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Minor Men With A Major Message (Zacchaeus)

Luke 19:1-10

There were crooks in Jericho.

There were crooks outside of Jericho. As you know from your remembrances of the Biblical stories, the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho was hazardous to travelers, because the barren hills and valleys around Jericho were pockmarked with caves and those caves provided sanctuary for bands of thieves and robbers.

So there were crooks outside of Jericho, but there were also crooks inside of Jericho. They were the tax collectors who were busily engaged in fleecing the natives with the full permission and encouragement of the Roman authorities. Tax collectors today, thanks to people like our own Earl Wood, are regarded with respect, but that was not true in Jesus’ day. The term “tax collector” then was a swear word. Everybody hates taxes, of course, but in those days the only people who had to pay taxes were the conquered. So the Jewish people were taxed heavily in order to fuel the oppressive power of Rome. Worse yet, the Romans paid Jews to do their dirty work. Jewish tax collectors were given rather handsome salaries—and in addition, any monies above their quota which they could extract or extort from the people, they were permitted to keep. So the tax collectors were engaged in both legalized robbery and national betrayal. Little wonder they were so hated and reviled.

The Gospel of Luke tells us about one such thief and turncoat in Jericho. We read: “And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich.” In other words, Zachaeus would have been regarded with all of the affection accorded a Mafia Don. Wherever he went, he would have been hissed. No one would want to be seen with him. He and his family would receive no invitations to dinner. He was well advised to avoid large crowds and dark alleys. The name, Zacchaeus, literally meant “pure and righteous,” so there would have been endless jokes of ridicule about that. Scale out the quality of a human being’s life, and Zacchaeus would have ranked among the lowest of the low.

I suppose that is why there is such a magnetic appeal about the encounter which occurred between Zacchaeus and Jesus. It was both very ordinary and very startling.

Let me remind you of the story.

A celebrity was coming to Jericho, so the rumor ran. He was Jesus of Nazareth, a back country rabbi, whose words were like fire, whose presence was commanding, whose touch was healing, and whose popularity was growing. Zacchaeus had set out to investigate the rumor. Apparently it was true. The streets were thronged, a cloud of dust hovered on the outskirts of town, a rising crescendo of sound could be heard. There were people of all ages lining the curb, craning their necks to see whatever there was to see, jostling their neighbors for a better view.

Zacchaeus could use his elbows as well as the next fellow, but he was late arriving and the throngs were closely packed. Being the hated chief of tax collectors was no help. The people were only too happy to edge him out. It would have been difficult enough for a big man but as the Bible carefully notes, Zacchaeus was “small of stature.” Stretch and strain as he might, all he could see was the dust raised by the procession.

But Zacchaeus was a persistent man, not one to give up easily. He had not gotten to where he was by giving up easily. So he dashed off down the street ahead of the parade. Then, like a small boy, he climbed up into a tree, branch by branch, to a place where his view of the oncoming procession was unobstructed. He went out on a limb to see this Jesus.

When Jesus came to that place, He stopped, looked up into the tree, called Zacchaeus by name and said to him: “Come on down, for today I am going to have lunch at your house.” Now how did Jesus know Zacchaeus? Probably no great mystery there. Israel was a small enough national to operate on the “cousin” principle where everybody knows everybody else and who they’re kin to! Besides, Zacchaeus was a very prominent man in a tarnished sort of way. And so Jesus singled him out by name. But then Jesus had a habit of doing that, of treating individuals as individuals.

My guess is that Zacchaeus couldn’t believe his ears. The sound of that voice shook him out of the tree. After a lifetime of people avoiding him like the plague, suddenly someone wanted him. And the Bible says that Zacchaeus hurried down and received Jesus joyfully. Of course, the crowd was horrified. Jesus was going to dine at the house of “public enemy number one!” But Jesus decided to side with Zacchaeus rather than the crowd. He knew what it would cost. He knew that He would lose more than an audience—He would lose their acclaim. But Jesus was willing to throw His reputation up a tree in exchange for Zacchaeus.

