Well, tax time has come and gone—again. After spending a few weeks collecting and organizing documentation, I sent everything along to my tax guy and he did the rest. Yes, I pay for tax preparation. It’s the best two hundred bucks I spend all year.
While sometimes vexing, this annual exercise reminds me of one of Jesus’ early followers—a man that few (if any) would have identified as open to the good news of salvation. I speak, of course, about Zaccheus. Tax gatherer for the Romans, address Jericho. A man working for an occupying force Israelites hated, collecting its taxes while free to extort additional money for personal gain.
When you think of unbelievers you know, I imagine you see some of them as more “open” to the gospel than others. Whether we realize it or not, we often profile people as to their potential for faith. Appearances, careers, affiliations, social habits – these and other factors lead us to make assumptions about people. Zaccheus stands as one of those unlikely converts whose conversion represents the amazing love and mercy of our Lord.
That said, in retrospect, I think we can see some signs he might have been ripe for the gospel as we encounter his story in Luke 19:1–10.
He had what the world offered—he was rich (v. 2)
As the chief tax gatherer at a key trading intersection like Jericho, Zaccheus had it made. Taxes on the huge amount of goods that flowed through this ancient gateway to all points east, west, north, and south brought much wealth to Rome, and a goodly sum to tax collectors who were allowed to make their living by padding the books. This guy had money, something the world says will fulfill you.
By God’s mercy, I was raised by parents who were not enslaved to money. But my dad would sometimes say, with a grin, “Money isn’t everything, but it’s way ahead of whatever is in second place.” Like my dad, Zaccheus hungered for more. That’s one reason he was trying to see Jesus, a man who had no earthly goods, but spoke the words of eternal life. Indeed, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity” (Eccl. 5:10).
Who do you know is financially wealthy? Yes, it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom, but it can and does happen! Riches will not satisfy, and many who are so blessed are ripe for true riches in Christ Jesus.
He recognized his limitations—he was short (v. 3)
He climbed a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus over the crowd. In my view, this portrays Zaccheus as an honest man, willing to endure the indignity of scaling a tree for a look at a man whose message focused on sin, forgiveness and true life. He was no King Saul, who stood a head above everyone else and had that kingly “look.”
I get a bit weary of the “if only we could get the team captain saved” evangelism thing. Certainly, the Lord God is not influenced by looks in his salvific work (1 Sam. 16:7), but I believe there is a subtle tendency for us to view weakness or limitation in others in a negative light. We want our salvation “trophies” to be stellar specimens of beauty and prowess. And in this light comes Paul’s words to the Corinthian believers, some of whom undoubtedly were a bit full of themselves:
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Cor. 1:26–28)
He persisted in his search—he was a true seeker (vv. 3, 4)
The text says, “he was trying to see who Jesus was,” a verb in the imperfect tense, denoting a continual process of pursuit. As well, he “ran on ahead” and “climbed into a tree” in order to get a glimpse of the Savior. Here is a man who is not easily dissuaded from his goal—to encounter the Son of God. This is how people act when they are sincere in their quest.
I know how he felt, albeit in the context of courting my wonderful wife, Rolane. We had been casual friends for some time, but once I realized she was the “one for me,” I went into the imperfect tense. Eight weeks after our first date I proposed marriage, and three days later she succumbed to my charming pursuits. When you genuinely desire a meaningful relationship with someone, you don’t let anything stop you. You’ll even run ahead and climb a tree.
Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.” We should look for those whose interest in things eternal continues to surface. We might be looking at a future brother or sister.
He freely acknowledged his need—he was a sinner (vv. 5–8)
Because of their complicity with Rome and tendency to extort, Jewish laws (Mishnah) said that it was perfectly permissible to lie to tax collectors to protect ones property. I would imagine many who knew Zaccheus had little trouble identifying him as a sinner.
The great part of this story is that Zaccheus agrees! One gets the impression he is laboring under some guilt, as he offers to give half his wealth to the poor and return four-fold any amount he has fraudulently assessed from others. His spirit is sensitive to the sinfulness within him, something he did not manufacture on his own. This was from the Holy Spirit, whose work is to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).
Only through the conviction of the Spirit will a person submit to Jesus Christ. Thinking there is a certain people profile that suits the Spirit better than another for conviction of sin is tacitly unbiblical and foolish. His love saves all sorts, something we readily see when we look into the mirror. Great is his mercy!
He embraced the forgiveness of Christ—he was sincere (vv. 9, 10)
Zaccheus’ heart was genuine, otherwise Jesus would not have gone to his house, nor would he have said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” This went down hard for the grumblers of verse 7 (most likely Pharisees), as they saw Jewish tax collectors as having forfeited their rights as Abraham’s offspring. But Jesus was not talking about genealogy. He was speaking of faith, the faith that makes all who believe, both Jew and Greek, descendants of Abraham (Romans 4:16).
We can gather from how Jesus responded to this man that Zaccheus made good on the money he stole, and showed true repentance by giving to the poor. He was genuine in his desire to deal with the sin that had produced guilt and a lack of joy in his life.
As we continue to love the brethren and share the hope that is within us to others, we do well to remember our brother Zaccheus. A rich, short, seeking sinner who sincerely received the love of God through Jesus Christ. May the Spirit open our eyes to the unlikely candidates for salvation all around us. For so, once, were all of us.
For more, visit the Good Book Blog, a seminary faculty blog from Talbot School of Theology.