October 23, 2022

“Unpacking Salvation”


Luke 19:1-10


Over the decades, I have put together and participated in a LOT of Vacation Bible Schools. At every VBS I put together or worked in (I would estimate over 30 different VBS programs in my ministry career) I have most often overseen leading the songs for the school with my guitar or on piano. That meant of course practicing the songs until I knew them well, which also means those songs can stick in your head for a LOOOOOOOONG time.


One of those songs that I led many years ago, which is still in my head is the song about today’s featured character, Zacchaeus. It goes a little something like this:


“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree, the Savior for to see. And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today, for I’m going to your house today.”


And now, it is stuck in your heads as well😊


I remember the story of Zacchaeus came near the end of the week and was used in the Vacation Bible School curriculum to introduce the idea of salvation- letting Jesus come into your home, and therefore into your heart. This makes sense since the story ends with Jesus’ words, “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 save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)


Salvation is one of those terms that is used often in church speak. But what does it mean, and what does it entail? We can find clues as we unpack the story of the tax man, Zacchaeus. This story is found only in Luke’s Gospel and is very similar to the story of Levi, (Luke 5:27-32) identified by some as Matthew, the tax collector who became the disciple and who also wrote the 1st Gospel (Matthew 10:3)


Let’s begin at the beginning, looking at his name. “Zacchaeus” is a Hebrew name, meaning, “Innocent, pure.” This is an interesting contrast between the meaning of his name and his profession, which was anything but innocent or pure. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, also known as a Publican.


Harper’s Bible Commentary gives a good background on publicans back in the first century.  They were tax and toll collectors for the Roman Empire. Contracts for collecting taxes in a region were bid on by wealthy patrons. They in turn hired local inhabitants to collect the taxes, such as Zacchaeus. In addition to city taxes, if you had produce you wanted to sell in another territory, any profits were eaten up by collecting transit tolls. Goods sold in markets were also subject to taxes. Farmers at this time were generally destitute or in debt to moneylenders and tax collectors.


Publicans were personally responsible for paying the taxes to Rome, but they were in turn free to collect extra fees from Roman subjects and make a significant profit. Opportunities for theft and fraud were rampant, making them despised in general by the public at that time. The higher up you were in such a corrupt system, the greater one’s complicity. Zacchaeus was a CHIEF tax collector, which likely meant two things:

  1. He had been at this for a while, which meant he was one of the wealthiest of the publicans, and likely one of the most corrupt in the system.
  2. He had long been hated and ostracized from the Jewish community for stealing money consistently when he collected taxes, and also for representing and helping the hated Roman-occupied forces through collecting taxes. In addition, publicans were seen by Jewish society as unclean, due to their contact with Gentile subjects in collecting taxes.


As we unpack the story more, we learn that Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. Apparently, word had spread that Jesus was coming to Jericho. Why was Zacchaeus interested in seeing Jesus? Perhaps he had heard about Levi’s conversion in Capernaum (Jericho and Capernaum are only about 20 miles apart from one another), and word spread among other tax collectors that Jesus actually liked and hung out with people of his profession.


It is also interesting to note that in Luke’s gospel, it is specifically states that tax collectors were baptized by John (Luke 7:29). John prepared the way for Jesus, which meant that a group of publicans had repented from dishonest collecting and were expecting Messiah to arrive. Perhaps Zacchaeus had been told about some of his fellow tax collectors being baptized in expectation, and wanted to see this Messiah figure for himself? I don’t think he had personally been baptized by John because he was still living a sinful life, still robbing people by charging extra to collect takes for Rome.  Yet perhaps he had been told by fellow publicans to be on the lookout for Jesus.


The third possibility is that Jesus’ reputation may have preceded him wherever he went. Jesus speaks about himself in Luke 7:34, as someone who is “… a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34) Jesus ministered to the people that were on the wrong side of the tracks- a Samaritan woman, a leper, an adulterer, someone mentally unstable, etc. He built his reputation through the company he kept and reached out to undesirables. Perhaps this Messiah figure would be his friend too since it is doubtful he had many if any.


We learn from today’s passage that Zacchaeus was short and unable to see due to his small stature and the crowds gathered alongside of the road. So as the crowds looked on in anticipation of the Messiah they saw little Zacchaeus, running around looking for a better vantage point. Zacchaeus, he who sucked the blood out of hard-working laborers of Hebrew society and transferred it into the coffers of the occupying Roman oppressors, while skimming large profits off the top and living a life of luxury. True, he made a sizeable living, but part of his pay included derision, disgust, and isolation from his own people. He ran past those looks of condemnation, hearing the whispers that he was “No son of Abraham!” Although he was well off financially, his spirit was empty. His wealth and position brought him no happiness. He climbed up a sycamore tree, something no self-respecting adult would do, and waited in anticipation for Jesus to walk by.


