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A Traitor Comes Home

Dear Vital Signs friends,                                                                                     April 2015

            “And He entered and was passing through Jericho.” (Luke 19:1) This is the short and unpretentious beginning to one of the most well-known narratives of the New Testament, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the short-statured taxman, Zaccheus. But though this is a familiar account, there’s still much to apply from its teaching and, quite possibly, a few new things to learn too. Let’s take a look.

            The “He” of Luke 19:1 is, of course, Jesus, the very same miracle worker Who healed the blind Bartimaeus as he sat beside the road before the entrance leading up to Jericho. Bartimaeus was a beggar whose blindness was well known to the citizens there.  That’s why verse 43 of chapter 18 explains that the people were amazed and glorified God when his sight was restored.  The faith of Bartimaeus is also part of this spectacular miracle: his persistence, his overcoming the prejudice of those trying to “shush” him up, his use of a Messianic title in addressing Jesus, his singleness of purpose, and his instant devotion to follow Jesus after his healing. 

            However, as difficult as it was for the blind Bartimaeus to find Jesus in the noisy crowd outside of the city, it would have been even more so for an exceptionally short man to find Jesus once He had, as verse 1 here tells us, entered inside the gates.  The text informs us that Zaccheus couldn’t even see Jesus through the packed throngs that accompanied Him. 

            But what of the phrase, passing through Jericho?  Jericho was one of the most important cities of Judea.  Close to the fords of the Jordon River on the richest plain of all Palestine, Jericho was a prosperous and lovely town.  Because of its balsam trade, its location on the main trade route, and its warm climate which made it a winter resort for aristocrats, Jericho was a key commercial city.  It was a town that respected, projected, and protected wealth.  Thus it was a perfect arena for Zaccheus who was, as we are told in verse 2, “a chief tax-gatherer and he was rich.”

            So Jesus came to Jericho but He wasn’t staying there.  He was just passing through.  But passing through to where?  To Jerusalem.  To the arrest and an unjust trial. To the blasphemous mocking and rejection.  To the awful spiritual torment of the crucifixion.  This is what Jesus would endure just a few days from now. And He knows it quite well.

            But despite the rejection and horrific suffering that awaits Him in Jerusalem, Jesus is not downcast or worried or preoccupied.  For today His Father’s agenda has Jesus in Jericho for a very important appointment.  Jesus walks through the crowded streets of the city but His eyes are not on the ground, they are looking up. They are, as verse 10 will emphasize, searching to save that which is lost; namely, Zaccheus, a corrupt taxman who needs redemption. 

            Zaccheus, of course, is searching too. But he is trying only to get a peek at this miracle worker, this teacher Who speaks with unworldly wisdom and authority.  And to do so, Zaccheus is willing to exert no small amount of effort and pride. After all, climbing a tree in one’s robe and sandals doesn’t make the most dignified picture. But he will pay the price just for a look at Jesus. Much more significant, however, is Jesus’ desire to see him!

             But let’s consider this tree-climbing fellow a bit before we go on.  The text tells us he is a chief tax-gatherer.  This means he’s not one of the crew, not one of the fellows who ring the doorbells, as it were, to confiscate a few shekels.   No, Zaccheus is a farmer-general in the vast tax collection system of Rome, a guy who is at the top of a genuine pyramid scheme, an official who takes a cut of the profits at every level. The line in verse 2 (“and he was rich”) thus stands as an almost comic understatement. 

            Remember too that these taxes all went to Rome, the pagan empire who ruled Palestine with an iron hand.  It was an unjust, corrupt, and very oppressive tax system which pressed the Israelites into poverty and shame.  Yet most all of the people employed in this vicious system were Jews.  They were puppets of the Roman government whose very job was an offense to loyal Jews.  But the tax-gatherers were hated all the more because they went beyond the Roman greed.  They were independent contractors who bought a license to tax the people and then charged as much as they possibly could.  They were more than traitors, they were also crooks. 

            Given these facts, have you ever wondered why such a rascal (and yes, the text will soon make it clear that Zaccheus was unquestionably a thief) would want to see Jesus? Why such interest in the Teacher Whose life and teaching were so remarkably honest and compassionate?  Was Zaccheus merely curious?  Did he figure there might be some financial or social angle he could exploit?  Or was there perhaps a genuine awakening of conscience, a dawn of spiritual understanding that his soul was in great danger? 

            I believe the subsequent action makes it clear that Zaccheus was indeed aware of his wretched spiritual condition and was, therefore, ripe for his own miracle.  He needed a healing of soul even more that Bartimaeus had needed a healing of blindness.  The proof is in his response to the call of Jesus. Verse 8 will show us Zaccheus’ faith response is swift, sure, and dramatically thorough.  But does the text give us a clue of Zaccheus’ inner turmoil before that?   I think so.  Note that verse 2 introduces “a man called by the name Zaccheus.”  Now that phrase usually doesn’t mean more than what it plainly indicates yet, in this case, I think it hints that Zaccheus wasn’t the man’s true name. 

            Here’s why I think this. The indications of both history and this particular text suggest Zaccheus is a chief tax gatherer who is a backsliding, renegade Jew. He is a conniving bureaucrat who has ingratiated himself with the Roman tyrants in order to better pick the pockets of his fellow Jewish citizens. But Zaccheus isn’t a Jewish name.  It’s Greek.  And it means something quite ironic for a thief. “Zaccheus” is from the Greek word for “justice.”  The choice of this particular alias, being such a stark contradiction of the man’s true character, is a rather brazen cover, a mask intended to make him look better to his peers…and maybe even to the man in his mirror.  But it seems that the charade as well as the chicanery of his career is wearing thin.  And I believe Zaccheus’ desperation to see Jesus, a passion strong enough that he is willing to be a comic spectacle to his enemies, suggests a man under serious conviction. Zaccheus is a wealthy man, but his money and status are no longer enough. He needs spiritual help.

