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To Catch A Thief

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To Catch A Thief

New Hope Baptist Church

September 18, 2005

9:30 a.m.


Text:  Luke 19: 1-10







    Obstacles are things that we must deal with on a daily basis.  Sometimes, we go through a day without noticing or being conscious that we have overcome some obstacle in our path.  We go about our daily routines and “little” things pop up that we have become accustomed to, and we just step around them and continue on our way.

    But then there are those times in life when a big obstacle blocks our progress.  Sometimes these big obstacles are visible, sometimes they are invisible, but we know that something is wrong, that something is preventing or blocking our progress.

    For just a few minutes today, I want to address a particular man who overcame an obvious obstacle in his life.  The man names Zaccheus. 

Tax collectors are often feared by today’s masses, but for quite different reasons than centuries ago.

Today people fear the tax collector for the chance of being caught at cheating.  They fear being audited, fined, penalized or even jailed for cheating on taxes owed to the government.  Usually, this fear is not directed towards an individual or even the collective group of tax collectors, but the institutions that they represent.  The story is told of a local fitness center that 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, 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.”

The IRS, State Tax Board; The Assessors Office; County Tax; sales tax; general tax; inheritance tax; import and export tax; tobacco tax; liquor tax; property tax; license tax; water tax; taxes for living and taxes for dying.  Almost any and everything encountered today has a tax of some sort attached, and if challenged, they can often squeeze the last drop.

Centuries ago, however, when Dr. Luke wrote this account, it was quite a different story.  The Tax Collector was hated in a personal manner.

Tax gatherers, as some translations call them, are mentioned only in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), and as a group are not painted in a particularly flattering light.  Jesus on occasion used them as a counterpoint to His teaching on loving one’s enemies:  even someone as motivated by self-interest as a tax gatherer knows to love those who love him (Matt. 5:46).  The Pharisees likewise view tax gatherers with contempt, and seemed shocked at Jesus’ association with them. There was something so repugnant about them as a group that they were singled out from among the garden-variety sinner at least eight times in the gospels.  Who were these people and what was it about them that made them so contemptible?

Tax collectors referred to in the New Testament were “local Jews” employed “to do the actual collecting of the taxes or tolls for” tax farmers employed directly by the Roman government. 

The abundance of the tax collectors came at the expense of their fellow Israelites.  Yet in Palestine during the time of Jesus, it was for more than just financial concerns that Jews wanted to distance themselves from tax collectors.  In short, they lied and cheated their countrymen for their own gain; they regularly broke the Sabbath, and freely associated with Gentiles, and by association anyone who associated with them also had three strikes against them.

Such was the man in our text today.  Zaccheus was not only a tax collector, but a chief tax collector, a Publican.  His is one incident given by Dr. Luke about people who had obstacles to overcome.  In Luke chapter 18 there was the woman that went before the judge - she had three obstacles: she was a woman; she was a widow; and she was poor, nevertheless, she was demanding and persisted in spite of her obstacles to gain what she needed from the judge.

There was the blind beggar named Bartimaeus.  His obstacles were blindness, an opposing crowd, and a seemingly slow responding Jesus.  Now here, in our text today, we witness yet another man who had a major obstacle to overcome, a crowd.

  Through Zaccheus we will see the inner workings of a thief who wants to be caught, and how he gains his freedom by being seized. 

Most thieves thrive on crowds.  If they work for others, they hide their malevolent intentions behind the crowd.  If they work along, they strike better within crowds so as to divert attention from themselves.  But there are all kinds of crowds that would keep a thief captive:  crowded places; crowded minds; and crowded agendas to name a few.  But through Zaccheus we learn in order to free ourselves from self-thievery, one should have a desire to be free; engage a deployment of that desire; and be defenseless in the face of his Saviour.


    Zaccheus was a Chief tax collector.  In other words, he had men working for him, collecting taxes from the Israelites and bringing him the excess.  He was the supervisor.  He had become wealthy from this practice, thus the Jews despised him.

    The book of Luke tells us that the tax collectors and sinners often followed Jesus to listen to His teachings and witness His miracles.  A few times in the Gospels we are privy to Jesus’ interactions with the tax collectors, but only Luke gives us this account of Zaccheus.  Zaccheus, no doubt had heard a lot about Jesus.  He had heard of his willingness to interact with tax collectors, even to the point of being known as their friend.  He had, after all, chosen Matthew as one of His very own insiders.  This part of Jesus’ ministry would interest Zaccheus even more so than the miracles because Zaccheus, whose name means “righteous one”, was hungry for some interaction, he was thirsty for compassion; Zaccheus, whose name also means “pure” was eager for freedom and forgiveness; Zaccheus, who had not lived up to his name, had a desire.  His desire was to be caught, to be seized, and taken captive into freedom.

