A Little Man Meets a Big God

Luke 19:1-10

April 9, 2000 | Brian Bill

There’s a story about a local fitness center, which was offering $1,000 to anyone who could demonstrate that they were stronger than the owner of the place.  Here’s how it worked.  This muscle man would squeeze a lemon until all the juice ran into a glass, and then hand the lemon to the next challenger.  Anyone who could squeeze just one more drop of juice out would win the money.  

Many people tried over time – other weightlifters, construction workers, even professional wrestlers, but nobody could do it.

One day a short and skinny guy came in and signed up for the contest. After the laughter died down, the owner grabbed a lemon and squeezed away.  Then he handed the wrinkled remains to the little man.

The crowd’s laughter turned to silence as the man clenched his fist around the lemon and six drops fell into the glass.  As the crowd cheered, the manager paid out the winning prize and asked the short guy what he did for a living.  “Are you a lumberjack, a weightlifter, or what?”

The man replied,  “I work for the IRS.”

Have you filed your taxes yet?  I guess we still have a week so you don’t have to worry yet.  I have a buddy who always starts his taxes on April 14 every year and stays up all night to get them finished.  I think he likes the adrenaline rush!

It’s tough to be honest during tax time isn’t it?  Here’s an actual letter that was received by the IRS a few years ago:

“Enclosed you will find a check for $150.  I cheated on my income tax return last year and have not been able to sleep ever since.  If I still have trouble sleeping I will send you the rest.”

This morning we’re focusing on a high-ranking IRS man who cheated not on his return, but on everyone else’s.  He had figured out a way to skim some money off the top and squeeze the last drop from people’s wallets.

Our passage this morning has some parallels to last week’s topic.  As you recall, when Jesus was approaching Jericho, he had an encounter with blind Bart, a poor beggar from the lowest social class.  Now, as we look at Luke 19:1, we see that Jesus is passing through Jericho on his final trip to Jerusalem, and comes in contact with Zacchaeus, a very wealthy government man from the top rung of the economic ladder.

I want to use a very simple outline this morning:  

  1. The Searching Sinner (19:2-4) [read]
  2. The Seeking Savior (19:5) [read]
  3. The Spectacular Salvation (19:6-10) [read]

The Searching Sinner

In verse two, we see that Zacchaeus was a man of some prominence.  His name in Hebrew means, “pure and righteous,” but he was not thought of as being anywhere close to righteous because of the job he had.  As a tax collector, he worked for Rome and was considered a traitor by the Jewish people.  The fact that he worked for the Roman IRS indicated to others that he was more interested in money than anything else. 

Zack was more than just an IRS agent, however.  He was a “chief” tax collector.  He was in charge of all the agents and was able to take a “cut” of commission from those who collected taxes for him.  He stood on top of the collection pyramid, stuffing his pockets with shekels before he sent the required taxes to Rome.  If Rome charged a 5% tax, Zack may have collected 10% from the people.  

Jericho was a great place to be for Zacchaeus because there were a lot of people coming in and out of the city on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover.  Jericho was considered the “tax capital” of Palestine, the center of a vast trade network that extended from Damascus to Egypt.  Zack was in charge of one of the three tax offices in the entire country, and may have had the best job of them all.  Not surprisingly, the last part of verse 2 tells us that he was wealthy.

But he was a renegade in the eyes of the religious people.  He would have been thought of as fondly as a high-level drug dealer is today.  In fact, in the minds of people, tax collectors were often linked with murderers, adulterers, robbers, and other “sinners.”

Tax collectors were not new to Jesus.  Early on in His ministry, Jesus had attracted, and worse yet (in the eyes of the Pharisees), received them warmly.  In Luke 5:30, Jesus was accused by the religious leaders for eating and drinking with “tax collectors and sinners.”  These two terms were almost synonymous to the Pharisees.  There was hardly a life form more offensive than these traitors.

In verse 3 we notice that while Zack is very wealthy and successful by the world’s standards, he knew something was missing.  Even people today, if they are honest, will eventually admit that there’s more to life than just trying to make money and obtain possessions.

