Many people know the story of Zacchaeus in the Bible. As children, many of us were taught a little song that is based on this Scripture. I bet some of you are singing it in your head as you read this! A Spirit-guided reading of this Scripture reveals much more than does the song; the truly wonderful message of God’s love and grace poured out on mankind, in the life of Jesus Christ. Such is the impetus for this story told to an un-expecting tourist in Jericho by an imaginary character from that infamous day when Jesus came to Jericho.
Divine Intrusion at Jericho!
David stumbled as he stepped down from the tourist bus. He was steadied by an old man who seemingly appeared out of nowhere. “Thanks for the helping hand, Mr.?” David remarked appreciatively. “My name? Sir, it’s not unimportant,” replied the old man. In fact, I am not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. But I was in Jericho to see Jesus enter our ancient city.”
David regained his footing and stepped back in disbelief. Oh! I see that I have shocked you…that usually happens to everyone I meet,” the old man remarked. “No, I’m not crazy and you’re not dreaming. No need for panic…I’m harmless.” He continued. I’m sure that you’ll probably never tell anyone of this encounter with me,” he chuckled. They wouldn’t believe you anyway. I see that you’re uneasy but I’d like to speak with you.”
David’s face was pale and he was unable to speak. He looked around to see if others were witnessing his encounter with the old man. “No worries, the others can’t see or hear me as you do,” the old man said. “But since they can see your face and reactions, perhaps we should step away from the crowd, so we can speak together in private. I’d like to tell you a story. Let’s walk slowly; I’m an old man, as you can see. There’s plenty time for telling this story. In my day, we took time to let stories linger in our thoughts, so we wouldn’t forget the meaning of the smallest word. You needn’t worry about the tour bus leaving without you.”
“Sir, may I ask your name?” the old man inquired. “David,” the nervous tourist replied. “David, may I call you David?” You must be greatly curious about me,” continued the old man. “Well, I’m a poor Jew, born in 3 or 4 B.C., I’m just not sure. I lived just 10 miles outside this city.” His white beard and age-worn face along with his long robe and sandals seemed to fit the tourist trade setting just away from the parked buses.
“Are you an actor? Have I stumbled upon a play of some sort,” David finally managed to say. “No play, I assure you that what I say is true,” was the certain reply. “Now Sir, try not to interrupt, and I’ll be on with my story.
David shifted about nervously. “Will I get stuck with this weird old man and miss the tour?” he wondered. “Let me continue,” the elder said. “I was a distant and somewhat curious follower of Jesus; just one of many faces among the crowds sitting on a hillsides.” He read the question that came on David’s face. “Yes, I knew Jesus, at first as “Teacher,” as did most people at the time. I was there for his miraculous feedings of thousands. I was always a little curious about his parables. Jesus had a way of drawing people to him, a commanding presence about him that I’ll never forget. The cautious but inquisitive look on David’s face brought further comment. “Did I become a member of “The Way?” I’ll tell you about that later.
“Now, I will address your avid interest in Jericho. You’ve come a long way to see the city. Well, the brochure you’re holding says that it’s the oldest city in the world. That’s true. It once was a prosperous commercial and agricultural region, heavily traveled by tradesmen and vendors in camel caravans from the nearby Jordan Valley and elsewhere. The old road entering the city was just a wide, dusty swath through our vineyards. Camel caravans and donkey carts had worn deep ruts in it, making walking a bit precarious. Closer to the square and shops were narrow, cobble stone streets. Still, keeping the dust down was a great problem. That old shop there, its roof patio is typical of the times. Families ate their meals and spent leisure time high up on roofs, away from the dust and dung of the crowded street. That raised a peculiar question in my mind on that day…but I’ll get to that later. So much has changed in my city; my culture and yours; yet nothing has changed in the hearts of so many men. I’m curious why that is, maybe you have the answer.” the old man said with a pause. David was struck by what he was hearing. He offered no reply.
“It seems to me that your generation should have all the answers for living. Your generations have had over two thousand years to read the Bible and learn about what happened in the time of Jesus here in Jericho. Nowadays, you carry around little devices loaded with of electronic books. There seems no end of ways for you to learn what’s important,” the old man said. “Being poor, I had little access to the ancient scrolls of my time. I learned to read and count by using the writings and numbers scratched into pieces of broken clay that were used by the traders and in the shops,” he added. He paused, as if to reflect on those moments spent pouring over the bits and pieces of clay, and how impatient the shopowners were to sell their wares and move him along.
