A Wee Little Man and His Great God
Sermon Transcript: Luke 19:1-10
We have seen Jesus interact with prostitutes, tax collectors, blind men, sick women . . . The down and out. And every time, we see Jesus touching them, welcoming them, not to affirm their sin or their illness, not to pronounce them NOBLE and GOOD because of their sins or oppressions, but to call them OUT of that to NEW LIFE. Time after time, Jesus crosses over the boundary, and touches the unclean, the filthy, to welcome them into HIS righteousness, to enjoy HIS pleasures.
But the question that may be lingering in your mind - perhaps it was for Theophilus, whom Luke wrote this book to. Does that apply to RICH people? Because up until this point, rich people are only cast in a negative light. After all, two weeks ago we heard Jesus himself say that it’s easier for a camel to goose step through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom.
Ask the question another way: are there forms of lostness that are just too lost? Can you sin your way OUT of the saving REACH of God? Can a person be just, well, too bad?
That’s the question that’s posed by a wee little man, perched in a tree, in Jericho. Tomorrow morning, Jesus will head up to Jerusalem. But tonight, the question will be answered: if Jesus loves the down and out, what about the UP and out?
Let’s look first at the passage, then at its key principles, and then draw from it three conclusions.
Jesus is passing THROUGH Jericho, v. 1.
And behold, v. 2, there was a man named Zacheaus. “Behold” is a signal to the reader: hey, slow down for a second, and think about this guy.
He was a tax collector. As you know, the Roman Empire controlled Palestine. Rome would tell tax collectors the amount they HAD to send to Rome, but they had permission to collect however much over and above that amount. And they were all Jews - traitors to their country and countrymen, in order to make a buck.
And Zacheaus was the CHIEF tax collector. Which probably means that he owned the tax collecting franchise from Rome for Jericho. So he got a cut from ALL the other tax collectors. Think about if Chik-fil-A or In-n-Out gave someone the franchise rights for ALL their locations in the greater Sacramento area. In other words, he sat on a gold mine.
The English translation here ends v. 2 by saying he was a rich man. But the original language actually repeats “rich”. And in ancient Hebrew, to repeat something meant it is the MOST - Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Well, Zaccheus is the richest of the rich.
Off the backs of the people. Now, if Luke follows his same form, that means that the tables are going to turn for the oppressed, for the little guy, right?
But Zaccheus is a little guy - v. 3 - literally and figuratively. He’s UP, but he’s also OUT. You get this from the note that he can’t see Jesus “on account of the crowd.” Which I think means, the people are lined up along the road through Jericho, waiting for Jesus, and when they notice Zaccheus coming, they go shoulder to shoulder - they only cinch up more, so the little rich traitor can’t see.
They isolate him. He has exchanged their welcome, for wealth. And thus they treat him like a dog, a Gentile, excluded from the blessings of the Messiah, that God promised long ago, and is now about to walk down their road.
But the original language implies that for SOME TIME, Zacheaus had been SEEKING an opportunity to see Jesus. So he is undeterred. And he climbs a tree., v. 4.
Sycamore trees are great climbing trees, with large branches. So perhaps the sight of this august, respectable man - the riches man in town - climbing a tree, would not be noticed.
But the leaves don’t work. It’s TOTALLY obvious. Such that when Jesus gets to that place, v. 5, Jesus sees this oddest of sights. Imagine literally seeing Bill Gates in a tree, and you get the picture. And with the crowds at their highest, all around, Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus, and says, “Hurry up! Get down. I’m staying with YOU tonight.”
And v. 6, Zacchaeus did just that - he scampers down as fast as he can, and receives Jesus JOYFULLY. Not arrogantly, not triumphantly. Just JOYFULLY. Like a child.
But the crowd, v. 7, they see this, and they GRUMBLE, it says. They can’t believe it. Imagine it - here he comes! Uh, oh, uh, what’s he looking at? Who’s he talking to? Wuh?
HE - JESUS has gone in to be the guest of a sinner! In those days, to sit at the table of someone, and doubly so to stay the night at their house meant to SHARE in their sin.
Imagine if Jesus came today, and he asked Jeffrey Epstein to put him up on his island for a night. Or Hunter Biden, selling out his country to enrich the family. It is simply SCANDALOUS.