Notice that it doesn’t say that Zack just wanted to see Jesus.  No.  He wanted to see who Jesus was.  He wanted to figure out what it was that made Jesus different from everyone else.  He was drawn to this man who had just given sight to the blind beggar on the outskirts of Jericho.  Now this healer was walking through his town.  He may not have fully understood what was going on in his heart, but Zack had a desperate need to get to Jesus.  He probably couldn’t even explain what drew him to see who Jesus was.

Perhaps that’s how some of you are feeling this morning.  You’re drawn to Jesus.  You’re intrigued by who He is and you want to get to know more about Him.  I can remember that happening to me shortly before I became a Christian.  I was curious about Jesus and loved to hear about the stories that we’re focusing on in this series.

Zack had at least two problems that day.  The first was that he was a short man.  I picture him bouncing up and down on his toes, like tigger, trying to see above the taller guys in front of him.  With all the crowds pressing in, there was no way for him to get close enough to Jesus.  In a large crowd like this I wonder if some unhappy taxpayers took out their frustrations with Zack by giving him an accidental elbow or a shove from the back.  

His second problem was spiritual – his sins were keeping him from Jesus.  Isaiah 59:2 say that “our iniquities have separated us from God.”  Not only was Zack of short stature, he, like us, was not able to measure up to God’s standards.  He came up far short in a spiritual sense of ever entering into a relationship with God.  He was short on integrity and tall on sin.

I love verse 4: “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.”  This guy was resourceful.  It reminds me of something a friend of mine used to say when I’d play basketball with him.  His name was Curt and he was even shorter than I am.  He was always grinning and would say this: “I may be short…but I’m slow.”

He was determined to see Jesus and frankly didn’t care what others thought of his sprinting or his climbing

Zack was short, but he wasn’t slow!  He ran ahead of the crowd, looking for a way that he could see Jesus.  This picture is a bit amusing, isn’t it?  First of all, it would have been considered undignified for a rich man to run.  Secondly, I don’t know about you, but it seems funny to me that this wealthy man would shimmy up a tree to see Jesus.  Sycamore trees often grew by the side of the road and had branches that grew out horizontally from the trunk, which would give him a good view of Jesus.  He probably snagged his cloak on some branches but it didn’t slow him down.  Maybe he fell a couple times.  He was determined to see Jesus and frankly didn’t care what others thought of his sprinting or his climbing.

Zack did not allow anything, not the crowd or his condition, to stand between him and his desire to see the Lord Jesus.  What about you?  Do you care enough about the condition of your soul to pay whatever price is necessary to be right with God?  Are you willing to turn from that little pet sin?  Are you ready to walk away from the crowd in order to see Jesus?  Are you ready to run to Him?

The Seeking Savior

In verse 5 we see that while Zacchaeus may have been searching, it was really Jesus who was seeking him: “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately.  I must stay at your house today.”

Jesus took note of Zacchaeus, although we are not told why.  He stopped, looked up, called him by name, and told him that He must come to His house.  Again we see that while Jesus has set his face toward the Cross, he stops and ministers to a searching sinner.  He knew right where Zack was because He knew all about him – and He was filled with compassion toward him.

This is how it always happens.  Jesus makes the first move by coming to the dead sinner and offering life through Himself.   We would never be able to come to Jesus unless He came to us first.

He then gives Zack a two-fold command: “Come down immediately.” Get out of the tree, Zack.  Right now.  There’s always a sense of urgency about following Christ.  2 Corinthians 6:2 says, “…Now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”  Can you imagine what must have been going through the minds of those who were walking with Jesus that day?  How did Jesus know his name?  Why did Jesus stop under that particular tree?  Why did Jesus want this sinner to come down right away?

And then Jesus gives the second part of the command: “I must stay at your house today.”  Why did Jesus express the necessity of going to the house of Zacchaeus?  Why the “must”?  The Pharisees and religious leaders would say that because Zack was a chief tax collector he was a “sinner.”  Such a person should never be invited to your home. One should certainly not enter their home as a guest, and you were especially forbidden to eat their food.  Notice here that Jesus invited Himself to dinner!  This is the only instance in the 4 Gospels where we read of Jesus inviting Himself to someone’s home for a meal.  Jesus must stay at his house because it pictures what His ministry is all about.  He came to save sinners from their sins.