You see, the man’s drawbacks never fooled Jesus. Jesus saw the man. Zacchaeus was guilty, but Jesus did not come to press charges. Jesus is never put off by our shortcomings. There’s a bad side to the best man, and the worst man could be even worse. The fact that a man has cheated does not make him a cheater. No one is ever beyond the reach of the redeeming touch of the Master’s hand. I love the way our Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith puts it: “As there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation, so there is no sin so great that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.”

And clearly Zacchaeus repented. His whole life changed direction. He said to Jesus: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I restore it four-fold.” What an incredible commitment! I wonder if Zacchaeus ever regretted it later. Can you ever remember being so carried away by the emotion of the moment that you were about to sacrifice, really sacrifice, but fortunately you later felt you held back waiting for the grim light of reality to return? Well, Zacchaeus didn’t wait. He knew that he was in the presence of something bigger than all of his money and possessions. He wanted to respond wholeheartedly and enthusiastically—and he did. And Jesus concluded the story with the most marvelous words any human being can ever hear: “Today salvation has come to this house!”

Let me now draw two truths from that story.

The story of Zacchaeus and Jesus reminds us first of all, that faith in Jesus Christ requires some risk.

Life is never neat and clean. There are no ironclad guarantees. No risk-free arrangements, no fail-safe plans. My friend, Bob Gordon, shared with me this hilarious account of the risks of living and I want to share it with you.

“A man was injured on the job and he sent a claim to his insurance company. The company sent back a note requesting more information about the claim. This is the letter he sent back to the insurance company:

Dear Sir:

I am writing in response to your request for additional information in block #3 of the insurance form. In the block I put “poor planning” as the cause of my accident. You said I should explain more fully.

Well, I am a brick-layer by trade and on the day of my accident I was working alone on the roof of a six-story building. When I completed my work I discovered that I had about 500 pounds of brick left over. So rather than carry the bricks down by hand, I decided to lower them in a barrel which was attached to a pulley to the side of the roof on the sixth floor.

Securing the rope at ground level, I went on the roof, swung the barrel out, and loaded the brick into it. Then I went back to the ground, untied the rope, holding it tightly to insure a slow descent of the 500 pounds of brick.

You will notice on block #11 of the accident reporting form that I weigh 135 pounds. Due to my surprise of being jerked off the ground so suddenly, I lost my presence of mind and forgot to let go of the rope. Needless to say, I proceeded at a rather rapid rate up the side of the building. In the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming down. This explains the fractured skull and broken collar bone.

Slowed only slightly, I continued my rapid ascent, not stopping until the fingers of my right hand were wound deep into the pulley. Fortunately, at this time, I regained my presence of mind and was able to hold tightly to the rope in spite of the pain.

At approximately the same time, however, the barrel hit the ground and the bottom fell out of the barrel. Devoid of the weight of the bricks, the barrel weighed approximately 50 pounds. I refer you again to my weight—block #11.

As you might imagine, I began a rather rapid descent down the side of the building. At the vicinity of the third floor, I met the barrel coming up, which accounts for the two fractured ankles, lacerated hip, thigh and lower leg. The encounter with the barrel slowed me up enough to lessen my injuries when I fell onto the pile of bricks. Fortunately, only three vertebrae were cracked.

I am sorry to report, however, that as I lay there on the brick, in pain, unable to stand, and watching the empty barrel six stories above me, I again lost my presence of mind and let go of the rope!”

Living and risking go hand-in-hand. Zacchaeus understood that. Think of the risk he took in trying to get to Jesus. He went out on a limb, both literally and figuratively, but his willingness to run that risk made the difference.

Let me tell you the quickest way to find frustration and ineffectiveness in life, start running scared. Focus on the dangers. Guard against every conceivable peril. Concern yourself with the “what ifs” rather than the “why nots.” Take no chances. Say “no” to courage, and “yes” to caution. Expect the worst. Triple lock all your doors. Before you know it, you will begin to experience what E. Stanley Jones called “the paralysis of analysis.”

