Sinner Up a Tree

Tullian Tchividjian
Tullian Tchividjian

The interaction between Jesus and Zacchaeus is so well-known to Christian people that we’ve made up a silly song about it (“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…”). In this case, that song isn’t the only problem with the story being so familiar; another problem is that, because we know the particulars so well, we miss the profundity completely.The story of Zacchaeus and Jesus is a powerful portrait of both Jesus’ extension of undeserved grace and of a forgiven sinner’s expression of unrequired obedience.

It’s easy to forget that Zacchaeus would have been a double-outcast in his time: hated by the Jews for collecting taxes for the oppressive Roman Empire, and hated as a Jew by his Roman employers. It’s safe to say, in other words, that Zacchaeus was likely not suffering from an overabundance of friends. Who knows when the last time (before hosting the Savior of the World) Zacchaeus had entertained a guest in his home?

Everyone knows the story: Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (which means that even the other tax collectors didn’t like him – he was skimming extra money for himself off of their hard-won, pre-skimmed earnings), was a small man, and so had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he passed by on the road. Jesus, out of the large crowd that would have been following him, picked Zacchaeus out and said, “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Not, “If you shape up, I’d be willing to spend some time with you.” Not, “If you clean up your act, I’ll grace your home with my presence.” Jesus was compelled to be with Zacchaeus.

Jesus is compelled to be with sinners…it’s why he came. In Zacchaeus’ home, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

The crowd, of course, is very disappointed in Jesus. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,” they mutter. Reading this passage now, as “mature” Sunday-schooled Christians, we know that the crowd is in the wrong. “How could they misunderstand Jesus so completely?” we think. “How can they be so mean to Zacchaeus?” We forget how nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying it is for us when someone in our lives gets something they don’t deserve or avoids some penalty that they do deserve. “That’s not fair!” we cry. We are just like that crowd surrounding Zacchaeus, despite our protestations to the contrary.

Perhaps the most powerful thing in this passage, though, is Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus once the Savior is in his home. He says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” His obedience flows naturally from him the moment Jesus enters his life. Jesus never tells him what to do. Just as Jesus doesn’t require a changed heart or lifestyle to enter his home, he doesn’t then demand charity and reparations (“Now that you’re a Christian, Zacchaeus…”). The Gospel, God’s one-way love for sinners, creates what the Law, God’s holy standard, can only require. And it creates more!

Zacchaeus goes above and beyond the call of duty, promising to give a half of his possessions to the poor, and promising to repay anyone he had defrauded four times the amount owed. No doubt, Zacchaeus had been told many times what the law required, but hadn’t moved an inch to follow it. Faced with the power of God’s one-way, undeserved love for broken, sinful people, though? Zacchaeus pledges to do more, happily, than the law ever would have asked of him.

What we see here (and in our lives) is that love inspires what the Law demands—the Law prescribes good works, but only grace can produce them. Gratitude, generosity, honesty, compassion, acts of mercy and self-sacrifice (all rquirements of the law) spring unsummoned from a forgiven heart. By definition, good works can’t be forced or coerced: they’re instinctive, reflexive, spontaneous. What’s so obvious in this story is that works of love flow spontaneously from the one who hears and believes God’s final “I Love You”–a love that has no strings attached.

Jesus impacts Zacchaeus in two amazing ways: both examples of God’s amazing grace. First, Zacchaeus’ joyful charity is not the preface to God’s grace, it is its result. Jesus extends grace to a terrible sinner, before that sinner repents (it is grace, after all, that produces change—not the other way around). Second, that undeserved grace creates a new life of unrequired obedience, bringing forth more “good works” than any laying down of the law ever could.

This is how God works on us. He picks us, the least deserving, out of the crowd, insists upon being in a relationship with us, and creates in us a new heart, miraculously capable of pleasing Him. Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Originally published August 07, 2014.