    Jesus was close to the end of His earthly ministry.  In fact, he was passing through Jericho, having left old Jericho, (that city that had been given into the hand of Joshua; that city that held a curse for whomever dared to rebuild it), that city was now in ruins, and Jesus was passing through the new Jericho, the Las Vegas of the day; New Jericho, the resort area of the century; New Jericho, the vacation capitol of the world that housed the publicans, the Mafia of that day.  Jesus was passing through on His way to Jerusalem, to die.  And Zaccheus heard that Jesus was coming his way.  Oh how he wanted to see him for himself.  Often, it is supposed that Zaccheus wanted to see Jesus out of mere curiosity.  But his interest in the Lord ran deeper. 

    As I said earlier, his name meant “pure or righteous one”, but he was called any number of names, except those.  He could have been known as the cheat, the sinner, the despised one, crooked, traitor and enemy to his own people.  His own people had ostracized him.  Except for the men that he supervised in over-taxing his people, and maybe his family, he was a lonely man.  But he had heard of Jesus and how he was friendly to the tax collectors, and he longed for this kindness, His affection and friendly and honest conversation.  He wanted to get to know this Jesus.  So he set out to see Him as He was passing through his town.

    Zaccheus quickly realized, however, that he had a problem or two, an obstacle to his seeing Jesus, and an obstacle blocking his desire to be free:  first there was a large crowd and second:  he was too short to see over the crowd. 

    Crowds can block your blessings; crowded places will keep you from seeing your blessings and keep your blessings from finding you.  Crowds.  Crowds of people can make you stagnate and stunt your growth; crowds can sweep you into mischief; crowds; crowds can disguise actions and make evil look good and good seem evil; crowds. 

    Crowded minds will keep you from seeing the good in others; crowded minds will rob you of your ability to think independently; crowded minds will keep you from focusing on right things and allow you to wander into dangerous mental territory – anybody know what I’m talking about? – crowded minds will make you think that artificial turf is real and better than your own grass; crowded minds will make you believe visions and envisions and mirages and day dreams; crowded minds will convince you that your own lie is true; crowded minds will convince you that you can slap your momma and get away with it(just as a side note young people, if your momma is black and has known struggle in her life, I wouldn’t recommend it), crowded minds will tell you that you really have it going on when you are really just going down; crowded minds will convince you that you can handle every situation that comes your way, on your own.  Crowded minds.

    Not only are crowded minds detrimental, but crowded agendas will rob you of being at the right place at the right time; crowded agendas will make you squeeze play your time and relationship with Jesus until you just squeeze Him on out of the picture.  Crowded agendas will deplete valuable time with your family, your loved-ones and even yourself.  Crowds will cause you to rob yourself.

    Well, Zaccheus was short, the Bible says, short in statue.  The Greek word used here for statue has a double meaning.  Zaccheus was short in height and short in age.  Actually, he was no worse off than any of us sitting here today for the Bible also says: “all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.”  None of us measures up!  But Zaccheus had a desire to free himself of his former way of life, so he deploys a plan to overcome his obstacle of shortness and the crowd.


    He had to first outrun the crowd.  He could not see over the crowd, for every time he tried to heist himself over them, or to join in with them, they pushed him back down.  It was unheard of for an Israelite man to run in public, but Zaccheus was willing to endure the shame in order to see Jesus.  And climbing up into a tree was no little feat for Zaccheus.

    It was probably his boyish ways that enticed him not only to run but to actually climb up into a Sycamore tree.  A Sycamore tree is not an easy tree to climb, I’ve discovered.  It has a slick bark and it is a long way to the first limb.  So Zaccheus had to be determined to overcome his obstacle.

  They never let him forget what they thought of him.  Sinner, cheat, thief, they called him.  Just like the world. They will hold their hatred in as long as you don’t attempt to do well.  As long as you stay short, low to the ground, lost, empty, void of truth and light, be non-participative in church, keep your God-given gifts to yourself and you might find some shade.  But when you try to look up, when you try to see Jesus, when you respond to the light, they will call you every name in the book.