The Spectacular Salvation

Zacchaeus didn’t waste any time getting out of the tree.  Verse 6 tells us, “So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.”  Jesus said, “jump” and Zack jumped.  He came down right away and welcomed Jesus joyfully and with great excitement.  He got way more than he asked for – he just wanted to get a closer look at the Savior but now He was coming over for dinner!  He was overwhelmed with joy!  The word “gladly” carries with it the idea of “jubilant exultation.”

This is similar to the response of Bart in Luke 18:43 when it says that he praised God.  Next week we’ll see that the disciples break out into joyful praise when Jesus enters Jerusalem (Luke 19:37).  Joy is one of the key themes found in Luke’s gospel, being mentioned over 20 times in one form or another.  I wonder what it will take for us to become more filled with glad and joyful praise?  With all that God has done for us, we should be exuberant with joy!  Yet too often our faces are fallen, our hearts are heavy, and our minds are muddled with cares and concerns.  Friends, let’s learn from this example – when people encountered Jesus, they broke out into joyful praise!  That should be reflected in our daily lives and when we gather together for corporate worship.

Now, in contrast to Zack’s joy, we see in verse 7 that the entire crowd began to mutter.  If the crowd was confused about why Jesus was even talking to Zack, they now go ballistic when they figure out that Jesus has invited himself to dinner at Zack’s place.  Notice that it wasn’t just some of the crowd.  The text says that it was all the people.  It may have even included the disciples.  The word itself means a low grumble, and indicates that they were complaining and finding fault with what Jesus was going to do.  This root word is also used to describe what the Israelites did in the desert when they complained and grumbled to the Lord.

We might want to get down on the crowd for their response but I wonder how many times we respond in a similar way?  Let’s admit it.  We have categories in our minds of people who are really “bad.”  We might be upset if Jesus were to drop in on them for a meal as well.  It’s so easy for us to think that we’re better than others – that our sin somehow smells better than other people’s.

After the meal and conversation with Jesus, we see in verse 8 that Zacchaeus was greatly impacted by the call on his life.  Because of what he is about to say, I think we can safely conclude that Zack was converted during the meal.  He knew he was a sinner and had come to the Savior for salvation.  His conversion is clear because of the life-change we see.  

Zack pushes himself away from the table and says to Jesus, “Look, Lord!  Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

The phrase, “here and now” indicates that Zack was not waiting to negotiate a contract with Jesus or just trying to slide by.  He was fully sold out to Christ.  Jesus had changed his heart and now he wanted to demonstrate that change through his actions.  His decision was voluntary and flowed out of a heart of gratitude for what Christ had done for him.  Whenever Jesus meets someone there is change.  If you’ve never changed, it may be because you haven’t truly been saved.

William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, understood the importance of asking God to change him.  I came across one of his prayers: “Lord, I give you everything there is in this man, William Booth.  Do with me what you will.”  God loves to hear prayers like this because it shows a willingness to change.

Zack’s public confession shows the sincerity of his repentance and was his way of living out Romans 10:10: “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

As part of his repentance, Zack wants to right his wrongs. Biblical repentance always goes hand-in-hand with restitution because conversion is a radical life-changing event.  He’s now a different man so he declares that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and will make restitution at four times the amount he swindled.  The man who had felt small his whole life, and had treated others as if they were small, suddenly becomes a “big” man.

Both of these responses stand out in light of cultural and religious expectations.  It was considered extremely generous to give 20% of your money away – he gave 50%!  When he made restitution of four times he was following the standard required in the Jewish law when a sheep had been stolen, and a man was convicted of the theft at a trial (see Exodus 22:1).  

If he “confessed” it himself, without being found out, he was only required to restore what was stolen, and add 20% (see Numbers 5:6-7).  Zack’s repentance is obvious in that he was willing to respond as if it had been proved against him in a court of law.  He knows that his behavior was of the worst kind and was eager to make things right no matter the cost.