            But what a turn the story takes in verse 5.  Zaccheus has found a perch from which to see the Lord but, as I said earlier, the most important thing is that Jesus sees him. He has come to “seek and save that which was lost” and today, as Jesus is passing through Jericho, the target of His search is a pitiful crook who calls himself “The Just.”

            What a shock it must have been for Zaccheus to hear the Lord speak that name from underneath his sycamore tree.  And though Jesus uses the alias in that public setting, we will see in a few moments that the conversation they have in private is a starkly confrontational one.  Jesus isn’t fooled by a nom de plume.  He sees directly into the taxman’s soul.  And though Zaccheus was understandably surprised when he heard the Teacher call out that name, he received Jesus’ announcement with joyful readiness. You’re coming to my house? You want to see me?  Terrific! Zaccheus hustled out of the tree with all the speed he could muster.  No questions. No excuses.  No postponement. His opportunity for redemption was right now.  For remember, Jesus wasn’t staying here in Jericho; He was only passing through. 

            The hypocrites grumbled, of course, when they saw this event transpiring.  How dare Jesus go into the home of a treasonous Jew? Good grief, there were probably Gentiles among the partygoers too…maybe even some Romans!  The Pharisees used this as a slander against Jesus, but there was nothing at all immoral about His action.  He may have been breaking some of their hyper-legalistic, self-righteous, and man-made religious codes, but He wasn’t breaking any of God’s laws.  Quite the contrary. Jesus was confronting sinners with the holiness of the royal law, showing them their need of a Savior, and convincing them He was the Messiah for Whom Israel had so long yearned.  

            That’s what the party at Zaccheus’ house was all about. It wasn’t revelry.  It wasn’t undisciplined indulgence in food and drink.  It wasn’t a respite from righteous standards.  It was merely a dinner in which Jesus shared the purposes of His mission with an audience that was desperately needing (and willing) to hear it.

            In verse 8 we read that Zaccheus stands (that’s the probable meaning of the Greek word as it is used here) to make the traditional after-dinner remarks.  But his speech reveals with incredible force how seriously he has taken the rebuke and invitation that Jesus must have explained during their dinner conversation.  In response, Zaccheus does three stunning things.  1) He gives half of all his riches to the poor.  Consider that for a bit. Half of all he has! 2) Zaccheus then admits his criminal guilt in defrauding people of their money.  That is what the word “if” means in this verse.  The syntax is 1st class conditional, meaning “if and it is true. ” He doesn’t bother with excuses, justifications, or plea bargains. He comes completely clean about his crimes right there in public. And finally 3) Out of the half of his wealth he now has, he is going to pay restitution. In fact, Zaccheus announces that he will pay back four times the amount he stole. That’s quite a bit more than the Mosaic law required.

            What an amazing, immediate, and thorough conversion!  But of course, keep in mind that Jesus hadn’t told Zaccheus that his salvation depended upon how much he did or how much he gave away.  No, we cannot earn or buy our salvation. It is given away by Jesus to all who believe in Him as the Savior, the spotless Lamb of God Whose substitutionary death takes away the sin of the world. Zaccheus received this gift and, in so doing, was made a new man, a new man whose faith responded with deeds appropriate to righteousness. 

            We’re almost (but not quite) done with this passage yet.  I won’t, for instance, repeat points I’ve made previously about verse 10, but please pay attention to one more wonderful detail of this narrative mentioned in verse 9.  It’s the phrase that Jesus uses to describe Zaccheus’ conversion.  He could have said that Zaccheus had been “born again” or that he had been “saved” or that his “sins had been forgiven.”  All of these would have been accurate.  But Jesus uses a term that emphasizes the homecoming angle of his salvation.  For Zaccheus, this renegade Jew who had sinned so grievously against himself, his family, and his religious heritage…this traitor against his own people who had been a toady for the brutal overlords of Rome…this criminal who had enriched himself at the expense of other Jews…This same Zaccheus had now repented and put his faith in Jesus for salvation and wholeness.  Therefore, Jesus uses a term of particular irony. “He too is a son of Abraham.”  How bold and striking a statement.  And what a compelling example of Jesus’ tenderness and grace. For remember, outside Zaccheus’ house are the legalistic, unbelieving scribes and Pharisees who pride themselves in being the sons of Abraham. But the Lord Jesus says no. The true sons are those who recognize and worship the One of Whom Abraham and Moses and the prophets foretold, even the Son of Man Who was among them right now. 

            This is the end of Zaccheus’ story in the Bible but it certainly wasn’t the end of his story then.  What a hard life he would probably have led afterward.  For remember, he was a hated enemy of the people who had now given away the wealth, prestige, and Roman connections that had once protected him from the people’s scorn. But whatever difficulties Zaccheus would face, it was worth it many times over. For Zaccheus (or whatever his real name might be) now walked in newness of life.  And even in the toughest of times, he could look forward to his sharing Christ’s forever triumph. 

            But I’m sure there were times when Zaccheus looked back too…to a Jericho afternoon when the hand of His Savior rested on his shoulder and he heard Him say to everyone in attendance, “Today, salvation has come to this house because he too is a son of Abraham.”

       Until next month,