Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is the son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19: 9-10
The story of Zacchaeus the tax collector is a record of Jesus’ encounter with a convert. This story is very well known, especially among Sunday school children who have a special song about Zacchaeus being short.
The Lord Jesus used the “tax collector” as a model for repentant people. Through the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we see that He rebuked the proud Pharisee for his own righteousness and accepted the publican’s humility and repentance. He also did not hesitate to choose a tax collector to enter the class of the twelve Apostles, namely Matthew.
Christ considered the door of repentance open to all. He came to offer salvation to anyone who believes in Him. When the disciples asked why their teacher ate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replied that it is not the healthy who need a healer, but the sick. He came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Luke 5:31-32).
Zacchaeus appears to have heard of Jesus, His teachings and miracles, and that Jesus accepted tax collectors and “eat and drink with sinners” (Luke 5:30). Perhaps this is where his longing to see Jesus grew, to know who He is. But two obstacles stood in the way of his initial encounter with Jesus.
The first is that many people do not welcome the existence of “sinners” among them, and the second is that Zacchaeus was short, not only physically, but spiritually as well. However, these obstacles did not prevent him from committing acts that were considered childish and shameful that were inconsistent with the behaviour befitting his status as “chief tax collector”.
Zacchaeus didn’t care about what people would say about him, about their criticism and ridicule. He just wanted to see Jesus, who forced him to climb a fig tree. But we read that before he saw Jesus, Christ had seen him. In the same way, God is always willing to meet us, if only He sees that we want and keen to meet Him.
When Jesus came to that place, He saw Zacchaeus sitting on a fig tree and said: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” We may wonder: why did Jesus want to visit the house of a stranger? But of course, Jesus knew who Zacchaeus was and what was in his life. Jesus could see that Zacchaeus really wanted to live a good life, but never succeeded on his own.
At this point, having been invited by Christ to come down from the tree, Zacchaeus rushed down and was eager to welcome Jesus into his home. Regarding this, the church father Augustine once said: “The Lord, who has welcomed Zacchaeus into His heart, is now ready to be welcomed by Zacchaeus into his home.” Jesus had acted before Zacchaeus could express his heart and desires. And Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus’ actions with open arms.
None of Zacchaeus’s actions and efforts were in vain because Jesus chose him from the great crowd that surrounded Him, to enter his house and receive blessings and salvation. Zacchaeus became the chosen one. We should notice that Jesus expressed His will but did not force Zacchaeus. It shows us how God values every human effort, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, and He complements it with Divine initiative, which in Christian theology is referred to as synergy or cooperation between human and Divine efforts.
Throughout the Bible, we see that every example of the Lord Jesus accepting one sinner is met with criticism from the crowd. This incident was no exception. The evangelist Luke records that everyone who saw this groaned and said that Jesus had come to the house of a sinner. But the crowd’s hostile attitude did not stop Zacchaeus from pursuing his path to full repentance. No one who has truly felt Jesus with his heart can live in his crimes much longer. Zacchaeus stood up and said to Christ, “Lord, half of what I have I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I will give back four times as much.” Before Jesus confessed his guilt, Zacchaeus wanted to humble himself and confess his sin.
Zacchaeus showed genuine repentance through his actions, not only through his words but through his actions. Not only did he confess, but he also showed a willingness to return what he had done the wrong way, and he not only promised this, but did it. His sincerity is expressed by his willingness to return four times what he earned the wrong way. Indeed, a living faith is faith with works (James 2:13-26.
This confession and attitude of repentance was enough for Jesus, who said: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham”. Zacchaeus was not one of Abraham’s descendants according to the body, but as a son of Abraham according to faith. The Lord Jesus came again and reminded the crowds and His disciples about the essence of ministry in His message: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” It was a call to repentance, which became the starting point in Christ’s ministry in the world.
For Jesus, Zacchaeus was not only a sinful tax collector, but also a project of repentance. Christ saw Zacchaeus differently than the crowd did. He looked at him with a look of compassion, love and acceptance, and it was this look that prompted Zacchaeus to open his heart to repentance and then open his home to accept Jesus as Saviour.
What if we were Zacchaeus this morning? Can we express our repentance like him? We Christians must be like Zacchaeus to overcome the crowds and busyness of the world that prevent us from seeing Christ. We must be willing to humbly overcome our little faith and use the opportunities available to meet our Saviour in person. God wants and can change our lives if we open the doors of our hearts.