“Oh well, I promised you a story, and there’s a mighty important one about the big tree that has caught your eye; you want to know about the little man named Zacchaeus.” He stated emphatically. “Oh Yes, I noticed you staring at that tree as the bus arrived. That’s why I approached you. Let’s walk to that bench under its shade and I’ll get started.”
David followed the old man, still looking about for a curious eye on them. There was none. “I’m sure that your tourist guide on the bus has told the story of Zacchaeus climbing a Sycamore-fig tree. It’s from the Bible. Luke 19:1-10, right? That’s what “put us on the map,” as you moderns like to say. I’m very amused by the vernacular of your day. I’ll fill in the blanks, so that you get the richest meaning of God’s message in those verses. Now, let me tell you about my Jewish friend Zacchaeus.”
“I guess if you knew Jesus you also new Zacchaeus,” David remarked with some sarcasm, having gained his nerve to challenge this old man’s story. “Yes, of course I knew Zacchaeus!” the old man replied in a raised voice, causing David pull back suddenly. He looked about for anyone who might be staring at him, apparently talking to himself. “I call Zacchaeus my friend now but in those early days, I usually kept my distance from him. He had no Jewish friends and wasn’t all that friendly to the locals and passers-by, except to the rich Gentile traders. He was also friends with the Romans. Let me tell you a little more about Zacchaeus. It’s important that you understand his background.”
Something stirred in David and he opted to listen to the old man for awhile. “Strange he thought, I feel that I must listen to him. Are others watching me?” he wondered.
“At the time of Christ, the Jewish nation was under taxation by the Roman Empire. The Jews hated paying tribute to Rome. Their hard-earned money funded the foreigners who had invaded their soil and oppressed them. These people openly worshiped their many gods displayed in surrounding public buildings and throughout Rome. The Roman Tax Collectors fell into 2 groups; The General Tax Collector group annually collected lawful taxes for property such as farms, land and houses, individuals and, income taxes. The second Tax Collector Group,were Jews; they had become willing contractors to the Roman authorities and were allowed to collect other forms of taxes as they saw fit. These Jews sat at tax booths stationed alongside roads, bridges and at entrances to the public buildings and the main parts of town. Many were crooked men, collected taxes from other Jews and the traveling vendors of other nations who entered or exited the city. They extracted fees for the most unreasonable things such as each person crossing a bridge (in both directions) and exiting that bridge, also to enter certain properties or areas of the city. Carts and their contents were taxed, as was the animal pulling the cart or every person riding in them.The larger the cart or the number of its wheels, the more it might be taxed. These tax collectors were allowed to keep part of the revenue for themselves. Most Jews considered the Jewish tax collectors to be robbers and thieves.”
David was now caught up in the old man’s story. He lost track of time as the story turned to the little man in the tree he had read of in the Bible.
“Well,” continued the old man, “Zacchaeus was a Jew and a chief tax collector who sat at a booth. He had sold himself out to the Romans and had become wealthy at the expense of his own people! That was his greedy game. He was considered to be a cheater,and sinner, although Scripture does not say that he cheated anyone,” the old man clarified. But Zacchaeus' life changed one day---forever! I’ll never forget the day that Jesus came to Jericho. To use your vernacular, Jesus is a game changer!
David’s mind turned to the central character of the story…Jesus. He felt a little embarrassed for having focused on the “little man in the tree”, and wanting to see the tree that was so marked for history, for the tourists; forgetting the true reason for both to have existed. “This old man has a way of putting things in focus,” he thought.
“By the way, as I tell you these things, I want you to consider something important about Scripture,” was the story teller’s instruction. “What I’m about to tell you is based entirely on God’s Word. It’s worth reminding you that every word of the Bible is alive, everlasting, truthful, meaningful and purposeful. In Isaiah 55:11, as elsewhere in Scripture, God declared the power and purpose of his faithful word for us. God's Word is precious to Him, as it possesses and executes all of His might and power as He wills it. God's Word is integral to His grace and His justice, His omnipresence and His holiness, His majesty and His glory. These are not quiescent attributes, but are active and dynamic, as is His Word. And, as God is, so is His Word. It is only when we firmly trust His word that we dig deeply for its fullest meaning in our lives. I see that you brought along your Bible, so go ahead and read Luke 19:1-10. I’ll take it from there.”
David obliged the old man, and turned to read slowly, the Scripture as cited. When he had finished, he rested the bible in his lap. The old man returned to his story.
“The name Zacchaeus means “righteous one or pure one.” Did you know that?" the story teller asked David. The tourist admitted that this meaning had escaped his reading. “I find it curious, that his name had such a sacred meaning, giving his chosen occupation,” the storyteller declared, “curious, I say!”
