We like to have fun with Zacchaeus. We get a good laugh as we recount the story of the man who wanted to see Jesus but was too short to see past the crowds. As children we learned the Sunday school song that told of the wee little man who climbed the sycamore tree "for the Lord he wanted to see." It is a fun story and an amusing tune, but Luke intends to convey much more than a humorous tale about a vertically challenged tax collector. Luke intends to tell us something about Christ's mission of salvation to the world and what it means to become a follower of Christ. We would be wise to hear what he has to say.
If we are to understand Luke's point in the Zacchaeus account, we need to take a minute to take in the context. At least two features of the larger narrative are directly connected to the Zacchaeus story and form the grid in which we are intended to read about Zacchaeus' encounter with Jesus.
First is the narrative of the rich ruler in Luke 18:18-26. You know the story. Jesus is approached by this wealthy ruler who asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies by reminding him of the commandments. The ruler responds by affirming that he has kept these commandments since his youth. Jesus then replies by pointing out the one thing that the man lacks. He must sell all that he owns and give the money to the poor. This demand was too much for the man, though, and Luke tells us that he went away sad, because he was very rich. Jesus then makes the well-known statement that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God's kingdom. Those who hear him are astonished and reply, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus' answer makes the point that salvation is a matter of divine initiative: "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God."
Second is the story of Jesus' encounter with a blind man begging by the roadside. He hears that Jesus is passing by and calls out to him repeatedly for mercy. As Jesus draws near to the man he asks, "What is it that you want me to do for you?" The blind man asks for the restoration of his sight, and Jesus replies with the word of healing and says, "Your faith has saved you." So, from the context we learn that it is difficult for a wealthy person to be saved, and when salvation does happen, it is the work of God on the condition of faith.
Now we meet Zacchaeus as Jesus enters Jericho. We are told that Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector and immediately Luke draws a connection with the larger context. The same Greek word is used to describe Zacchaeus as is used to describe the rich man who approached Jesus in chapter 18. If that does not draw a clear enough connection, Luke adds that Zacchaeus was rich. As you know, tax collectors were despised by their fellow Jews. They were seen as traitors who made good with the Romans to line their own pockets by taking advantage of their own countrymen. That Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector only indicates that he has progressed farther up the ladder of success. His was not an entry-level position. The connection drawn by Luke between these two narratives applies the universal principle to a particular individual so that we know from the start that it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Zacchaeus to enter the kingdom of God.
Not only does Zacchaeus have commonality with the wealthy ruler, like the blind beggar he too is unable to see Jesus. His problem, though, is not physical blindness; rather, he is too short to see past the crowds. Luke has already made it clear that the problem of blindness is solved by faith, which, as we learn from Luke 18:8, is precisely what Jesus is looking for, because he asks: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
Now before we go further into this text, we need to jump to the end for a moment, because it is there that we learn the function of this text in Luke's gospel. After Zacchaeus responds to Jesus, Jesus declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus' house. He then goes on to say, "For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost." That is a purpose statement. That tells us why Jesus has come. This is the big idea of this passage: Jesus is on a mission to seek and save the lost. That is what he is all about. So, as we see the rest of what Luke has to show us of Zacchaeus' encounter with Jesus, we want to see it through the lens of the mission of Christ. We want to consider how Christ brings salvation and what it looks like to follow him in faith, and we can make at least three observations regarding the mission of Christ to bring salvation to those who follow him in faith as disciples.
Jesus initiates the saving relationship.
Zacchaeus has a problem. He cannot get to Jesus; in fact, he cannot even see Jesus. So, he climbs a nearby tree. That should be a safe place to observe this Jesus. That should be a way to watch the action without getting too close. Zacchaeus does not seem intent on getting in close to Jesus. He is not looking to become a follower. Perhaps he has heard of Jesus' miracles and has come to see the show. Whatever his reason for being there, you do not become a close follower of Jesus by climbing up a tree.
