“Lessons from Luke:  Zacchaeus”

Luke 19: 1 – 10

Christopher H. Edmonston

Howard Memorial Presbyterian Church, March 13, 2005


            For me, there is no more compelling and interesting character in the Bible than Zacchaeus.  What a long name for such a small little man!  A wealthy and powerful person, so wealthy and powerful that the word that we translate as “chief tax collector” is used only in the New Testament to describe Zacchaeus (in fact the word in Greek is architelones – which is related to the word archon which we saw last week – the word means ruler and here means that Zacchaeus was the archbishop of tax collectors – the Donald Trump of Jericho!), who climbs in a tree to gain height in compensation for his short stature.  I have always thought that part of this is meant to be comedy– a wee little man in a great big tree!

            If you were casting this as a movie, imagine Danny Devito, all 5’ 2” of him or so, scampering his way up say 10 or 12 feet into a tree.  Imagine in your mind the crowd, laughing at him, the wealthiest man that any one of them has ever seen.  Hear them telling their jokes: Zacchaeus has a Napoleon complex.  He is a small man with a giant bank account.  Imagine their laughter:  Zacchaeus, whom they all distrust and dislike as he is in league with the Romans and the Jewish aristocracy of the day (the folks with all the power) no big enough or powerful enough in stature to see over the crowd.  Imagine the rumors:  Zacchaeus stuffs his coffers by gleaning his portion from all the taxes that HIS tax collectors collect.  Imagine their jeers at Zacchaeus as he climbs:  the most powerful, connected, and influential man, climbing into a tree, risking life and limb to see a poor and dusty preacher and prophet from the countryside.

            Just imagine itpower and prosperity and wealth seeking to learn, to hear, to see, and offer itself to poverty and sacrifice.  How often does that happen in our world? 

It is said that a picture is worth 1,000 words.

The visual image in my mind of Zacchaeus is worth 100,000 words (but I promise not to preach that long this morning!).


To be sure, this story of Jesus and Zacchaeus makes for a great telling – that is one reason why it has become that most popular of children’s songs.  But there are many, many deeper points beyond just a “great telling” to be made as we look into this text:

·        When one studies the gospel of Luke, one sees fairly quickly that this story of Zacchaeus is meant as a contrast to the story of the rich ruler in Luke 18 (which was our sermon last week).  Why does the ruler reject the invitation of Jesus and Zacchaeus receive the invitation graciously?  Why is it that Zacchaeus can sacrificially give when the rich ruler cannot?

·        Did you find it interesting that it seems as though Christ did NOT command Zacchaeus to do anything?  Even though asked to do nothing, Zacchaeus gives freely of himself.  He does not approach Jesus, Jesus seeks him out.  Zacchaeus’ only action is to climb into the tree along the way that Jesus is passing. 

·        Zacchaeus must have been well known in Jericho.  The crowd is aware of his wealth and his position.  They also must have disliked him very much, finding the role he played with Rome to be extremely distasteful, and they have judged him harshly – thus they mutter that Jesus is going to the home of a sinner (19:7).

·        At the conclusion of this text, Luke gives us his summary of the gospel – “For the son of man came to seek and save the lost” – which suggests that Zacchaeus the architelones was lost and found – amazing grace how sweet the sound!

·        This story of Jericho is the climatic event in Jesus’ public ministry – the next place we see Jesus in Luke’s gospel is in Jerusalem and it is Palm Sunday and the Passion of Christ is about to begin – the last meal Jesus has in relative safety as Luke renders the story is in the home of Zacchaeus.

·        Finally, this is the fullest treatment of stewardship anywhere in Luke as Zacchaeus in his giving goes far, far beyond any requirement that one can find in the Bible.  So, does salvation come because Zacchaeus has given so greatly?  No, it does not.  As you read texts that employ the word salvation, always give special attention to the order within which the encounter evolves.  Salvation comes because Jesus Christ has sought out Zacchaeus.  What Zacchaeus gives is in response to the grace that is offered to him; his giving is not a work to gain the favor of God.  Zacchaeus’ only action to generate the attention of the Lord was to be present in Christ’s passing and to climb high to see him. [1]


It goes without saying that there is lot going on here with Zacchaeus.  I think Zacchaeus is universally praised by Jesus, by Luke, and by generations of believers because he “gets it.

            In Luke chapter 6, Jesus warns us about wealth.  He warns that it cannot satisfy and he is sad for those of us who believe that our dollars are going to heal us when wounded or love us when needed.

            In Luke chapter 16, Jesus first tells us that the things that we treasure are really not ours– that we cannot serve God and our money at the same time; that we cannot have two masters.  And then Jesus tells us about the harsh judgment that awaits us if we dare to not care about the poor in our midst – if we feast lavishly and walk past the dying in the streets without offering to them a second glance.