“But then, you see, Zacchaeus’ parents must have expected something great of him to give him that name,” the old man added. “Can you imagine what alienation and hatred they suffered as a result of their son’s association with the Roman authorities as a tax collector? Yes, he was an adult and responsible for his actions outside their home. Yet, his parents took the blunt of cruel jokes and ridicule from their neighbors. Some shops wouldn’t trade with them. Theirs was a hard life, despite monies Zacchaeus often gave them.
David found himself agreeing with the story teller. “Yes, I see their predicament,” he interjected. An old lady sitting nearby seemed not to have noticed David talking to himself.
“I’d say that Zacchaeus was well aware of the cost of his occupation to his parents and to himself,” the old man replied. “His lot was a mixed bag, as you folks might say.” “After all, he was rejected by family and friends and ultimately became one of the most despised people in the city. So, why do you suppose that he choose to be a tax collector? Was he ridiculed for his small size? Is that why he later opted to buy his acceptance among the rich? Did he choose friendship with the Romans who held less prejudice against him? Whatever the cause, I always assumed that his life was empty, despite his wealth. What does this say about love of money? Well, on with my story,” he added.
“Messianic fever ran high among the excited crowds who followed Jesus. They greeted him as he traveled to the holy city, attracted by his preaching and miracles; his very presence. His following was large and many thought the crowds to be rebels, opposed to the well established Jewish customs and strict laws. And there were the idly curious; doubters, scattered among the needy who anxiously hailed Jesus for miracles. Some wondered if Jesus was the Messiah, who had come to save them from their Roman oppressors. Others were spies sent out by the Temple officials who weren’t buying Jesus’ story. They were expecting a strong military or political leader to break them away from the oppressive hold of the Romans. Did you know that when Jesus entered Jericho, he was only one week away from his crucifixion?” he asked.
“I…I’m not sure,” David replied. Another fact that he had not considered in his reading in Luke.
The old man leaned close, as the story became intense in tone, his weathered face and eyes added to the drama of the moment. “That day was hot and dry. When I saw the rising dust cloud kicked up by the feet of the approaching throng of intruders to our city, I knew it had to be Jesus and his followers. Others; merchants, traders and buyers at the edge of town became curious, looking for a show. Some of them tagged along behind and ahead of Jesus. The crowd swelled as customers left the town shops run ahead to join Jesus as he trekked along the dusty road. The crowd came to this very square where we are seated. For reasons I still don’t understand, I ran first to tell Zacchaeus. That’s right; I told Zacchaeus that Jesus was coming… but I never expected his reaction!”
“Which one is this Jesus that I hear talk about?” Zacchaeus asked me excitedly, “I want to see him.” I had never seen my friend so excited, so worked up. He rose suddenly from his booth, spilling his tray of coins to the floor, and he ignored them….really!”
“There, standing at the front of the crowd,” I replied to my friend. “Zacchaeus quickly closed up his booth and ran into the crowd. He was not alone. The local vendors, in increasing numbers, had left their shops unattended to join the townspeople who jammed the street to gawk at the noisy visitors. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. Next thing I see is Zacchaeus perched high in this tree, his outer garment dirty and torn by the tree limbs. He was a funny sight! One of the merchants stared up at him, sneering and murmuring snide comments, while others strained their necks to see Jesus over the shoulders of taller people. My little friend did well to climb the tree so quickly. Never was there such commotion in all of Jericho!”
“People have asked me, “Why did Zacchaeus run to climb the tree?” “That’s a good question; one with many possible answers. Frankly, I wondered why he didn’t go up on a nearby shop roof for a good view. But then, he wasn’t welcome at those shops unless he was spending money. Storeowners usually overcharged him, just to get back at him for his own greed. Anyway, I can tell you that he should never have run in the street, because to do so he lifted his skirt to expose his legs. Wealthy, well-dressed men never lifted their skirt in public. Although, I did hear Jesus speak of such a happening, when he told the parable of the Prodigal Son. Do you know that story, David?” Without waiting for David’s reply, the old man continued his story.
“Jesus said that the boy’s father ran to meet his long lost son, so I imagine that he raised his skirt or he would have tripped in the field. If Jesus said it, then I suspect that he was making an important point about the mindset of the father. But certainly, most Jews of the city would never climb a tree in the presence of others. We are a prideful bunch!”
