Fifth Lenten Midweek

Zacchaeus

Saint Luke 19:1-10

If tonight’s Office Hymn had been around back when Christ called Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree, the diminutive tax collector might well have been singing, “Salvation unto us has come,” as he led the Lord Jesus into his house, with Jesus providing the hymn’s “Amen” as He says to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

This account from the 19th chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel brings to completion our Wednesday evening Lenten journey with Christ, and while our Saviour is not yet out of the “shadow of death” valley through which He has been passing with His face set to go to Jerusalem, He is near the end of it. The joyful nature of His reception by Zacchaeus definitely points to the joy of Easter that is to come. But yet the cross and our Lord’s pain and suffering and death is also pointed at, for we’re told that others, “when they saw it”—when they saw Jesus going into the house of the tax collector—grumbled and condemned Jesus for consenting to be “the guest of a man who is a sinner.”

Yes, Zacchaeus is a sinner, all right. Theologically speaking, he is a sinner just as everyone is a sinner, for as Saint Paul declares, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But the people of Jericho, the people who know Zacchaeus—at least publicly—call him a sinner for a different reason. He is a sinner because he is a tax collector, which automatically lumps him together with prostitutes, thieves, and every other bad and undesirable person in Jericho. Tax collectors were scorned and called sinners because they worked in the employ of the Romans and because it was generally true that they engaged in thievery by overcharging people with their taxes.

In the past we’ve run into other tax collectors. The disciple Matthew, was a tax collector in Capernaum before Jesus walked up to his tax booth one day and said to him, “Follow me,” which Matthew did. Matthew then invited Jesus to be a guest in his house, as Zacchaeus would do also. We’re told that Matthew made a great feast for Jesus in his house, inviting a large company of tax collectors and others to recline at table with them. And also, as it would be with Zacchaeus, there was grumbling and complaining. The Pharisees and their scribes said to Jesus, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answers them by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

By this, Christ is not suggesting that the Pharisees and their scribes are righteous and have no need for the healing He brings. Remember what Saint Paul says about everyone being a sinner! Rather, Jesus gives voice to what they wrongly believe about themselves. He highlights their self-delusion of not being sinners and not needing the healing He brings. Furthermore, if those same scribes and Pharisees were to hear Jesus say, as He does to Zacchaeus, that, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” they would also deny being lost and in need of being found. The way of salvation begins with the conviction of sin and the need for Christ to save. Jesus, therefore, gladly eats with tax collectors and sinners—with those who have not deceived themselves into thinking they have no sin, but who know that they are indeed poor, miserable sinners, who are lost without Him. And so it is that He joins you at Table, being your Host, feeding you with the true food and drink that He is and that He gives for the forgiveness of your sins.

Another tax collector of which we hear about in the Gospel accounts is a fictional character in a parable told by Jesus. The other fictional character in that parable is a Pharisee. Both are at the temple. They’ve gone there to pray. The tax collector beats his breast in shame, as he confesses his sinfulness and pleads to God for mercy and forgiveness. The Pharisee spreads out his hands with the posture of prayer and stands for everyone in the temple to see him. And he prays thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” That’s no prayer, is it? That’s boasting and bragging. We note that with Zacchaeus, the little tax collector also points to what he has done, but not to brag. There is no boasting involved. Rather, it is his testimony of what the Gospel—what his God-given faith in Christ has worked in him. He tells Jesus, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

Saint Luke tells us that Zacchaeus is a rich man. He likely came by his wealth by cheating people with their taxes. But in his turning to Christ in faith, that way of life is in the past. He’s still a sinner, but now he’s a repentant sinner, heeding the Word of God, such as we heard in tonight’s first reading from the first chapter of Isaiah, that says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Thus, the words that we heard Saint Paul using to commend the Thessalonians for their faith can rightly be applied to Zacchaeus, for his faith, too, “is growing abundantly, and the love” that he has for others “is increasing.”

When our Lord Jesus hears the little tax collector speak of what the Spirit of God is working in his life, Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.” With these words, Jesus makes clear to all that Zacchaeus has his horse in front of the cart and not the other way around. The good works that Zacchaeus is now given to do are the result of his faith—not the cause of his faith. Zacchaeus is spiritually a son of Abraham, of whom we are told believed the Lord, and [the Lord] counted it to him as righteousness.” Abraham had faith in the one whom God promised to send to deliver mankind from sin and death. Zacchaeus believes that Jesus is this one who is promised, who has come to bring “God’s free grace and favor.”

Undoubtedly, dear friends, if the hymn had been around on the day that Jesus came into his house, Zacchaeus would have been singing, “Salvation unto us has come,” just as we do. And his heart, filled with doxological praise and thanksgiving, would proclaim with us, “All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise to Father, Son, and Spirit, the God who saved us by His grace; all glory to His merit. O triune God in heav’n above, You have revealed Your saving love; Your blessèd name we hallow.” Amen.