When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” [Luke 19:8 (NLT)]
The little ones at Sunday school love singing the song about the “wee little man” who “climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” While “wee little man” makes Zacchaeus sound somewhat endearing, if we were casting him in a movie, we’d hire the short man audiences love to hate: 4’10” Danny DeVito who, with his deep raspy voice, has specialized in playing mean-spirited ruthless people. Zacchaeus was a tax collector (publican) and could have been the poster boy for corruption in Judea. Under Roman rule, people bid on the right to collect taxes. While publicans had to pay a fixed amount to Rome, in lieu of salary, they could charge far more than required and keep the difference for themselves. As the chief tax collector in Jericho, Zacchaeus got a share of everybody’s taxes and had become a rich man.
Although Jewish, a publican was excluded from Jewish social life. Considered unclean, he was made to stand with the Gentiles at the Temple. Despised by both the Romans and his fellow countrymen as a corrupt collaborator, Zacchaeus may have been rich but it’s hard to think he was very happy.
By this time in Jesus’s ministry, our Lord had attracted quite a following and a crowd of people surrounded Him as He entered Jericho. Whether it was a guilty conscience, discontent, or simply curiosity, Zacchaeus wanted to see this unusual rabbi. Perhaps the miserable man had heard that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and other sinners. Unable to see over the heads of those in front of him, the little man unsuccessfully tried to make his way through the crush of people. As disliked as he was, there may have been a few extra shoves and elbow jabs as he was jostled by the crowd. Determined to see Jesus, Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed up into a tree to get a better look when He went by.
The children’s favorite part of the Zacchaeus song comes when they point their fingers, and call (as did Jesus), “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today!” I don’t think the children wonder why Jesus chose this man but I’m sure the people of Jericho did! Picture a crowd following someone like the Pope. Imagine their shock if he stopped his motorcade and called into the crowd, “Bernie Madoff, come over here. I must come to your house today!” Why would someone as holy as the Pope want to spend time with the notorious Ponzi schemer who bilked thousands out of billions? Stunned, the crowd around Jesus was asking a similar question, “Why would the good rabbi pick out Zacchaeus, a notorious sinner, and want to spend time with him?”
Perhaps, out of all of those people looking for a Messiah to save them from Roman rule, Zacchaeus was the only one who saw the need for someone to save him from sin! Jesus hadn’t come for the self-righteous; He came for the ones who knew they were unrighteous. Rather than the self-satisfied, Jesus came for the lost. Like the publican in Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and tax collector (found in Luke 18), Zacchaeus knew who and what he was: a sinner in need of redemption.