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Luke 19:1-10 -- Seek and Save the Lost

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Introduction In 1994 a famous serial killer was baptized in a metal whirlpool in prison in Wisconsin by a small town pastor named Roy Ratcliff. Ratcliff’s congregants recoiled at the idea that their pastor baptized a convicted serial killer. Some congregants would say to Ratcliff that if heaven welcomes serial killers, they want no part in it. Ratcliff’s congregants express something that perhaps even we struggle with sometimes. In our fallen world, some people have committed crimes so great, it’s difficult to imagine that God could forgive them. It can be difficult to accept that grotesque and wicked crimes could be paid for by Christ on the cross (e.g., murderers, rapists, serial killers). Yet Pastor Ratcliff says this, “Can an evil person turn to God? I have to believe that. What part of the blood of Christ can’t save him but can save you?”
The question that Ratcliff raises is an important one. Is anyone beyond the reach of the grace of God? Are there groups of people or types of people beyond the reach of the cross? This is the issue in view in Jericho in in the story of Zacchaeus. The story of Zacchaeus is about a social outcast and public enemy’s encounter with Jesus.
The main point of the story of Zacchaeus is that Jesus is here to seek and save even the most unlikely individuals. The arm of God is not too short to save. The blood of Jesus is greater than any sin. The power of Christ transforms every deranged and demented sinner. The reach of the hand of God is limitless.
So my aim this morning is for us to see the heart of Jesus Christ for lost, outcast, and unlikely, and that we would possess Jesus’ heart for the lost, outcast, and unlikely in our families, neighbors, workplaces, and schools. And this so that we could become the means—under God’s sovereign hand—to bring others to embrace the joy, forgiveness, and new life that is found only at the cross.
So our plan this morning is to walk through the story of Zacchaeus in the first half, and then to apply what we see in the second half. And the story of Zacchaeus can be seen in a progression of three scenes:
· The encounter between Jesus & Zacchaeus (verses 1–6)
· The evaluation of Jesus by the crowds (verse 7)
· An explanation of what has taken place (verses 8–10)
SCENE 1: The Encounter Between Jesus & Zacchaeus (vv. 1–6)
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.
Jesus is seeking to pass through Jericho when Zacchaeus hears about Jesus and seeks to see him. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus is not just any man, but he is a chief tax collector and is very wealthy. So Zacchaeus wasn’t just a low-level tax collector, but he’s the administrator for the area of Jericho, which commentators say is a well-known toll place in Palestine for goods that travel between Judea and Perea. He organized the collection of taxes and took his cut from the labor of those who worked for him.
We can’t understand the story of Zacchaeus if we don’t understand how the Jewish people viewed him. One commentator writes, “Classed with murderers and robbers, tax collectors were hated in the Jewish world, as are informants in totalitarian societies today.”[1] So it would be an understatement to say that Zacchaeus was a social outcast. He was hated, because he could unilaterally demand any amount of money he wanted, and he was feared because he had the Roman government at his disposal. Zacchaeus is like the payday loan shark, or the mafia or local gang that comes by to collect payment for protection.
So though Zacchaeus is a man who looks down on others, he is literally a short man who can’t see over others. We’re told he’s small in stature, which is a really nice way to say that he’s really short. So he runs on ahead and climbs a tree in order to see Jesus. Children climb trees, and adult men rarely climb trees, so there’s a level of determination to get to Jesus.
Luke tells us that as Jesus reaches Zacchaeus in the tree, he see him, calls him by name—we’re not told how Jesus knows him—and then proceeds to do something very unconventional. Namely, Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ home. This self-invitation, just like in our culture today, isn’t polite or the norm. It verges on rude. And yet, for Jesus, there was an urgency (“come down immediately”). Zacchaeus responds by hurrying down and receiving Jesus joyfully.
SCENE 2: The Evaluation of Jesus by the Crowds (v. 7)
And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
Next we’re told in verse 7 that the whole crowd (“they all”) grumbles when they see that Jesus is going to be the guest at the home of a sinner. He’s going to socialize with someone who was hated by the community. This is open disdain: “Why doesn’t Jesus know better; does he know what Zacchaeus has done?”
Zacchaeus is condemned as a sinner and Jesus is criticized for being a guest in his home. The scorn of the crowd of people has shifted from the tax collector to Jesus himself for socializing with sinners.
This same crowd just earlier rebuked the blind man for crying out to Jesus. In , the blind man asks who’s coming, and they tell him Jesus. He proceeds to yell at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (). The crowd responds by rebuking him and “telling him to be silent” (). That is a very polite Bible way of saying they told him to shut up. That’s what we have here, but instead of open rebuke, it’s private grumbling and disdain and disbelief at what Jesus is doing. Which leads us to our third part.