Zacchaeus didn’t opt for safety. He refused to be paralyzed by his circumstances. He wouldn’t let anything or anyone hold him back from Jesus Christ. We need to learn that. We need to learn that our sins and shortcomings cannot separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. Our inadequacies do not render us ineligible to be His own. Ted Engstrom expresses it this way: “Cripple him, and you have a Sir Walter Scott. Lock him in a prison cell, and you have a John Bunyan. Bury him in the snows of Valley Forge, and you have a George Washington. Raise him in adject poverty, and you have an Abraham Lincoln. Deafen him and you have a Beethoven. Burn him so severely that doctors say he will never walk again, and you have a Glen Cunningham who then set the world record for the mile run in 1934. Surround him or her with racial prejudice, and you have a George Washington Carver or a Marian Anderson. Call him a slow learner and write him off as uneducable, and you have an Albert Einstein.”

My friends, don’t let anything in you or in your life keep you from trying to get to Jesus. Sure there is risk involved. But there is peace of mind and powerful living to be found by those who refuse to run scared. Zacchaeus ran the risk. He went out on a limb for Jesus.

And the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus reminds us also, that faith in Jesus Christ results in change.

I heard someone say that the average person’s idea of a good sermon is one that goes over his head and hits one of his neighbors! Well, this is not a good sermon, because, my beloved, I am not going after your neighbor—I am coming after you. I want you to experience conversion. I want you to experience the change which Zacchaeus experienced. Of course, that’s what conversion is. It is a change which can reshape a person’s character and transform a person’s life.

I know. We Presbyterians get a bit nervous when someone talks about conversion. The late Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina was a great Presbyterian edler and he said that we should define Presbyterians as “shallow-water Baptists,” because we don’t want to go whole hog with this business of conversion. But did you hear what Jesus said—they were the last words out of His mouth after His encounter with Zacchaeus—He said: “I have come to seek and to save the lost.” In other words, He has come to convert us, to change the direction of our lives, to set our feet on the pathway to glory. For some people, like Zacchaeus and like Paul, that conversion experience is sudden and dramatic. Others, like I, will never know a moment when we did not believe in Jesus Christ. But whether it comes suddenly or slowly, the result is the same—a life renewed, re-shaped, redirected—a life surrendered to the Lord who comes seeking us, searching for us, reaching out to us, calling us by name.

It reminds me of a man named Sutherland, who lived in London and was all alone in the world save for his son, Wilfred. Then tragically, during the Second World War, Wilfred was shot down in a plane and listed as missing in action. It was not known whether he survived or died. Sutherland, of course, hoped and prayed that his son somehow had survived, but was suffering from amnesia perhaps. Then on Easter morning, 1948, Mr. Sutherland was hurrying through the huge crowds at Kings Cross Station on his way to church, when suddenly he saw, across the multitude, a familiar face. He believed it to be his son, but the crowd was so big that he could not find the man again. However, the experience convinced him that his son was indeed alive and suffering from amnesia. Sutherland then withdrew all of his savings and he had posters printed with his son’s picture on them and he plastered them all over England and Scotland, hoping that his son would see that poster somewhere, remember whose son he was, and come back to his father. And every Easter Sunday morning for years and years thereafter, he would stand in the Kings Cross Station, scanning the bustling crowds, looking for the face of his son. Why did he do that? Because fathers don’t quit on their sons, when the sons are lost.

My beloved, your heavenly Father is looking for you. Through Jesus Christ He has put up posters all over for you. He is calling your name, just as He called Zacchaeus by name. He wants you to come home to Him. If today you respond to His call by surrendering your life to Jesus Christ and receiving Jesus joyfully, then you will hear the most magnificent words any human being can ever hear:

“Today, salvation has come to your heart.”

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