Zacchaeus had arrived. He’d hit the big time. He was on top of the world.
Zacchaeus was a Jewish publican on contract with the Roman government. The Romans controlled an immense expanse of territory and levied taxes on all nations in their vast empire. Subjects under Roman rule were required to pay a tax when they moved their goods to a market outside their immediate territory. The tariff wiped out most of the profits they had earned.
The Roman government outsourced the extortion efforts to publicans, or chief tax collectors. Publicans were required to deposit the prescribed amount of taxes in the treasury, but they and their staff of tax collectors were free to shake down citizens for “bonus taxes” to enhance their share of the take. Accordingly, tax collectors typically perpetrated despicable acts in the extortion. Tax collectors, therefore, were universally despised because farmers and business owners frequently spiraled to destitution because of the tax collectors’ fraudulent practices.
Most likely, Zacchaeus was particularly loathed because he lived in Jericho, a rich and flourishing town about seventeen miles north of Jerusalem. Its warm climate contributed to a thriving agricultural trade in the region. Jericho was also the border city between the provinces of Judea and Perea, so its thriving import-export market enhanced Zacchaeus’s seedy career.
Wrath toward tax collectors was universal, but the Jews in particular had an additional bone to pick with them. Jews were opposed to the taxes because the money went to support the pagan Roman government. Tax collectors of Jewish heritage, such as Zacchaeus, were considered traitors because they allied themselves with the Roman oppressors, and they gouged their fellow Jews to line their own pockets. And tax collectors, because of their frequent contact with Gentiles, or non-Jews, were considered ritually unclean. Rabbis cautioned their pupils not to eat with such persons. For these reasons, Scripture often refers to tax collectors as sordid individuals. Often they are lumped with sinners in general.
So, although Zacchaeus was a man of considerable wealth, his wealth came with a high price. He was a social outcast, scorned by all but his fellow tax collectors.
Enter Jesus, friend of the sinful and the scorned.
No doubt Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus’ fame. Certainly he’d heard that Jesus was befriending tax collectors and sinners. Perhaps Zacchaeus was enthralled by Jesus’ merciful nature. It’s likely that he knew someone who had dined with Jesus at Matthew’s home, the tax collector from Capernaum, at the opposite end of the Jordan River. Regardless of how he came to know of Jesus, Zacchaeus, this vile sinner, was determined to see him.
When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was passing by, he rushed to catch a glimpse of the famous teacher. But a multitude of people had already gathered along the path. Being short of stature, Zacchaeus couldn’t see above the heads of the other followers. His zeal undaunted, Zacchaeus spotted a sycamore-fig tree along the path in the direction Jesus was headed. This particular variety of tree has many limbs that begin just a few feet from the ground, which made climbing easy, even for a short man. With no time to spare and nothing but his pride to lose, Zacchaeus scrambled up the tree, intent upon catching a glimpse of Jesus, the friend of sinners.
Jesus spied Zacchaeus high in the tree, above the heads of the others in the crowd. I imagine Him laughing heartily as He spotted the tax collector crouching in the tree like a playful monkey. “Scurry on down here, Zacchaeus! I must stay at your house today.”
Spend some time with Jesus—get to know Him, bask in His love—and something profound is bound to happen to your heart. Zacchaeus was wrenched with conviction, compelled to turn away from his sinful ways. His confession to his houseguest was ambitious and sincere: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of nything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
With uncanny sensitivity and grace, Jesus chose to publicly reinstate Zacchaeus’s status as “a son of Abraham.” To the dismay of those in the crowd, He restored Zacchaeus to the people with whom God initially made His covenant, the esteemed chosen nation. Jesus declared that because Zacchaeus had earnestly sought the true Son of God and because he had repented, he was truly free. Jesus lifted Zacchaeus from a very low place and befriended him.
Basking in Jesus’ love light, Zacchaeus’s sin was revealed—as repugnant and hideous as it was. In an instant, Zacchaeus could no longer endure his wicked ways, and he turned from them to face the glorious radiance of the Friend of Sinners.
No one but Jesus can elicit a transformation like that. Not Paul McCartney or Taylor Swift. Not Brad Pitt or Kristen Stewart. Not Nelson Mandela or Oprah. Only Jesus can bring forth the kind of change that erases the sins of the repentant, heals a lonely heart, and transforms a soul.
(Excerpted from Messiah to the Messed Up by Sue Ciullo, published by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. Used by permission.)
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Sue Ciullo is a self-proclaimed mess. She is also a management consultant, professional speaker, and passionate student of the Bible. Sue lives with her husband in a suburb just outside Chicago, where they enjoy spending time with their adult children and their dogs. You can connect with Sue at her website, www.sueciullo.com.