SCENE 3: The Explanation of What Happened (vv. 8–10)
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus stands among the crowd and before Jesus and declares that he intends to make restitution for anyone he has defrauded and give away half of his goods to the poor. Zacchaeus hadn’t been doing any of this, but because of this encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus is a changed man. With legal restitution, the Old Testament Law required only the original amount plus one fifth (120%) for defrauding. says, “he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt.” (See also .)
But Zacchaeus takes it to the next level and declares that he’ll restore whatever has been defrauded fourfold (400%). This restitution is what would have been required by OT Law for more serious crimes like stealing or killing an ox or sheep. says, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.” (See also .)
Zacchaeus’ pronouncement is to indicate the transformation that has taken place in him through his encounter with Jesus. This would be crystal clear to readers of Luke because there has been an ongoing progression that has been building.
In , Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, to be his disciple, goes to a feast with a large group of tax collectors, and is criticized by the Pharisees (). At that feast Jesus made the point: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” ().
In opens with these verses, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’ (). How does Jesus respond? He tells the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin. The point in both is that there will be joy and rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. Jesus cares about the lost. He cares about the outcast. He cares about the prodigal.
Our passage in is the third occurrence in Luke’s Gospel that illustrates Jesus’ love for sinners and his desire to reach the lost.
This account of Zacchaeus is also starkly contrasted with the rich young ruler in . In that account, Jesus calls that man to sell all his possessions, to follow him, and to store up treasure in heaven. But that man could not. He left saddened because he was very wealthy. That account ends with how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. And now in our passage we see that God does exactly the impossible. Zacchaeus, a rich, powerful man willingly and unprompted, seeks to make restitution for any he has defrauded and seeks to be generous with his wealth.
Jesus declares unequivocally that “today salvation has come to this house.” It’s a stunning statement. Zacchaeus displays the fruit of repentance. What Zacchaeus declared didn’t save him, but it was evidence of the deep and profound heart-transplant that had just happened before the crowds. Zacchaeus’ actions imply that he has come to faith, and Jesus makes it explicit in his statement before all.
Jesus declares that salvation has come “since he also is a son of Abraham.” What Jesus indicates is that Zacchaeus, though he had ethnic heritage as a Jew, has become a true son of Abraham by faith in Jesus. This was John the Baptist’s message to the crowds in , “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Don’t presume upon your ethnic heritage as a Jew to merit acceptance before God, because God doesn’t need ethnic Jews. So here we see Zacchaeus becoming a true son of Abraham through faith in Christ. Being a tax collector didn’t remove Zacchaeus from the reach of God’s grace.
Jesus concludes with this lesson for those bystanders that misread what had transpired. Jesus has come to seek and save the lost. This story is doubly scandalous. Not only does Jesus save a rich man, but this is someone who is an oppressor. So in this gospel Jesus doesn’t just save the poor and condemn the rich, nor does he show special favor to the rich and cast away the poor. Grace is undeserved in both cases—rich or poor. Tax collector, blind beggar, and rich young ruler all need to come to Jesus and believe. This story illustrates the stunning nature of grace. Zacchaeus doesn’t seek out Jesus, but Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus. Jesus doesn’t condemn a man that society had condemned because of his oppression, but rather he seeks him out to display the radical nature of his grace.
So we have an encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, the evaluation of Jesus by the crowds, and then the explanation. What do we make of this story and how to do we apply it to us? We have so many amazing lessons in this account. I want to draw out three types of application:
· What we learn from Zacchaeus
· What we learn from the crowds
· What we learn from Jesus
What do we learn from Zacchaeus?
Perhaps you are Zacchaeus here this morning. You’ve heard about Jesus. You’ve listened to the stories about Jesus, and you’re wondering if they are true. You’re wondering if Jesus can save someone like you. Perhaps you’re rich and wealthy like Zacchaeus, and powerful and feared. Perhaps you’re like Zacchaeus in all his other traits: You’re small of stature, outcast among society, looked down upon, scorned, and hated. The takeaway of this story is that Jesus is here to save the lost. Outcast, wealthy or both, it doesn’t matter. Jesus can save. Come to Jesus like Zacchaeus and let him do the heart-transplant surgery that is needed.