But Jesus has other plans. Jesus walks straight up to the trunk of the sycamore tree and calls Zacchaeus by name. Jesus takes the initiative in his new relationship with Zacchaeus. If Jesus had not called Zacchaeus, then Zacchaeus would have never had the opportunity to enter into a relationship with Christ. Jesus initiates the saving relationship. To make the point further, if Jesus had not come to Jericho at all, then Zacchaeus would have never had opportunity to even lay eyes on the Christ. If there is to be a relationship, then Jesus must initiate it.
This is the way salvation always works for everyone. No one wakes up in the morning and just decides to go get saved or enter a saving relationship with Christ. If any of us are to know him and know his saving grace, then he must initiate the relationship. It's his mission after all. Jesus is the one who is on a mission to seek the lost and the first task in the mission is initiating this relationship. This is the biblical teaching of salvation by grace. Because we are sinners, we are estranged from God and our hearts are naturally inclined toward evil. We don't naturally seek God; so God must seek us. John Wesley put it this way in his sermon on "Original Sin": "No man loves God by nature, any more than he does a stone, or the earth he treads upon. What we love we delight in: But no man has naturally any delight in God. In our natural state we cannot conceive how any one should delight in him. We take no pleasure in him at all; he is utterly tasteless to us. To love God! it is far above, out of our sight. We cannot naturally, attain unto it." You see, Wesley knew that if is to be a relationship between us and God, then God has to initiate the relationship, because in our sinful state we do not naturally seek after him. Jesus has a mission to fulfill, and he begins by initiating a relationship with sinners.
The mission requires a response.
Luke has used the larger context to indicate just what kind of response Jesus is looking for. Luke 18:8: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" After Jesus heals the blind man he says in Luke 18:43, "Your faith has saved you." The response Jesus is seeking is always faith, and faith is not a work that earns God's favor. Faith is the renunciation of all work and effort as a means of getting right with God. Faith is a full confidence in Christ to do for me what I cannot do for myself. The blind man had no power to fix his own condition. He has to rely on someone else to do it for him. Faith is that full trust and reliance on Christ for our salvation. The mission requires a response, and that response is faith.
We also need to see that faith is precisely what the rich ruler did not have. The rich ruler didn't trust Jesus enough to let go of the things that gave him security. He did not value Jesus enough to release his valued possessions. The fact that he disobeyed Christ and held onto his riches is evidence that he had no faith. So when Zacchaeus says he'll give half his possessions to the poor and promises to pay back four times what he has defrauded, Luke wants us to see that this guy has faith in Christ, and his repentant act of restitution is the evidence – or the fruit – of that faith.
Now we need to be clear here. Salvation does not come to Zacchaeus because he made restitution. Salvation did not come to him because he did anything. Remember the question asked of Jesus in the last chapter. Jesus said that it's easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it is for a wealthy person to be saved. His hearers respond with amazement: "Then who can be saved?" Jesus tells them, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God." It is impossible for human beings to do something to save themselves. If we are to be saved, it must be because God has done something for us in the person of Jesus Christ.
What has he done? He has sent Christ to be the atoning sacrifice for Zacchaeus and for us. On the cross, Jesus took our place and suffered under the penalty of our sin so that we could be forgiven and pardoned and set free from the guilt and condemnation that is the just consequence of our sin. In the cross, Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves. What is impossible for us is possible for God. All that is left to us is to renounce our ability and trust Christ completely to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is the response of faith.
Many of you may still be wondering: What about Zacchaeus' good works? Where do they fit in? That's a very good question that needs to be addressed. The answer is that good works are the fruit of a living faith. God in Christ initiates the saving relationship by grace. We receive that grace on the condition of faith. And the authenticity of that faith is demonstrated through good works. So the fact that Zacchaeus is going to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back four times the amount he has defrauded anyone is evidence of authentic faith in Christ for salvation. Such a reading of this text is entirely consistent with what we believe as United Methodists. The Articles of Religion of the United Methodist Church says this: "Good works…spring out of a true and lively faith, insomuch as a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit." Apple trees produce apples; faith produces good works.
