a share to Rome. They were allowed to charge whatever they wanted for these services. Of course, as a result, corruption was rife, even inevitable.
So for a modern-day equivalent, you might think of the kind of people who would hang out with Craig Thomson. They’re like pimps, loan sharks, corrupt property developers. But worse than that actually, because these people also worked for an invading foreign government.
And so Zacchaeus would have been a social outcast in respectable society; a “sinner,” beyond the pale.
But Luke has already told us that Jesus has a special interest in hanging around with tax-collectors. Even one of his disciples, Levi, had been a tax-collector (Luke 5:27-29). Jesus’ habit of hanging around with these people got him into trouble with the religious people:
But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-32)
Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. (Luke 15:1, cf. Luke 7:29-34)
Remember Jesus’ parable about the tax-collector who asked for mercy and was justified before God?
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector … the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. (Luke 18:10-14)
So when you read that Zacchaeus is a tax-collector, you might expect that actually he’ll be on the inside track with Jesus? A social outcast, whom Jesus will care about?
But there’s another twist: Zacchaeus is a man of contradictions. He’s not just any tax-collector. He a ruling tax-collector (ἀρχιτελώνης), and he’s wealthy (πλούσιος). The last time we heard about a wealthy ruler in Luke’s gospel, it didn’t go down well at all:
A certain ruler (ἄρχων) asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” … [Jesus said to him]: Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth (πλούσιος). Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man (πλούσιος) to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:18-25)
Actually, powerful rich people find it hard to trust Jesus because they tend to trust in their own power and riches. Elsewhere Luke’s gospel we read that Jesus seems to favour poor people over rich people. In Luke 4:18 Jesus says he’s come to preach to the poor. In chapter 6, he says,
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6:24)
In Luke 16:22-23 Jesus talks about a rich man dying and going to a place of torment while the poor man goes to heaven.
So Zacchaeus is actually a man of contradictions, isn’t he? We can’t pre-judge him. We can’t say, “Oh yes, he’s a marginalized tax-collector so Jesus will bless him”. But we can’t say “Oh yes, he’s a rich chief so Jesus will shun him.”
What about you? Are you rich or poor? Are respectable or unrespectable? Are you good or bad? Do you think Jesus cares about you more or less because of who you are?
He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. (Luke 19:3)
Notice that Zacchaeus is a “seeker” (ἐζήτει). “Seek (ζητεῖτε) and you will find”, Jesus has declared (Luke 11:9, cf. Luke 12:31). That sounds promising! And Zacchaeus is asking the right question: he wants to know “who Jesus is”. He’s probably heard about Jesus’ miracles, healings, his preaching. (cf. Luke 9:18-20). But despite all his seeking, Zacchaeus can’t find out who Jesus is. Because he is a “little” man. He is short.
Discrimination against short people, it’s a timeless thing, isn’t it? In US presidential elections since 1900, on average the winner is 1 inch taller than the loser. Think about former Prime Minister John Howard, and how his opponents used the phrase “Little Johnny Howard” to taunt him. They knew that if people thought he was short, of course they were less likely to think of him as a leader! Which just goes to show how much we are just irrationally biased against short people. In fact, John Howard was about average height anyway.
Well Zacchaeus is short. In fact, it literally says he’s “little in stature” (ἡλικίᾳ μικρός). Luke uses the same word here as he has already used for other people who are “little” in other ways. He calls his disciples, “Little flock” (τὸ μικρὸν ποίμνιον) (Luke 12:32). He speaks of the value of “little ones” (τῶν μικρῶν) (Luke 17:2). He says of a child:
Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least (μικρότερος) among you all–he is the greatest. (Luke 9:48)
So maybe Zacchaeus, as a “little” one, does have some hope of coming to Jesus?
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. (Luke 19:4)
What’s going on with here with this running and tree-climbing? It’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it? Yes it is. And that’s the point. Here is an important, wealthy, ruling man, acting way outside of his character, humiliating himself to see Jesus. By taking himself up the tree, he’s actually bringing himself down in the eyes of society, disgracing himself.
This going up and down is very significant in Luke’s description of Jesus’ life. When Jesus’ mother Mary heard she was going to have Jesus, she sang out about God:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. (ὕψωθεν ταπεινούς) (Luke 1:52)
When Jesus himself told parables, including the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, he said:
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 14:11 & Luke 18:14)
Literally, “whoever lifts himself up will be brought down, whoever brings himself down will be lifted up” (πᾶς ὁ ὑψῶν ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ὁ ταπεινῶν ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται).
What’s Zacchaeus doing here? He’s lifting himself up, but at the very same time, he’s humiliating himself, isn’t he? He’s bringing himself down, to see who Jesus is!
Jesus stops! (Luke 19:5-7)
So what does Jesus do?
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately.” (Luke 19:5)
Jesus brings him down physically, but at the same time, he lifts him up spiritually. He says:
I must (δεῖ) stay at your house today. (Luke 19:5)
I “must” stay. That’s significant. Whenever Jesus uses the word “must” elsewhere, he is talking about his part in fulfilling God’s great plan—dying in Jerusalem:
I must (δεῖ) preach the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:43)
The Son of Man must (δεῖ) suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Luke 9:22)
I must (δεῖ) keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! (Luke 13:33)
(See also Luke 2:49; 17:25; 24:7, 24:26, 24:44).
So when Jesus says he “must” (δεῖ) do something, it’s significant. What must he do here? Stop, wait, remain (μεῖναι)! Which is very very strange when you think about it. Jesus has just been, “passing through” Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. He knows he has to die for the sins of the world in Jerusalem. That’s his unstoppable mission; that’s God’s plan. So why stop now? Something vitally important has to be happening here with Zacchaeus.
