The story of Zacchaeus is one of the first Bible stories I remember from my childhood. What we knew as children came from our Bible teachers singing with us a song called, “Zacchaeus was a Wee Little Man.” We knew four things from singing the song.
Zacchaeus was short.
So he climbed a tree one day to see Jesus.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the tree and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus was happy.
Why was Zacchaeus happy? The whole town would have hated Zacchaeus. Why? He was a tax collector. And the “chief” tax collector at that. He collected taxes for the Romans and was rich. He was probably rich because tax collectors extorted money from people above the actual tax and kept it for themselves.
Since he was rich and many people feared the tax man, he was likely intrigued by the coming of a man who attracted a crowd himself, Jesus. Since he was short he climbed a sycamore tree to see over the crowds. He and the townspeople would have been surprised that Jesus stopped and called out to Zacchaeus saying, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” He shimmied down and was happy to welcome Jesus.
People grumbled about Jesus being a guest of such a hated sinner like Zacchaeus.
We don’t really know if what Zacchaeus said next took place at his house or before, exactly what sparked Zacchaeus to have a change of heart, but he stood there and said, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Did you know that Luke is the only gospel writer to tell the story of Zacchaeus? Yep. So, what is it about this story that Luke wants to tell? That’s one of the questions we need to learn to ask when we’re reading.
When people heard Zacchaeus say he’d pay back four times anyone who he’d defrauded, some Jews may have remembered that King David said this after Nathan told his story that was meant to convict King David, when he’d committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband and David’s general Uriah.
5David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
The Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 2 Sa 12:5–6.
As N.T. Wright points out, the story of Zacchaeus fits perfectly three of Luke’s themes: the problem of wealth and what to do about it, Jesus hanging out with sinners, people putting their faith in Jesus and life change that results.
What are you going to do about your wealth?
Are you currently grumbling about other sinners?
What is a surprising way you are feeling called to put your faith in Jesus, climb a tree, or prepare your house for Jesus to come over?
Does salvation come to Zacchaeus’s house because Jesus arrived or because of what Zacchaeus did, or both?
How do these themes impact your life today? The story of reversal is not just for hated tax collectors and murderous, adulterous kings. What does it mean when Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to Zacchaeus, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
For those who want to teach their children this song, here is a short video with the words.
Greg Taylor, M.Div.
Greg Taylor is the preacher for The Journey. He holds degrees in Print Journalism from Harding University and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology. Greg is working on his Doctor of Ministry at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where The Journey is located. Greg is married to Jill, who is a math teacher at Broken Arrow High School. They have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob, and of course they are very proud of each of what God has done in each one of their lives. Greg is author of several books you can order from your favorite bookseller.