For some here today, you need to come down from the tree and receive Christ. For some here this morning, it may mean finally getting baptized as an adult, something you’ve felt shame about. Or it may mean becoming a member and submitting yourself to the care of others. For some, it’s finally recognizing that the moral life you’ve sought to live is insufficient, and you need to wholly surrender to Jesus. For still others, it means you have to stop playing church and pretending to have it all together, and come to Jesus as one who is in desperate need of his forgiveness and grace.
For some of us, it means relinquishing all other treasures—money, power, self-sufficiency, control, comfort, and acceptance of others—to take ahold of the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. Zacchaeus is an illustration of how our hearts that once gripped material wealth with a tight fist now release it with joy and generosity because Jesus is more precious. For some, we need to recover the joy of giving that overflows from a heart that treasures Jesus. For others, do you exhibit the same type of heart that Zacchaeus does—eager to bring restitution to those you have wronged or cheated?
What do we learn from the crowds?
From the crowds we have to ask whether we believe in the stunning and scandalous nature of grace. Do we not only believe in theory that God can save anyone, but believe it functionally so that we pray even for those who seem far from God and are unlikely converts? Or are we like the crowds that grumble about certain types of people in our community, neighborhoods, and workplaces? Do we pray for them?
Do we look down upon certain groups of people rather than to seek to extend the love and compassion of Jesus? Do we have compassion on the outcasts of society?
· Do we have compassion for those suffering from mental health disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, bipolar, etc.)?
· Do we have compassion for those who have been incarcerated or who have family members in prison? Or do we mainly want to talk about personal responsibility and reaping what you sow?
· Do we have compassion for those who battle substance abuse and addictions, like opiates or heroin?
· Do we have compassion for those who wrestle with same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria, and sexual confusion?
· Do we have compassion for convicted sex offenders? Would we welcome them to our church if they’ve come to faith?
· Do we have compassion for the homeless, or those living paycheck to paycheck, without shaming them for being poor?
· Do we have compassion for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers?
For the children here, this is what I want you to remember: Jesus can save anyone. And because Jesus can save anyone, we should pray for everyone who doesn’t know Jesus. Perhaps God has put a certain boy or girl on your heart? Perhaps everyone makes fun of such children you have in mind because they’re different. Perhaps no one likes to play with them because their clothes are dirty and they smell, or they act weird. No one likes them, and they’re always getting in trouble. Jesus loves even those kids. And he’d want us to befriend those kids and show them that Jesus loves them.
The crowd grumbled at Jesus because they didn’t functionally believe the stunning and scandalous nature of grace. They only wanted grace that forgives them, but not those people. North Campus, let’s not be like that. Let’s be those who believe—down to the core—the stunning, glorious, power of redeeming grace that flows from the cross of Christ.
What do we learn from Jesus?
Do we believe that God still seeks and saves the lost? Do we believe that we are the means by which Jesus seeks and saves the lost today? If so, are we willing to befriend social outcasts and those unlike us for the sake of Christ? Do we believe God can save?
If we believe these things, let’s begin or continue to cultivate the relationships with those who don’t know Jesus, and pray the prayers for the lost to be saved. It’s so easy to be petty. For National Night Out—or in Coon Rapids they call it Night to Unite—we invited all our neighbors to join us in the cul-de-sac for brats and hotdogs. We set up outside—grill, table, chairs—and do you know how many came? One person. Most of the neighbors were home and just watched from inside their homes. I wanted to be like the disciples who came to Jesus, after the Samaritans didn’t receive them, and asked if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy them. Ridiculous I know. But then upon further reflection, God doesn’t make mistakes with addresses or zip codes. I’m there for a reason. I don’t know for what yet, but God calls me and us to keep praying and keep pressing on in seeking to love our neighbors.
Jesus saves the rich; he saves the outcast; he saves the hated and despised; he saves the poor, weak, and needy; he saves the disfigured and disabled. Jesus saves! The grace of God is scandalous and indiscriminate. God saves those mired in sexual sin, and God saves the judgmental, bitter, and angry. God saves both Democrats and Republicans, and even Libertarians. God saves the drunkard and the teetotaler. God’s scandalous grace saves!
God is on a mission to gather people to be recipients of his scandalous and glorious grace. God is interested in saving some from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation for his global glory. We have the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us—the very power of God that raised Jesus from the dead—so that we might be bold and winsome in our words and deeds to testify to the love of Jesus Christ. O Bethlehem, let’s not be those who shrink back from God’s call upon our lives to magnify him in all of life and in every sphere for his glory. Let us shine our lights and let the whole world see that we are those who labor with Christ to seek and save the lost.
[1] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (ed. D.A. Carson; The Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.; Nottingham, England: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2015), p. 529.
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