So [Zacchaeus] came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” (Luke 19:6-7)
Jesus decides to be a guest (καταλῦσαι)–literally the word means to “stop”, to “cease”, to “rest” from his journey! And he’s not stopping for the sake of curing poverty or sickness, or even for the sake of going to Jerusalem to die. He’s stopping for a rich sinner! What’s he doing that for? The crowds obviously aren’t impressed.
Jesus’ search and rescue mission (Luke 19:8-10)
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “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)
Zacchaeus has changed radically, hasn’t he? In fact, he is suddenly doing exactly what Jesus has been urging his disciples to do:
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12:33, see also Luke 18:22)
Zacchaeus is keeping the Old Testament law, which says to pay back four or five times what you have stolen!
If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. (Exodus 22:1)
What has caused this change in Zacchaeus that suddenly means he’s going to give up his corrupt life and care for people around him?
There was an ad for the Red Cross going around uni campuses last year, urging people to give blood.
Recharge your Karma. Everyone has done something they regret. At least once, everyone’s been selfish, dishonest or unfair. You can’t erase your bad deeds but, fortunately, there is a way to make up for them. Recharge your karma by doing something good. Give blood and help save lives.
Is that what’s happening with Zacchaeus? Was he overcome with regret over things he’d done wrong? Was he feeling guilty for bad deeds he could never erase? Was he trying to recharge his karma and make up for it?
Absolutely not! No, something far greater has happened. Zacchaeus had encountered Jesus Christ. He had discovered who Jesus really is. Jesus, the one who brings down the mighty and lifts up the humble, Jesus, the one who has mercy on sinners, Jesus, the one who can, in fact, erase our bad deeds, obliterate our guilt. And it’s because his bad deeds have been erased that Zacchaeus now has the freedom to do good and to love others!
This has nothing to do with karma. Giving blood is a great thing to do. But Karma is a terrible reason to do it! Karma keeps us stuck in our cycles of guilt and regret. Jesus erases our sins and lifts us out of that cycle altogether. Freedom to love.
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)
Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, had once said to his fellow religious Israelites:
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:8)
This is just what Jesus has just done. Jesus has taken a corrupt and greedy man, dead as stone. And he has raised him up to be a child of Abraham. Of course, salvation didn’t come to Zacchaeus’s house because he did some good deeds for the poor. Jesus didn’t stop and come to stay with Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus had changed. No: Zacchaeus changed because Jesus had stopped and come to stay with him!
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10)
Jesus is on a search and rescue mission.
Jesus came “to seek”, to “search” (ζητῆσαι). Do you see that it is Jesus who is the real “seeker” here? Yes, Zacchaeus was originally “seeking” (ἐζήτει) to find out who Jesus was (Luke 19:3). But he couldn’t. Jesus had to seek after him (so by the way, a true “seeker sensitive” church is one which is sensitive to the real seeker–Jesus).
Jesus came “to save”. Jesus brings rescue! Rescue from what? From our sin, from death, from the judgment we deserve for our sin.
Jesus came to seek and to save “What was lost”. What is lost? The word “lost” (ἀπολωλός) has a double-meaning here.
On the one hand, something is “lost” when it is missing from its proper place, like the lost sheep (Luke 15:4, 6), the lost coin (Luke 15:8, 9), the lost son. Jesus came to seek the lost, to restore us to the place we should be in before God. To change us from being God’s enemy to being God’s beloved child.
But the word “lost” can also have the connotation of terrible danger. It means “perishing”. It refers to something that needs to be “saved” and rescued. It is a word used in the context of death, eternal destruction even. Elsewhere Jesus warns people that unless they repent, they will perish (Luke 13:3, see also Luke 8:24, 15:24).
Without Jesus, each one of us is lost. Not just lost as in the TV series. We are spiritually lost in the same heartbreaking and terrible way that the Malaysia Airlines flight was lost. Not just off track a little. Lost. Perished. The mission to recover the MH370 is now, of course, tragically just a search mission. It is not a search-and-rescue mission, is it? But Jesus is still on a search and rescue mission. Jesus can actually rescue people, even when it seems there is no hope.
That is why Jesus was brought to a standstill in Jericho that day. Jesus stopped short because here he saw the perfect opportunity to show what his mission was all about. A man of contradictions. A humbled, even humiliated man. A lost man, raised up, found, restored.
That was the whole reason Jesus went to Jerusalem to die in the first place. It wasn’t some random act of love. Jesus went to the cross so lost people could be saved, rescued, restored.
Do you think there certain people who are more likely to be Christians? Are there certain types more likely trust in Jesus and be saved and changed? Do you think Jesus came for good people? Or maybe you think he came for bad people? Respectable people? Maybe he came especially for marginalised people? Rich people? Poor people?
No, Jesus came to seek and to save lost people. And before God, that’s all of us. John Newton was an eighteenth-century slave-trader who discovered this great truth. He ultimately gave up his slave trading and he wrote that hymn, “Amazing Grace”—“I once was lost, but now am … found.”
Jesus saves us just as we are, but he never leaves us where we are. He changes us. What about you? Could Jesus change you? You might say “I’m set in a rut, I can’t change.” And you’d be right. You can’t change. But Jesus can change you. You might say, “I’m too bad for Jesus to forgive me and change me, I’ve done too many terrible things” But it’s not up to you! Jesus came to seek and to save the lost, not the people who are slightly off track. And that means you!
That is why Jesus stopped with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, the lost man of contradictions, who was humbled, then lifted up. So humble yourself before him, will you? Admit it, ask for forgiveness. Come to him and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. And he will lift you up.
(Featured image adapted from Flickr: Courtney Carmody)