            Just before this moment in Luke 19 we learn of the ruler, who we have mentioned, and his inability to follow.  It is as though Zacchaeus has been listening all along.  It is as though he has heard each sermon, each parable, each story and he is ready to respond.  It is as though Luke is placing a choice before us by laying the stories of these two powerful men side by side – do we want to walk away from Jesus with great sadness as servants of the market, or do we want to walk with Jesus Christ as servants of God? 

Zacchaeus has made his choice, even in the face of ridicule; and, he has chosen well.


            One of the great privileges that ministry has afforded me has been to go to Latin America on mission trips – both to build and to learn, to worship and pray with Christians there.  It is one of the ministries that I hope, in time, to bring back to Howard Memorial.

            In Nicaragua, which next to Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, neighborhoods will often have several thousands people per block, living in boxes, “lean twos,” and tin sheets bound together with twisting wire.  Dirt roads are crawling with half clothed and shoeless children.  The dump is typically at the end of the street, and most homes still burn fires for cooking – so, when wood runs out children are sent into the trash piles to find whatever will burn.

            The most horrifying thing I have ever seen happened as I rode on a bus through one of these neighborhoods.  A child – stoned, intoxicated on either the glue (it’s like airplane model glue) or paint thinner that other children, and sometimes their parents either buy or steal, from the stores – stumbled into the street in front of our bus and the driver shouted as brakes slammed and we tipped forward and stopped just short of him.  And the boy – he looked at us from his daze – laughed.  He had no future; no hope; just his drugs and his laughter as his life hung by a thread.

            Not everyone in Nicaragua lives like that.  Just beyond the neighborhood, usually in the hills where it never floods, live the wealthy.  Big white houses, most of them larger than any in our county grace the hillsides.  They have huge satellite dishes and big gates.  They also are surrounded by four walls, and at the top of each 8 or 10 foot wall is either barbed wire, or jagged glass (they have taken glass bottles and set them in the cement and then broken off the tops – strangely from a distance the glass glitters in the sun and it can be quite striking).  At each and every gate stands a guard with a shot gun in hand.


            I imagine that there, in one of those houses, behind wall and armed guard, is where Zacchaeus had lived:  the master of all that he surveyed – from his perch (and he needed one) taking in the view of the masses outside his gate.  A follower of Jesus, though, he lives there no longer.

            What Nicaragua needs is a few more people like Zacchaeus.  You see, there is no middle class there (just like in Jesus’ day).  There is only the pitifully poor and the fabulously wealthy.  There is little sharing, no interaction, and total isolation from one another.  In my experience, each often thinks the other sinful.  Each thinks themselves righteous.  Each knows nothing of the other.  In such situations, I believe that gospel (with this very story in Luke 19) is directing that it is the responsibility of the powerful to make the first move.  But in Nicaragua, where in the mid-1990’s 70% of the population was unemployed no one moves for a myriad of social and political and sinful reasons.


            Here at Howard Memorial, with our historical strength as a congregation and the financial resources that we enjoy access to; here at Howard Memorial, sitting in the heart of Edgecombe county, on the edge of East Tarboro; here at Howard Memorial we sit at the intersection of St. James and St. Patrick Streets.  This historical and geographical location means that we really are sitting at the intersection of resource and need.  The question for our congregation is pretty simple this morning – do we dare to follow wee little Zacchaeus up that tree?


            You ought to know that this is the third or fourth sermon I have preached on Luke 19.  I love this text.  There is a depth here and a message for North America that is critical as the gap between rich and poor in our nation, and really in every nation on the earth, continues to explode.  Do we understand that, like Zacchaeus, we have some choices to make and some climbing to do?

            Today I find myself wondering about how we each need to recover something of the tree climber in each of us.  It’s not just about climbing down from the tree when Jesus calls us, it is also about the skill that is required to climb up – about having the spiritual self-awareness that we each are short in some way; about knowing that our lives are wee, because of our sin and our loyalty to riches over God.

            Understand, I am pretty sure that for a lot of us here, it has been awhile since you have climbed any trees.  But, not all trees have bark and branches and leaves.  Some of them are only seen with eyes of faith.  Do we dare to see?  Do we dare to climb above the crowd and risk their ridicule or their laughter? 

Have you climbed any trees lately?

            Sons and daughters of Abraham, heirs of salvation, I pray for you God speed as you plan your next climb.  Amen.

[1] This whole exegetical section is based upon Craig Blomberg’s work in Neither Poverty Nor Riches, 1999, IVCF Press; pages 140 – 141.  Some points are also drawn from Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke, pages 283 – 287.