But when Jesus looked up into the Sycamore tree and called Zaccheus, he called him by his name, He called him from his potential.  I know I’m right because I remember Jacob, the supplanter, the schemer, the trickster as he openly reveled himself to the Lord as he wrestled with Him, but the Lord changed his name to Israel, the Prince who prevailed with God; I remember the woman at the well, known to have had 5 husbands and a man she was living with, known probably as a loose woman and so maligned by the crowds that she only came to get much needed water in the heat of the day so as to avoid the crowds; but Jesus befriended her and promised her water that would never run dry.  There was Saul, the one who killed Christians and oversaw the stoning of Stephen; but when he met Jesus on the Damascus road, his name was changed to Paul and he wrote most of the New Testament.  And then there was the woman with the issue of blood, known to be unclean, a loser, one who had spent all she had on doctors and miracle workers, she was probably called smelly, dirty and many other names, but she dared to push her way through the crowds, even as they knocked her to the ground, she continued to push her way, determined to touch the hem of His garment, and Jesus called her daughter!

    When you really want to see Jesus, when you want to break free from the trials of life, the pressures of the crowds, the old names that you are known by, your idleness in Jesus, you have to run ahead of the crowd, get in the Word of God and get to know Him for yourself.  You have to go out on a limb sometimes and chance being different from the rest.  Oh, you may look foolish to the world, but Jesus is looking for you.  You may gain another name, but Jesus is looking for you.  You may become more of an outcast, but Jesus is looking for you.  You might not get promoted, but Jesus is looking for you.  You might not get picked to join in with the group after school, but Jesus is looking for you.

    Whatever is robbing you today, whatever is keeping you from Jesus, you can overcome if you just focus on Him.  But you have to come defenseless.


Zaccheus was hoping to see Jesus, but Jesus seeking Zaccheus.  Zaccheus got more than he bargained for.  Jesus invited Himself to stay with Zaccheus.  It was a Divine invitation for Jesus said “I must stay with you”.  Zaccheus received Jesus joyfully and after some time he repented of his past deeds. 

    Zaccheus was defenseless.  He did not try and explain away his deeds; he did not try and cover them up.  He did not try and justify them.  He just confessed and repented.


    None of us measures up this morning.  Someone here today is robbing self and God.  Oh, you may be His child, but what are you doing for His kingdom?  What have you turned your back on?  What have you allowed your crowded agendas to squeeze out?  Have you sacrificed your time with Jesus to spend more time with the crowds?  Jesus is still seeking today.  He is seeking you.  If you are saved, He is seeking you to complete the work that He assigned to you.  Are you living the life of a new person before your household and the crowd.  If I see you tomorrow, will you be acting the same as you do today? 

    If I interviewed your family, what would they say about you and Jesus?  What is there a lack of in the church that you could supply?  What area of ministry does your heart identify with, that you continue to ignore?

    If you are without Jesus today, if you have just heard a lot about Him like Zaccheus, but you have never really received Him as Lord and Savior, Jesus is seeking you today.  He is neither impressed nor repulsed by your past.  He does not care what you have been called in the past or what you are known for today.  Whatever you have been before, Jesus has a new name for you today.  If you have the desire, then the Holy Spirit is moving on your heart.  All you have to do is deploy a plan, simply receive Jesus joyfully into your heart and be defenseless in your response.  Confess your status as sinner and receive your freedom to live for Christ.

    I don’t know about you this morning, but I believe Zaccheus probably sang a new song in his heart after that day, and especially after Jesus bore a cross on His skinned back up Calvary’s hill, allowed men to nail His hands and feet to that cross and then endured being looked upon as cursed and hung on that cross and bore the sins of the world.  After he heard how he was buried on Friday and stayed in the grave all Friday, how He stayed in the grave all Saturday, but that He rose early on Sunday, before the dew could evaporate from the roses; early, before the sun could rise and the moon was dressing for its morning slumber, early, while the birds were chirping and the worms were seeking shelter, early on Sunday morning, He got up and came out of the grave; after he heard of His resurrection, whenever he went outside, whenever his past tried to recapture him and tie him up again, I believe he thought for a minute of his past life, his captivity in cheating, stealing and casting fear upon his fellow Israelites, then he thought of his time with Jesus, the new freedom he now experienced at being honest, unashamed to show his face, freedom to risk looking different as she ran down the streets and climbed trees, then he bellowed out:

What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought

Since Jesus came into my heart;

I have light in my soul for which long I have sought,

Since Jesus came into my heart,

I have ceased from my wand’ring and going astray, since Jesus came into my heart;

And my sins which were many are all washed away,

Since Jesus came into my heart.

Since Jesus came into my heart, since Jesus came into my heart,

Floods of joy o’er my soul like the sea billows roll,

Since Jesus came into my heart.




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