And so now, v. 8, the crowd follows Jesus to Zaccheaus’ home. In those days, this was no strange thing - the windows were open to the outside, and the people could see and hear what would happen next.
Zaccheaus has to KNOW what the crowds are thinking. And so out of GRATITUDE for what JESUS has done, and in order to CLEAR Jesus, he pronounces, v. 8:
Luke 19:8 (ESV): “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
Not that he had DONE that yet, but it was a public pronouncement, with WHOLE TOWN listening, that is was as good as done. He REPENTS of his old life, AGGRESSIVELY, not out of obligation, but out of JOY, out of GRATITUDE. The generosity of God, in the welcome of JESUS, produces in HIM generosity to the town - he gives HALF his possessions away, in that moment.
Jesus didn’t even have to ask or command it.
All Jesus needs to do is wrap the whole thing up:
Verse 9: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”
You, the crowd, thought that he was too far gone - that his sin had separated him from God’s reach. But God’s arm was longer and stronger than even THIS man’s sin.
Verse 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
This is the entire theology of the gospel of Luke, in one sentence. Zaccheaus came seeking, and found the SEEKER, he found that in his silly attempt at seeking, God had been seeking HIM, all along. He came to read the Word of God, and found the Word reading Him. EVEN him.
Jesus, the long-promised GOD-MAN who would save God’s people, came to seek and save the LOST. But how lost? Is there such a thing as TOO lost, TOO bad, TOO evil? Does God carve out a special category for our legislators who got rich off of COVID, for the warmongers who got rich off of our wars, or for the billionaires who would have us own nothing and like it?
The son of man came to seek and save the lost. How lost? The lost-lost.
God seeks and saves the lost-lost, and I want us to see three principles about this.
First, that it’s ALL by GRACE. Grace is the welcome of God, as a gift, to those don’t deserve it. Welcoming them into his kingdom, and into his household. Which SAVES - saves from what?
From separation from God. The separation, the alienation that Zaccheaus felt from his fellow man was only a living parable, on the horizontal plane, of his separation and alienation from God. He had sold out his fellow man, to become secure, self-sufficient and autonomous, in his wealth. That’s why wealth is so alluring, and so dangerous - it promises to allow us to live life on OUR terms, AUTONOMOUSLY. Which, in fact, is the sin of the Garden of Eden, that plunged our whole race into alienation from God.
In this way, our whole culture is like Zaccheaus, in our wealth, trying to live AUTONOMOUSLY, to create our identities for ourselves, whether by our wealth, or by our imaginations. And like Zaccheaus, it has only left us wondering if there is something MORE - in our AUTONOMY, we find that we are not enough for ourselves. That we were made for something grander, MORE satisfiying than what WE can provide FOR ourselves.
To give but ONE example: among those today who complete gender “reassignment”, the rate of suicidality only goes UP afterwards. It’s tragic: that at the height of their exercising their autonomy over themselves, they find that there’s nothing there.
But Zaccheaus did something else about that itch. He took a step TOWARDS Jesus - Jesus, this man who HEALED that bleeding woman; who healed the blind man; who loved Levi that other tax collector; who welcomed the prostitute. He took a step TOWARD Jesus, to see if this Teacher, who loved the down and out, might welcome one who is UP and out.
And when he took that step, and climbed that tree, he found that HE was not the seeker, but that JESUS, all the while, had been seeking HIM. He climbed that tree, to get a good read on Jesus, and it turned out, the living Word of God was reading him.
You remember the parable of the shepherd who left the 99 to find the 1? He found him, and welcomed HIM. In verse 5, Jesus uses the word “stay” - only the second time in the book that word’s been used. The first? When Jesus’ parents had nowhere to STAY in Bethlehem. The guest room denied to Jesus at his birth he finds in the house of a massive sinner.
That’s grace, and the miracle of grace is not only that God would forgive us, but that He would take up residence WITHIN us, giving us a nobility, and security, and a hope of glory, that money, sex and power could NEVER give. Amazing grace.
And the EVIDENCE that Jesus got his sheep, that Zaccheaus is SAVED - and this is the second principle - is that Zaccheaus REPENTS, or turns from his old life, in dramatic fashion. Zaccheaus doesn’t repent to EARN Jesus’ welcome. The GRACE comes FIRST. It’s GRACE that CAUSES JOY, and then that JOY that CAUSES the repentance.