How often, though, we forget this biblical truth. How often people say with their lips that they believe in Christ but live as if they know nothing of him. I meet people all the time who, when they find out I'm a preacher, seem compelled to tell me that they believe in Christ, even though, they say, they don't live like it. I had a conversation with a man once in which he pointed out the importance of Easter and Christmas services because it was at those times in the year when so many people come to church who had at some time in the past had a salvation experience but do not presently live like it. My initial thought was: what makes us think they are Christians at all, if there is no fruit. When we profess faith in Christ and join his church, we promise to be faithful in our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness not because those things get us right with God but because prayer, church attendance, financial support of the mission of the church, serving Christ with our gifts and talents, and witnessing to his grace in word and deed are all evidences of a true and lively faith. The mission requires a response. Luke wants us to understand that the only appropriate response is faith in Christ and that the evidence of that response is good works.
Salvation is where Christ is.
This observation may seem a little more abstract than the other two, but it is, I am convinced, a point that Luke desires to make, and we must allow the intention of the text to shape our understanding of the text. When we talk about the mission of Christ to seek and save the lost, we need to understand that salvation is not merely something we get from Christ; rather, it is the actual gaining of Christ himself. It is a new living life in relationship with Jesus. Where he is, there is salvation. How does Luke make this point? Look with me at vv. 9-10. Jesus says that salvation has come to Zacchaeus' house today, because he is a true son of Abraham. Then he substantiates that point by saying, "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost." Do you hear the verbs there? Salvation has come, and the Son of Man has come. In Luke's Greek text, there are two verbs here, but they are synonyms. They have the same meaning in this context. The point is that salvation has come to this house only because Jesus has come to this house. Salvation comes because Jesus comes. Salvation is where Jesus is.
This is important because it helps us understand the nature of salvation by grace. We sometimes talk as if grace is something quantifiable, as if it is something that can be measured out. We talk as if there is this storehouse of grace that we can access if we need a little more for whatever may be happening. But grace is not a commodity. The language of salvation by grace is another way of saying that salvation is simply pure gift. The thing Luke wants us to understand is that the gift is not just some thing that you get. It is not an product or a commodity. The gift is Jesus. Where he is, there is salvation. Salvation only comes because Jesus comes.
Noted pastor and author Sinclair Ferguson made this very point by saying, "Grace is not some appendage to [Christ's] being. Nor is it some substance that flows from us: ‘Let me give you grace.’ All there is is the Lord Jesus Himself… Do not let us fail to understand that, at the end of the day, actually Christianity is Christ because there isn’t anything else; there is no atonement that somehow can be detached from who the Lord Jesus is; there is no grace that can be attached to you transferred from Him. All there is is Christ and your soul.” That is what Luke wants us to understand about Jesus. Jesus doesn't just send some grace over to Zacchaeus. Jesus doesn't just push some grace over our way. Grace is Jesus. Salvation is where Christ is. We need him. If we are to have his salvation, we must have him. Where he is, there is salvation. As we think this morning of the mission of Christ, we must see that his mission to seek and save the lost is accomplished by the giving of himself and nothing less. This, friends, is a deeply Wesleyan way to think about salvation. Salvation is not just a status; it's not just something that we get from God. It is the reception of a person. It is entrance into a relationship with the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. Jesus is salvation, and salvation is where Jesus is.
So, the story of Zacchaeus gives us a real life snapshot of what Christ desires for us in salvation. Here we meet a short man who wants to see Jesus but only from a safe distance. I can't help but imagine that we do that in our own way so often. You can go to church every week of the year and keep Jesus at arm's length. The question for us is this: When he comes to us and calls us to himself to enjoy the sweet fellowship of his presence, will we come down from whatever tree we've climbed? When he comes in his mission to initiate a new relationship or, for many of us, a deeper relationship, will we be people of faith? Will we be people who have confidence not in ourselves but in him alone to take us where he would have us go? Will our lives manifest the authenticity of our faith in testimony to his Lordship? Will we be rid of all the fluff and all the excess and have only him and the salvation that comes only in him? Christ is on a mission to seek and to save. How will we respond when he comes to us?