“Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”” Luke 19:1-10, NKJV.
Zacchaeus was a short Jewish tax collector. He was not a well-liked man: he was Jewish, so the Romans thought the less of him, and he was a tax collector for the Romans, so the Jews thought the less of him. He was unusually short, so he must have at least thought the less of himself as well. Worse, he was rich, which means he collected more taxes than required, and skimmed it off the top. This was standard practice for tax collectors, to exact even more than required with the full cooperation of the Roman authorities. According to the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, he purchased the Jericho tax franchise from the government, from which he reaped huge commissions and got rich off of the rich and the poor alike.
Here is a man whose only solace in life was his ill-gotten wealth. He had no favor with men, and could expect no favor even from God, a man whose conscience could only have been a trouble to him. This is the nature of our lives apart from the assurance that we are loved and favored by God – we must snatch pleasure from life on the backs of those less fortunate and against their derision, and we must grasp it in the face of fate. Wealth is a small consolation, but it is a garish facsimile of comfort and joy.
So Jesus, as fate would have it, came walking near his house, and Zacchaeus wanted to see him. This desire was intense, and Zaccheaus was the kind of man who got what he wanted, so he took the unusual step of climbing a tree so he could see Jesus as he walked by. He could not have had an expectation that Jesus would look at him, call him out by name, and speak directly with him. He was a spectator, and he was determined to snatch this small miserable pleasure from the day. This tree climb is a symbol of his whole life: he is too small, too short, too insignificant to see things as normal people see them, so instead of accepting that, he climbs over everyone else to get where he wants to be.
Clearly, he was publicly known as a man to be despised ( “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”), so no one spoke to him unless required to; he was a lonely and isolated man. He could not have been used to being spoken to kindly, with any respect.
We can pause here and see that Jesus is not concerned only for the poor and downtrodden, He sees the isolation and loneliness and pain of the rich as well. Pain in life, and grace to overcome, is to all, rich and poor alike.
So Jesus calls him down to talk to him man to man, as a real person. He calls him down from his isolated loft. Beyond his wildest expectations, this religious celebrity prophet healer guy calls him down, and wants to stay at his house! Of course he receives him joyfully; it is possibly the first time in a very long time that he has been treated with respect as a real person.
Don’t think that I am reading too much into this. He rushes down, and receives Jesus with joy. Everybody is scandalized because Jesus is talking to him, because the entire public sentiment is to hate him. They ALL complained – ALL OF THEM. This is yet another example of scandalous grace.
Notice this as well – Jesus says that today He must stay at his house. I think that buried under all of it, Jesus identified that Zacchaeus was gifted with hospitality. He gave him a chance to exercise his hospitality right from the start, affirming his gifting and his dignity from the beginning. This affirmation is what scandalized everyone. Under law, a man’s gifting cannot be exercised if his transgression is known. Under grace, affirmation of a man’s dignity and gifting is the gateway to virtue.
So now, down with Jesus, he is affirmed as a real person, on the ground with everyone else. He is not judged, it is possibly the first time since he was a child that he has received affirmation and respect. It has been done publicly, in the face of a great deal of derision and dissension. The whole world seems to be the elder brother who despises the grace given to this rich fraudulent prodigal.
So, without the slightest word of command or rebuke or derision, Jesus elicits from him what the hatred and harshness and derision of the whole community could not accomplish. With joy, in public, in front of God and everyone, he repents from the heart. He is first shown favor, and from joy over it he repents, just like the fellow who found the treasure hidden in the field. In actual practice, Jesus seeks not to condemn, but to restore. In the presence of the haters, Jesus affirms that he is a real person – a son of Abraham like the hating crowd. Jesus considers that Zacchaeus was lost in his graft and in his isolation and false comfort of wealth, and He came to seek him, and to save him. He saw Zacchaeus as a pearl of great price despite the myriad opinions of others.