One day on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus met a sorry little man in a tree (Luke 19).
Ironically given a name that meant “clean” or “innocent”, Zacchaeus was anything but. First century tax collectors, by nature of their profession, were notoriously corrupt, making their living by extorting money from their own countrymen to fill Rome’s coffers — the enemy in the eyes of the people. Their only profit came from inflating each tax bill, under Rome’s authority, and pocketing the difference. Zacchaeus and his kind were therefore utterly despised, considered the worst kind of traitors. The label “tax collector” being synonymous with “sinner”, they were outcasts from the faith community and were abandoned to their own greed.
Zacchaeus, however, was at least curious about the celebrated rabbi everyone was talking about, and when he learned that Jesus was passing through his town, Zack wanted just a peek, nothing more. Being short in stature (if it helps, picture Danny DeVito in a toga), he had climbed a convenient tree to see over the crowd when Jesus shocked him (and everybody else) by looking up, greeting Zacchaeus by name, and inviting himself to (gasp!) the tax collector’s home for dinner. This surprising cultural gesture of acceptance, of friendship — offered to a shameless sinner! — scandalized the crowd. No condition that Zacchaeus first reform himself. No call to renounce his greed up front. No rebuke for his years of callous disregard for justice. Just an extension of grace by the one most qualified to give it. And by the end of the ensuing meal, Zacchaeus the Taker had become, unambiguously, Zacchaeus the Giver, with an awakened heart for the poor and a conscience eager to make his wrongs right. The motivation for this heart change was not so that he would be accepted by God, but because through Jesus he already was.
That’s how God’s amazing grace works. The Christian gospel is not “shape up and live right in order to gain God’s approval.” Rather, it is the recognition that through Christ we have already been accepted that motivates a transformed life.
This was adapted from a sermon by the same title preached on September 22, and was published in the "Salt & Light" column of the October 1 Intertown Record.