We sometimes think we’re generous if we give God 10% of our income.  The mark of Zack’s transformation and conversion was his staggering generosity.  He learned the truth quickly that it is impossible to serve both God and money.  Before he met Jesus his money was everything to him.  After his conversion, it took a back seat and became something to be given away.  It was Albert Schweitzer who said, “If you own something that you cannot give away, then you don’t own it, it owns you.”

Now we come to verse 10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”  The mission of Jesus is very clear: He came to seek and save what was lost.  Jesus is still on a search and save mission.  He is seeking out people who need to be saved.  If you’ve never been saved from your sins, you need to know that Jesus is pursuing you even if you are not pursuing Him.  He wants to have a vibrant relationship with you.  Right now, He’s outside the door of your life knocking.  Can you hear Him?  He knocks and then he waits for you to open the door.  Revelation 3:20 says that, “…If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” 

When he knocks he speaks your name out loud.  He knows everything about you and has been pursuing a relationship with you for a long time.  He knows your pain, your dreams, and all the details of your life.  He knows your failures and your sins.  He has seen and felt them all.  And, He’s been trying to get your attention.  You may be hearing His voice right now in your heart.  Just as He called out to Zacchaeus so too he is calling out to you: “Come to me right now, for I must come into your life.”  

4 Stages

I see four stages that Zack went through, which have direct application to our lives today.

  • Curious.  He wanted to get to know who Jesus was.
  • Considered.  He investigated the claims of Christ.
  • Converted.  The searching Savior saved him and forgave his sins.
  • Changed.  His life was radically redirected after his conversion.

As I look back on the process that God had me go through, I see all four of these stages.  When I was 19 and observing how my college roommate was living, I became very curious about Jesus.  Then, when he was out of the room, I started to read his Bible.  In my desire to consider the claims of Christ I asked a lot of questions and went to a Bible study in my dorm.  That then led me to the realization that I was not a Christian and that I needed to be saved from my sins.  On October 3, 1979 I was converted by the grace of God as I prayed to open the door to my heart and receive the free gift of eternal life.  The last thing I prayed that night was for Jesus to change me.  I asked him to get rid of anything in my life that he did not like.  Thankfully, some changes were immediate – like taking away my desire for alcohol – other changes are still in process today.

He will change your life in ways you can’t even imagine

What stage are you at this morning?  Are you curious about who Jesus is?  If so, don’t stop there.  Investigate.  Check Him out up close by reading the Bible.  Consider His claims.  Keep coming to church.  As you do, your next step is to be converted.  That’s why Jesus came.  He came to convert you, He seeks to save you, and He longs to show you His love.  And then, He will change your life in ways you can’t even imagine.

And so, the call has gone out.  Is Jesus living within you or do you just let Him visit once in awhile?  If He has taken up residence, have you been denying Him access to some of the rooms in your life?  

Jesus is calling your name right now.  Will you respond?  Will you abandon it all for the sake of the call?

If you are ready to respond to Jesus right now by opening the door to your life, I’m going to ask you to do so while Al comes up to sing.  I’m going to be down on the floor.  If you are ready to begin a relationship with the Seeking Savior, I want to challenge you to come forward this morning.  Zack jumped out of the tree in response to Jesus’ invitation.  I’m asking you to jump out of your chair and come down to the front if you’re ready to be saved. 

Lord Kenneth Clark, internationally known for his television series Civilization, admitted in his autobiography that while visiting a beautiful church he had an overwhelming religious experience.  This is what he wrote: “My whole being was irradiated by a kind of heavenly joy far more intense than anything I had never known before.”  But, as he described it, the “gloom of grace” created a problem for him.  If he allowed himself to be influenced by his spiritual yearnings, he knew he would have to change and his family would think he had lost his mind.  And so he concluded, “I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course.”   As far as I know, he died without putting his faith in Christ.

Friend, are you too deeply embedded in the world to change course?  Zacchaeus was locked into a way of life that was pretty comfortable and yet Jesus changed him.  And he can do the same for you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?