Jesus came through the city gate, and the crowds welcomed him enthusiastically. As he got to the place where Zacchaeus was, Jesus stopped and looked up right at him!


Jesus singled him out and told him to come down, that he was going to eat with him at his own home!  Zacchaeus scrambled down the tree, went out to the middle of the road, and welcomed Jesus. Can you imagine the response of the crowds upon seeing this happen? Of all people in the crowd, many of whom were righteous temple attenders, Jesus picked out Zacchaeus! Jesus was going to an unclean, hated individual’s home to dine with him! The crowd’s enthusiasm quickly waned. Then the hated publican spoke to Jesus and the crowds.


Zacchaeus told Jesus, “I will give half of his possessions to the poor, and pay back what I have stolen times four!”  This offer was more than generous. Consider this societal law from the book of Leviticus. When a neighbor has been defrauded or robbed, you were required to repay what had been taken plus 1/5th of the amount. (Leviticus 6:5) Zacchaeus offered much more and promised to do this in front of the crowd.


Why did he announce this generous repayment? Perhaps he was tired of being ostracized, tired of being shunned, of having no friends. Perhaps he was trying to gain favor with Jesus, who was coming to his house to dine. Perhaps as he saw Jesus, as he encountered someone holy, he was convicted of the sinfulness, the stealing from townsfolk to line his own pockets.  Whatever the reasons, he repented in front of everyone. Like “salvation,” this is another often used word in faith, “repentance”. To repent means to turn back, or to turn around. Zacchaeus turned around-from greed, from himself and towards Jesus, towards care and concern for fellow neighbors.


He made that proclamation, and Jesus responded. “Today, salvation has come to this house, Zacchaeus’ house!, And he is a son of Abraham.” In that moment, as Zacchaeus turned towards Jesus, he was “saved”- he was saved from self-absorbed lifestyle, saved from the love of money, saved a from a life of stealing. He was reclaimed as one of God’s people, as a son of Abraham. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house.


SALVATION - How do we define it? The word in Greek is soterir (soteria). It means to rescue, to deliver, or to save. The American Heritage Dictionary defines salvation as, “Preservation or deliverance from evil. Deliverance from sin through belief in Christ.” The classic understanding of salvation is , like a good old VBS, belief in Jesus, turning to Jesus gets you the golden ticket. You are saved and get to go to heaven. Not much else too it. Yet there is more to salvation than winning the golden ticket to eternity.


The Harper Bible Dictionary speaks of the Old Testament word for salvation, יהושע, Yeshua, Jesus’ name “also keeping with its root meaning of broadening or enlarging.” (Harper Bible Dictionary, p.894) Turning to Jesus, finding salvation also means being broadened, of our view being enlarged. Turning to Jesus means our actions are centered on Christ, which means they become centered on the needs of others. Zacchaeus and the proclamation he made as a result of his salvation is a perfect example. In front of all those people he proclaimed this bold act.


As Lawrence King often asks at the end of a service at our 8 am worship, “I want to know what happened next.” Me too, Lawrence! I would like to think Zacchaeus’ bold proclamation, which was a result of his salvation made a difference. I think it must’ve impacted the surrounding community of Jericho. Perhaps the people who heard Zacchaeus’ proclamation were impacted as well- became more honest in their own dealings with others. I even wonder if perhaps other publicans were convicted of their own sins and began collecting takes honestly from the populace. But we don’t know for sure what happened next. I do know this, though. When we do an act of mercy, righteousness, love, or justice, it makes a difference, sometimes in ways we cannot see.


When salvation comes to us, when Jesus comes to our house, we too are called to make bold proclamations in the street, to do acts of justice and mercy, and to care about those around us. The ticket to heaven is only a part of the equation. Theologian Carlos A. Rodriguez, who teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Santa Clara, Ca. wrote, “Sure, we can sing to Jesus. But Jesus never asked us to do that. Jesus asked us to feed the hungry, to give them water, to welcome the stranger, to clothe them, to visit the prisoner, to care for the sick. Jesus didn’t want songs. Jesus wants justice.”  Those of us who have been blessed to have Jesus come to our house, to have him in our hearts are called to follow the example of Zacchaeus. We who have been saved by faith, as a result of that saving act by Jesus, are called not to just be Christian, but also to DO Christian. Alleluia. Amen.

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