Zaccheaus received JESUS invitation JOYFULLY, because it was ALL grace - ALL a gift, NOTHING to earn.
And from THAT joy, Zaccheaus repents. Notice that his repentance is not JUST the stopping of the bad, but also a moving in the completely OPPOSITE direction, to the good. Zaccheaus doesn’t just STOP being a taker - though he DOES that, by paying restitution to those he extorted. But he also GIVES, half of his possessions to the poor. He repents from being a TAKER, to being a GIVER. Why? Because he had already been given vastly more - the gracious gift of undeserved citizenship in the kingdom of God.
Authentic disciples believe on Jesus, and that faith is ALWAYS evidenced by REPENTANCE, not just FROM the bad, but TO the good, to GOD. And that repentance is always the FRUIT of welcoming in the SEEKER himself, Jesus.
Jesus is always seeking the down and out, and now the UP and out. But He NEVER seeks anyone just leave us there, and affirm us, as if the oppressions that we suffer somehow EARN us something before God. To be called a deplorable by Hillary Clinton might mean I might enjoy a beer with you, but it makes NO ONE righteous before God. Jesus is the ULTIMATE seeker, seeking the lost, not to leave us there, but to call each of us to concrete, aggressive, free REPENTANCE, TO God. Because only in HIM is there TRUE righteousness, and abiding life.
And in the same way, to be Hillary Clinton herself does not put you outside the SEEKING of God either. And THIS is the THIRD principle - the SCANDAL of grace. The people of Jericho GRUMBLED - they couldn’t believe that of ALL the people, Jesus would stay with their own Jeffrey Epstein. The crowd has become the older son in the parable of the Prodigal Son - grumbling for the party the Father throws for the lost son of Abraham, now returned.
Thus when Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house”, he’s saying, the tables now have completely turned - now there is ONE sheep, and 99 are lost. Zaccheaus is filled with JOY, but they are JOYLESS, just like our generation. We LOVE to call winners and losers - to essentially say, “To hell with that person - literally - damn them, or that group!” We love to do that - leftists do it, with cancel culture, but conservatives do it, too. We love to call winners and losers, AS IF WE ARE GOD.
But God is God. And from the very beginning, His grace has been scandalous. Jesus here mentions that Zaccheaus is a son of Abraham. In Genesis 12, we read about God calling Abraham, and then immediately following is the story of his trip to Egypt, where he gives away his wife to Pharoah, out of fear for himself! And yet, by the end of the story, he leaves, even MORE wealthy!
Abraham is precisely the kind of guy our culture loves to damn to our politically-correct hell - and that’s exactly the point. The true sons of Abraham are those who receive the SCANDALOUS grace of God, never earning it, just joyfully receiving it. It has ALWAYS been this way. For God’s singular purpose is this, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:4-5: In love he predestined us for adoption as sons - it had to be adopted, because we were alienated from him - for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, TO THE PRAISE OF HIS GLORIOUS GRACE, with which he has blessed us, in the Beloved - in Jesus.
And the scandal of the grace is right where the glory is - that it stretches THAT far - even to the Epstein Islands of this world - the praise of his scandalously glorious grace.
The gift of his grace is amazing, and it always leads to REPENTANCE, or it will lead to SCANDAL - it flies in the face of our cancel culture world.
There are three point of application I want to make - and the FIRST is a question - who do YOU identify MOST with, in this passage? Who describes YOU the most? The isolated, dissatisfied Zaccheaus, or the grumbling, resentful crowds, or the resurrected Zaccheaus, joyfully receiving and repenting before anyone has to TELL him to do so?
Who do you identify with most?
There are many today who deny that we are SINNERS. No such thing, they say. But sin takes many forms. Yes, it IS the bad things that the BAD guys - as defined by you - do. But it also is what the GOOD guys do - as defined by you - when you GRUMBLE at the blessing of the “BAD” guys.
Note that when you GRUMBLE like this, you are declaring in your heart, as if YOU are god, that there SHOULD be an OUT, and an IN. Our culture is very religious this way - we all want there to be a hell for SOMEONE. The question is WHETHER we believe in damnation, but for whom.
