Luke 19:1–10: Jesus and Zacchaeus
In this passage Jesus enters Jerusalem, along with a huge crowd. There’s a rich tax collector named Zacchaeus who wants to see Jesus but can’t because he’s too short, so he climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he walks by. Jesus, however, takes things a step further: He stops when he reaches the tree and informs Zacchaeus that he’ll be hosting Jesus and his disciples.
When the crowd sees it, however, they grumble. “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” they say, in verse 7. But Zaccheaus stands up and announces that his life has been changed: Not only is he going to give half of his goods to the poor, he’s also going to make it right for anyone he’s defrauded: he’ll pay the wronged parties back fourfold.
Jesus then responds:
And Jesus said to him, “Today 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.” (verses 9–10)
In this passage Jesus meets a sinner, changes his life, and then the sinner reacts accordingly. Zacchaeus is an example to all who have wealth—including folks who don’t think they’re wealthy, but who, nevertheless, have enough worldly possessions that there is a barrier between them and God.
Hosting a Party
To modern readers it might seem a bit presumptuous for Jesus to simply inform Zacchaeus that Zacchaeus would be hosting Jesus (and his crew), but I think it was actually more of an honour for Zacchaeus than a burden. Jesus is the man of the hour; there would have been dozens of folks in Jerusalem who’d have loved to have hosted him for dinner, but Jesus chose Zacchaeus instead. (Not to mention that Zacchaeus was rich, so hosting a dinner party for such an important person wouldn’t have felt like a burden!) The crowd’s reaction seems to confirm this: Once they see Jesus going to be the guest of a “sinner,” they grumble about it. “Why does he get to host Jesus?” they seem to be thinking. “Surely there’s someone else who would have been more worthy!”
And if we’re not careful, we could read this passage in exactly that way! We could think that Jesus looked into the future, saw Zacchaeus repenting, and, seeing his “worthiness,” decided to let Zacchaeus host him on that basis. That is exactly what did not happen, however. The crowd was sort of right (but for the wrong reasons) that Zacchaeus wasn’t worthy to host Jesus. (What they didn’t realize, however, was that nobody else in Jerusalem was worthy either.) And that’s what Zacchaeus understood—better than anyone else. “I’m not worthy of him,” he realized, “but he accepted me anyway. As a result, I’ll change my life!” We typically get this backwards.
|What We Think||Reality|
|We need to change our ways, so that God will accept us||We need God to accept us, in order to change our ways|
New Christians and non-Christians can be forgiven for thinking this way, since that’s the way most religions in the world work (and how Christianity is sometimes presented), but those of us who study the Bible should know better. We accept God’s Grace and Salvation, and after that we get better. In fact, as we study the Scriptures we realize more and more how unrighteous we were in the first place—that we were way further off from being righteous than we ever thought we were—which spurs us on, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to want all the more to be like Him.
A Changed Soul
Which brings us to Zacchaeus’ response to his salvation:
- He’s going to donate half his possessions to the poor
- He’s going to pay back anyone he’s defrauded fourfold
That second part seems aligned with Old Testament rules on repaying someone when you’ve wronged them; see, for example, Exodus 22:1 or 2 Samuel 12:6. That shows, to me, that Zacchaeus knew enough of his Old Testament laws and statutes to know that paying back fourfold would be following the spirit of the rules for a Jewish person.
What always struck me about this passage, however, is that I’m not sure how well the math adds up. Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Roman government, so defrauding people was pretty much baked into his payment structure; the more he defrauded people, the more money he’d have. So if he’s going to give away half of everything, and then pay back anyone he’s defrauded fourfold… will he actually have enough? This should demonstrate to us how changed his heart was: pretty soon Zaccheaus isn’t going to be rich anymore—and he’s fine with that, because his newfound relationship with Jesus is more important to him than his wealth.
Wealth and Salvation
Jesus definitely takes Zacchaeus’ words as sign of his genuine faith, saying that salvation has come to his house. This passage should be encouraging to rich people who are seeking salvation: It seems like a lot of the passages I’ve blogged about lately have been calling out God’s heart for the poor, and how difficult it is to rich people to be saved. Nevertheless, Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” (verse 10), which, in this case, also includes Zacchaeus, who is rich.
Is it more difficult to be saved, if you have a lot of worldly possessions and money? Yes, because all of that wealth tends to get in the way of accepting what God is offering. Is it possible? Definitely—if you follow Zacchaeus’ lead and decide that you value God and your relationship with Him more than you value your earthly possessions.
I think people living in the West in the 21st Century need to be especially careful when we read passages like this, because even the ones who don’t have enough to consider ourselves “rich” still have a very high standard of living. We look at the millionaires and billionaires and even trillionaires and think to ourselves, “I’m not even close to that level of wealth—I’m only a paycheque or two away from poverty!” And it’s true that our financial system is making more and more of the previously middle class citizens into impoverished citizens; it’s true that all it would take for many (especially in America) to go from “barely making it” to “poor” would be sickness, and unpayable medical bills.
However, even given all of that, we should remember that the Bible’s warnings about it being more difficult for rich people to be saved is not about numbers, it’s about trust. Do you trust God, or do you trust what you have? What are you more afraid of losing, God or your stuff? If you have enough food to eat, and a place to live, and don’t have to worry about where tomorrow’s meals will come from, it’s sometimes easier to feel complacent with that, instead of trusting in God, regardless whether you define yourself as “wealthy.” Of course, the more you have the more you’ll trust in it, so as people get wealthier and wealthier it’s easier and easier to trust in that instead of trusting in God. But even people who have only a little bit can still find ourselves trusting in that little bit, instead of trusting in God.
The point is not to read passages talking about the difficulty of rich folks being saved and think, “Phew, doesn’t apply to me—I’m not rich!” The point is to look at those passages, ask why it’s more difficult for rich people to be saved, and then ask the hard question: “Regardless of how rich society says that I am, do I have the same problems that Jesus is talking about? The same barriers to salvation?”
Another way to look at that: many people worry that if they trust in God, if they become Christians, He might demand that they give up some of their stuff! If someone is really rich, and trusts in that wealth, they’ll be worried about giving up the thing they believe gives them worth; if someone is “getting by,” they’re worried that they’ll have to give up the little bit that they have. “What if I become a Christian, and He makes me give away my meagre savings, and suddenly I become poor?” they wonder. (Probably not in such explicit terms.) It’s easier to trust in God if you have nothing, but if you have something it gets harder and harder. We naturally want to trust Him and our money, but He wants us to trust Him alone.
It’s a bit too easy for our sinful hearts to look at Zacchaeus’ example and worry: “If I become a Christian, will I have to give away all of my money?!?” But we should look at his example and see the opposite: “I can have a relationship with God, despite my wealth, and it will mean more to me than my money ever did!”