“So, what do you think motivated Zacchaeus to drop his pride and climb the tree to see Jesus? He asked David. The tourist began a reply but was interrupted by the story teller. “Was he merely securing the best viewing post ahead of someone else? There were Gentiles in the crowd and any one of them might have climbed that tree. Some books of your generation say that the Sycamore-fig tree of Judea was considered unclean because its fruits were used to feed the pigs. I won’t say one way or the other, but surely Zacchaeus would not have climbed that tree, if he hadn’t traded his pride and willingly suffered great embarrassment for the opportunity to see Jesus up close. Some people say he was merely curious. I prefer to think that he wasn’t going to let his wealth come between his soul and God. As a Jew, somewhere in the depths of his soul he knew his Maker, and the talk of Jesus, the Messiah that had reached his ears had fulfilled Jesus’ plan for the meeting at Jericho. The little rich man was tucked in a tree, his eyes glued on the Messiah trudging along in the dusty street. He didn’t know what to expect but his deliberate and risky action didn’t go unnoticed by Jesus. Imagine that! God calling for Zacchaeus perched in a tree; some say an unclean tree, to meet his Son. Surely the Holy Spirit was at work here.” The old man paused at length to let his words soak into David’s mind.
After a moment, David raised his head to look high into the sycamore tree. He could almost see Zacchaeus leaning down to see Jesus as the Messiah closed onto the scene. David was mesmerized by scene, as the storyteller continued, with his eyes set on distant hillsides.
“I think that Jesus anticipated finding the strange little man sitting up in a tree. He fully intended to intrude into Zacchaeus’ life of pride and greed. After all, as you see in the Bible, Jesus is the Good Shepherd searching for his wayward sheep. Just a short time before, Jesus had told that parable to the unbelieving Pharisees. You’ll find that in Luke 15:1-2, the storyteller added. “Yes, I was there among the crowd on the hillside to hear it told. Surely, Jesus, the Good Shepherd must have been anticipating who Zacchaeus, the lost sheep, would become, once he embraced his limitless love! Jesus divinely intruded into Zacchaeus’ life to show him unconditional acceptance; to show him how to live through him. You can read about that in 1John 4:9. The little man in the tree never expected what followed, when Jesus looked up and spoke to him.” He paused to let David lean closer to hear the unfolding story.
“Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” I remember the surprised look on Zacchaeus’ face when Jesus called him from that tree. Shock and inexpressible joy combined in his facial features, as he jumped down from the tree limb, scraping his knees on the ground. He rose awkwardly to his feet to stand before Jesus. “Look Lord,” I heard him say, as he disclaimed his sinful past and offered to make restitution for his cheating. Do you understand by his use of the title “Lord”, Zacchaeus had suddenly recognized Jesus as his Master?”
David paused to think. “Yes, I did see that in an earlier reading,” he commented. The old man didn’t respond to David but continued his story.
“The little man’s gratitude for God’s outpouring of saving grace revealed that Jesus had radically changed the life of the hated tax collector. I saw the effect of a newfound faith, expressed in unshamed joy, as my friend Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus to go to his home. Obviously, Jesus saw it too because something supreme happened at that moment.”
“What happened,” David asked loudly. The tourist was spellbound by the story unfolding to before him in Jericho. He noticed that the old woman seated nearby had heard his open question. “He’s probably on the phone with one of those hidden earpieces, she thought to herself. “ Why can’t people leave those things at home!” she grunted, as she turned away.
“I saw it! The storyteller exclaimed. “It happened right before me! Zacchaeus’ facial expression revealed that his hardened heart was instantly changed; its door had swung wide open and he was filled with God’s grace. The little man formerly controlled by greed was now mastered by inexpressible, heavenly love. His declaration of charity; his confession of past cheatings; his fervent offer of repentance were lost on the judgmental Jews that surrounded him at that tree. Zacchaeus had surrendered to his Lord, Christ Jesus!”
Tears formed in David’s eyes at the telling of this miracle. He could feel Jesus’ presence and love even then, as the old man unwound his story. Suddenly, it was some two thousand years ago and David was there; among the crowd at the square, alongside the Shepherd, Jesus. The reality of Scripture revealed in this vivid storytelling had changed the tourist to a witness. Now, David saw the divine intrusion at Jericho. The Good Shepherd and the lost then saved by grace stood talking by a sycamore tree.