But think again about what is grumbling. It’s an attitude that can only happen when we take the place of God, and tell God, you’re doing it wrong; you’re using your power unjustly, immorally. I know what’s right and what’s damnable.
And in this way, grumbling is a terrible offense before God, because it is the heart of the dragon’s original temptation and Eve’s original sin in the Garden: to replace God, by questioning His ordering and dispensing of things.
But the question is, when God is ghosted, who takes his place?
We THINK we are autonomous, especially because of our wealth. In this way, we are ALL like pre-Jesus Zaccheaus. But we have also been brought up to be AUTONOMOUS, in a modern, religious kind of way - the kind of religion you have to go to university to get. And in this way, we are very much like the crowds, too.
But the great fallacy of autonomy you see driving around the streets of San Francisco. I’ve seen 1,000 autonomous cars driving those streets, and every one of them have TWO engineers in them, laptops open - PROGRAMMING that car’s “autonomy”.
The lie of autonomy is that you think you have it. But we are created beings. It’s not a matter of WHETHER you receive programming, but from WHERE, from WHOM. No one is autonomous.
The lie of the Garden was that Eve could be autonomous, but in the end, it turned out that she was just taking instructions from a different master - not One who would walk and talk with her, and who LAVISHLY provided all things for her, but this time, one with scales, who only brought her shame and curse and death.
Do you feel that, in your OWN life? Sometimes, God says to us, OK, have it YOUR way. And He does THAT in grace, so that we might see what it’s like - that we might get a taste of hell.
But when he does that, He also never stops seeking. He’s still there, waiting, waiting for you to take a step, and climb that tree. He’s patiently waiting, for that sense of DREAD you feel, to wear you down. That anxiety of living life your OWN way, to work it’s way into you. The life of autonomy FEELS like depression and insecurity and fear and loathing . . . Because we were never MADE to be autonomous.
But when you climb that tree, you will find that you’ve been hunted, wisely, insatiably, by your gentle Savior. He loves you, and He knows, better than you,
That the delicious call of autonomy FEELS at first like freedom, but only ends in death.
But HIS call, of grace, of welcome, of coming into YOUR home - at first it feels like death, like losing everything, but it ends in LIFE, AND FREEDOM, AND JOY. The very things you were searching for all along in your autonomy - and the very things that YOU and this generation LACK the most.
Will YOU follow in the footsteps of Zaccheaus? Will you give UP your pursuit of autonomy, and RECEIVE HIS WELCOME of you?
Now, secondly, for you, the people of God, a charge: do not let the insanities of the world determine your gospel. When the world starts saying, what is a child?, and normalizes pedophilia, it will good and right for us to stand up, and call them to repentance.
But the question will THEN be, when the REPENTANT - REPENTANT pedophile wants to come find refuge in the gospel here, WILL THEY find a place? Will our church be BETHLEHEM, at Jesus’ birth - no where to STAY, or Zaccheaus’ house? Which will WE be? That depends on whether we understand what a miraculous thing it was for ANY of us to be saved - that each and every one of us, if all our sins were laid out before the world, would be a SCANDAL of GRACE.
The church, from its beginnings with Abraham, has ALWAYS been a scandal. Get that, and watch out. Better build a bigger trophy case, for all the trophies of GRACE that God will acquire for His own glory.
Well, lastly, the application has to do with US, in our worship. Much controversy has been made in the past about whether church services should be SEEKER sensitive - in other words, anticipating the SEEKER, like pre-grace Zaccheaus. But again, who is the ULTIMATE seeker? It’s not Zaccheaus - it’s JESUS.
So yes, we want our corporate worship on Sunday to be SEEKER sensitive - in the sense that we want to CLOTHE CHRIST. Or as Spurgeon put it - the Word of God is like a LION - best to just let it out of its cage.
Oh sure, we’re not going to return to an organ and sing in Latin. We want our worship to be INTELLIGIBLE. And we want it to be SIMPLE. But it MUST also be SPIRITUAL - and the Spirit’s entire goal in life is not to sell spiritual goods to the seeker, but to shine a bright, clear light on THE ULTIMATE seeker.
The world knows where to get what it WANTS. But it has no idea how to get what it NEEDS. There are tree climbers all over the place, looking. The question is whether they will SEE CHRIST. And it’s our desire to SHOW him, to them and to our own hearts. For our own JOY.