There’s a story about an old fisherman. Regularly he went out on the lake in his small boat and when he returned a couple of hours later, his boat was full of fish. He never failed. People wondered how he did it. He would come back with lots of fish even when others were not catching anything at all. One morning a stranger showed up with his fishing tackle and said, “Mind if I go fishing with you this morning?” “No,” said the fisherman. “Just hop in and we’ll go over to a little cove where I always have good luck.”
They climbed into his boat and off they headed across the lake until they came to a small cove. The old fisherman stopped the boat and cut off the motor. He reached over in his tackle box and took out a red stick of dynamite. He lit the fuse and held it for a moment as the fuse burned down. Then at the last moment he tossed it in the water and there was a tremendous explosion. Fish were everywhere on the water. He picked up his net and began scooping up the fish.
After watching this for a moment the stranger reached in his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Opening it up, he showed a badge and said, “I’m a game warden and you are under arrest.” The old fisherman didn’t say anything. He simply reached over into his box and pulled out another stick of dynamite. He lit it and held it as the fuse burned down. Then, he tossed it to the game warden and said, “Now, are you going to just sit there or are you going to fish?” There comes a time when we all have to make a decision – what are we going to do? That was true for the game warden and that was true for Zacchaeus in our text for today.
Last week we looked at Jesus’ parable that looked at the two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector who went into the temple. I explained the difference between the two men. The Pharisee was outwardly very good but he was very arrogant about his goodness. Jesus pointed out that God hates that self-sufficient pride. On the other hand there was the tax collector. As I mentioned tax collectors were pretty bad people. Like the Quislings during WW2 they were the traitors to their country, they through the Roman soldiers profited enormously from exploiting their fellow Jews. They could be compared to the human traffickers, the sex dealers, and drug dealers of our time. They were the scum of society making fortunes by exploiting others and even their fellow country-men. They were called sinners because they were ritually unclean by their constant association with the Romans and other non-Jews. Because of their callous cruelty to their fellow Jews they were despised, hated and feared. Any Jew walking down the street, who saw a tax collector coming towards him, would cross the street to avoid walking close to them. People would spit on their shadows. Even the relatives of the tax collectors were considered contaminated. The rabbis declared, as one robber disgraced his whole family, so one tax collector in a family disgraced the whole family; Jews would not allow their children to marry a relative of a tax collector. Furthermore, according to the rabbis of the day, one did not have keep one’s promises with murderers, thieves or tax collectors; the tax collectors were not even able to donate money to synagogues and the temple would not receive any of their monetary gifts. It was not lawful to use money received from them, just as it was forbidden to receive money gotten by looting or thievery. Tax collectors were not allowed to judge or even to give testimony in court because people couldn’t trust their words.
Tax collectors were not only considered to be bad people; they were bad people. Let’s not gloss over this fact. So in our gospel reading we hear about a man named Zacchaeus who is not only a tax collector but he is the chief tax collector for the district of Jericho. He was the supervisor of the other tax collectors. In the first century Jericho was a wealthy trade hub. The rich and famous had palaces there. Of course in any area where there is trade, there are taxes. So when Scripture says Zacchaeus was rich it is saying what is absolutely true—the man was a millionaire/billionaire of his time. He was very wealthy, very powerful, and he had become that way off the backs of his fellow countrymen.
In our gospel account Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. Zacchaeus no doubt had heard about Jesus. Jesus was a rock star of the day. He was a healer, a performer of miracles, and he was an outstanding teacher. Thousands of people would come to listen to him teach. There were many Jews who thought that Jesus was the Messiah. Perhaps Zacchaeus had heard about the conversion of Matthew, also a tax collector who was now a disciple of Jesus. The point is that Jesus was very well known and Scripture says Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Who was this Jesus and what did he look like? But he couldn’t get through the crowd. People weren’t going to give him any respect because he was a tax collector. Not only that he was a shorty and couldn’t see over the people in front of him. So, he is no dummy, he figures out the route Jesus is taking and runs on ahead and climbs a tree. It is an odd and even humiliating thing for a grown man to do, but he really wanted to see this Jesus.
When Jesus came to the sycamore tree, he stopped, looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus probably almost fell out the tree. I am sure he had not expected Jesus to notice he was up there and he was planning to work his way down from this humiliating position after everyone had gone on. But Jesus had not only seen him, he knew who he was; he called him by his name! Jesus knew who he was and he wanted to come to his home. Zacchaeus was thrilled! So he hurried down out of the tree and was very happy. It was after all a huge honor to host such a prominent Rabbi and such a popular figure. There were many people in town who would have been eager to host Jesus. But Jesus, obviously and publically chose Zacchaeus.
But then everyone who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has going to be the guest of a scum like Zacchaeus?” Do you understand how the crowd is feeling? It would be similar to Billy Graham or the Pope inviting himself over to stay with Al Capone or some prominent criminal. People were thinking, “This is so wrong.”
Perhaps it is that moment when Zacchaeus realizes what Jesus is doing. He realizes that Jesus is offering him a chance to repent; a chance to change his life, to start new. He was the one who had wanted to see Jesus and it turned out that Jesus was actually looking for him. This was a moment of understanding, an epiphany; Zacchaeus in that moment sees himself clearly, perhaps for the first time, and he wants to change. He wants to make his life right. And so at that moment he turns his life over to Jesus. Notice that Zacchaeus calls Jesus Lord. He stands next to Jesus and proclaims, “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.”
Zacchaeus really did have a change of heart. He really did turn his life around. Money no longer had the grip on his heart. He was able to let it go. Then Jesus said to him and to the crowd, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
So what do we learn from this story? We learn that all of us have moments, Zacchaeus moments, when we can make a choice. We can choose like Zacchaeus did to change what is the most important thing to us in life. For Zacchaeus, he turned away from his money. But I don’t know what it might be for you. You need to consider what it is and make a decision. The old fisherman asked, “Are you just going to sit there or are you going to fish? Jesus asks us, “Are we just going to sit here or are we really going to try to set everything else aside and follow Him?” Amen