David saw the curious among the crowd react. They were stunned by Jesus inviting himself to the home of a sinner of Zacchaeus. They muttered in self-righteous condemnation of Zacchaeus and ridiculed Jesus. David’s heart ached for Christ. “Can they not see His heart, and passionate love of all lost souls?” Had they not been fed in great numbers on the hillsides? Had not many of them walked miles with Jesus and heard him speak time and again. Had they not spoken of this Messiah at their own tables? Why do they deny him? Why do they treat him so badly? Why do some men hate him?” David softly cried his inquiry to the storyteller.
“I suppose that hardened hearts were incapable of seeing the very work of God before them,” the old man replied. “By the way, do you know that there is no other biblically recorded case where Jesus invited himself to a home? How about that! Now, let me tell you more.”
“Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’ confession was not to judge him nor offer approval of his works of charity. I could see that in his face, and he had no word of rebuke for Zacchaeus. I think that he already knew all about the little man in the tree. I was plain to me that Jesus was there to save his soul. Clearly, he needed nothing from Zacchaeus in order to grant him the gift of forgiveness and acceptance, where only despise and hate had existed. Jesus’ divine intrusion at Jericho had great purpose; to show incomprehensible love, forgiveness and mercy.” The storyteller again paused to let David absorb the fullness of the message.
The storyteller continued, his voice lowered and deepened. “What Jesus said next shocked the crowd. He declared that Zacchaeus, who had been lost, was a son of Abraham. I know now that it was because of his newfound seed of faith. Had you considered that?” he asked David.
“His newfound seed of faith,” David reflected on those profound words from the storyteller.
“The crowd really got stirred up by Jesus’ words,” the old man added. “Their self righteousness and spiritual blindness fueled their anger and envy. “Some at that scene would never believe that a tax collector and sinner could be saved. The blessedness of God’s grace escaped their thinking; was overlooked while anger rose in their hearts. Still others didn’t seem to fully recognize that they had just witnessed a miracle of salvation. They had missed the miracle occurring right before their eyes; the conversion of Zacchaeus was but one testament of Christ’s purpose for coming into the world. Over the following years, few of them ever admitted that the city’s most despised outcast was bound for heaven.”
"Jesus and Zacchaeus went about their way, heckled though they were as they tread through the dusty town to the taxpayer’s home.” I can tell you, Zacchaeus was a changed man from that day on. I’d say that some folks turned to Christ because of my friends’ witnessing Christ to them. We became good friends for many years."
"Well, that’s my story,” declared the old man, as he folded his wrinkled hands and looked into the tear stained eyes of the tourist.
David sat a few moments looking at the storyteller, incapable of uttering words. He had listened; he had for a moment, been there with Jesus at the tree; an un-expectant witness to what Scripture had revealed of a divine encounter at Jericho eons ago. He managed only a nod of appreciation to his storyteller.
“You asked me earlier if I had become a member of “The Way,” the old man said. Well yes, I did that very day. How could I not? I found myself fully and completely in love with Jesus Christ. I don’t think he saw me; at least he wasn’t looking my direction. But I felt drawn into his presence, into his love. I knew I needed forgiveness of my own sins. I wanted what Zacchaeus had just received. I knew with certainty that I could never live without Jesus anymore than could the new man who had climbed a tree to see Jesus. I quickly went to the home of my new friend Zacchaeus to surrender fully to my Lord.” Jesus saw me coming. He knew me when I entered the room.”
The old man turned to David to make his closing remarks. “So, let me ask you…what do you think would have happened if Zacchaeus had held to his pride and ignored the pre-destined call from Jesus? What if he had opted to stay at his tax booth and kept his false religion of money to himself?
David started to speak but the storyteller continued without waiting for an answer. “I can see by your face that you would never entertain that thought. Well, let me tell you. No one in Jericho would have known that Jesus could change the most despised man in the city to become his follower. I and others might have missed out on a miracle of salvation that day. You would have never read about the miracle of a lost soul converted in Jericho. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit did not let that happen. God had a plan; God owns grace and poured it out on us that day. This was the work of God in Jesus Christ! “Do you know the truth of receiving glory in Christ, my son?” he asked. His question choked David, so that he couldn’t speak.
“I see that your bus is loading, so you better get aboard. Let me leave you with this thought. Imagine what a follower of Christ might have said about Zacchaeus at this point: “Today, Zacchaeus has passed through the eye of a needle!” Oh yes, it was the most splendid day in Jericho!”
“Thank you for telling me the story,” the David said with some effort, his tears now uncontrollably in his eyes. He rose and turned to go to the tour bus. It wasn’t there. He quickly looked back to see that the old man wasn’t there either. All that was before him was the familiar surroundings of his home seen from his favorite chair; his Bible opened to Luke Chapter 19, rested in his lap.