Little Big Man

by Ed Urzi

“As Jesus was passing through Jericho, a man named Zacchaeus, one of the most influential Jews in the Roman tax-collecting business (and, of course, a very rich man), tried to get a look at Jesus, but he was too short to see over the crowds” (Luke 19:1-3).

     Well…  not exactly,  but you get the idea

The town of Jericho was something of a resort area back in Jesus’ day, kind of like a first-century version of the resort cities that exist in our own present day. Back then, Jericho was a place where people with a little extra money could get away and relax for awhile.

There were fresh-water springs available in Jericho and in the wintertime, the temperatures remained right around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 C). So Jericho was a good place to take a vacation or even keep a winter home, if you could afford it.

Jericho was also the place where Jesus had a meeting with a man named Zacchaeus who is identified as a chief tax-collector (NIV) in Luke 19:2. As one of the top-ranking tax collectors, Zacchaeus probably managed a staff of people who had the responsibility of collecting all the taxes owed in the Jericho area.

While these tax collectors could often make a lot of money, it wasn’t always the greatest job for someone to have. You see, the tax collectors worked for the government and made their money by charging people at a higher tax rate than was actually necessary. The tax collector would then give the correct amount of tax money to the government and keep the rest as a profit. Because of this, most people really, really disliked the tax collectors but we’ll talk more about that in a moment.

Anyway, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus as He came into town but he couldn’t get a good look at Him because of the crowds that were standing in his way. Of course, the fact that he wasn’t very tall certainly didn’t help either. Since a short person of that day was probably less than 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, Zacchaeus had a big problem- if he really wanted to see Jesus, he would have to find some serious elevation fast. Fortunately, he knew just where to find it…

So he ran ahead and climbed into a sycamore tree beside the road, to watch from there”  (Luke 19:4).

Now here’s a guy who wanted to see Jesus so badly that he was willing to do something that many people would consider to be undignified- he went and climbed up a tree. So Zacchaeus got to see Jesus but then something unexpected happened…

“When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name! ‘Zacchaeus!’ he said. ‘Quick! Come down! For I am going to be a guest in your home today!’  Zacchaeus hurriedly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy” (Luke 19:5-6).

Imagine if you were in this man’s place. What if Jesus suddenly looked up at you, called you by name, and said, “Hey come on down! Guess what? I’m coming to your house today!” That would certainly come as a shock but once you got over the initial surprise, your next response would probably be, “Hey, how did you know my name?!?”

It’s interesting to note that Jesus knew exactly who Zacchaeus was even though this appears to be the first time that they had ever met. Even though Zacchaeus didn’t know Jesus, Jesus still knew Zacchaeus and called him by his name- and this was not the first time that Jesus did something like that. For instance, shortly after meeting Jesus, the Apostle Philip brought a man named Nathanael to meet Jesus also. John 1:47-48 tells us what happened at their very first meeting…

“As they approached, Jesus said, ‘Here comes an honest man– a true son of Israel.’ ‘How do you know what I am like?’ Nathanael demanded. And Jesus replied, ‘I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.'” 

Now perhaps you’ve never thought about this but has it ever occurred to you that Jesus also knows you just as He knew Nathanael and Zacchaeus? In fact, Jesus not only knows you, He knows you better than the closest friend you’ve ever had. This is good to remember during those times when others may forget you, ignore you, or act insensitively towards you. When these things happen, remember that there will always be Someone who knows exactly what you’re going through- Someone who remembers you, cares about you, and knows you by name.

“But the crowds were displeased. ‘He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,’ they grumbled” (Luke 19:7).

We talked earlier about how unpopular the tax collectors were in Jesus’ day and this Scripture gives us a good idea of the attitude that people had towards guys like Zacchaeus. In fact, Zacchaeus probably wasn’t very popular with anybody when you stop to think about it. For instance, as a short man, Zacchaeus didn’t measure up to other people physically. As a rich man, he wasn’t welcome among the average people and as a tax collector, he was socially despised among other people who were rich too.

Nevertheless, Jesus was still willing to get together with Zacchaeus and establish a relationship with him despite the fact that others had rejected him. In fact, it seems that Jesus sometimes went out of His way to seek out people (like Zacchaeus) who really didn’t fit in with others. To illustrate this, take a look at another experience that Jesus had with a different tax collector in the Gospel of Luke…

“As Jesus was going on down the road, he saw a tax collector, Matthew, sitting at a tax collection booth. ‘Come and be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him, and Matthew jumped up and went along with him. Later, as Jesus and his disciples were eating dinner [at Matthew’s house], there were many notorious swindlers there as guests! 

The Pharisees were indignant. ‘Why does your teacher associate with men like that?’ ‘Because people who are well don’t need a doctor! It’s the sick people who do!’ was Jesus’ reply. Then he added, ‘Now go away and learn the meaning of this verse of Scripture, “‘It isn’t your sacrifices and your gifts I want– I want you to be merciful.”‘ For I have come to urge sinners, not the self-righteous, back to God'” (Matthew 9:9-13).

Jesus was willing to take the time to invest in the life of a guy like Matthew who, like Zacchaeus, was a man that no one else really cared for. And as you may be aware, Matthew’s experience as Jesus’ disciple so totally turned his life around that God later used him to write the Gospel that carries his name! You can also see similar examples like this in the lives of the other men that Jesus called to be His disciples. Jesus gave these men a purpose in life and a future to look forward to -and He can do the same thing in your life and the lives of others that you invest in as His representative.

“Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, ‘Sir, from now on I will give half my wealth to the poor, and if I find I have overcharged anyone on his taxes, I will penalize myself by giving him back four times as much!'” (Luke 19:8).

People can sometimes casually sail along through life thinking that they’re pretty good until they stop and spend some time with Jesus as Zacchaeus did here. Although Zacchaeus’ name meant “pure one” it seems that he wasn’t really living up to the meaning of his name- at least not until he started to measure himself against Jesus and the things that He was teaching.

Zacchaeus’ promise to pay back anyone that he overcharged actually went far beyond anything that he legally had to do. In those days, the law said that if someone stole something, they had to give back the amount that they stole plus an additional 20% as punishment. But because of his involvement with Jesus, Zacchaeus made the decision to do far more than the minimum that was necessary. Not only did Zacchaeus decide to give half his income to help out those who were less fortunate, he also committed himself to pay back four times any amount that he overcharged to make up for the wrong that he had done.

That decision brought the following response from Jesus…

“Jesus told him, ‘This shows that salvation has come to this home today. This man was one of the lost sons of Abraham, and I, the Messiah, have come to search for and to save such souls as his'” (Luke 19:9).

Now why would Jesus say that “salvation has come to this home today“? It was probably because Zacchaeus was planning to give a lot of money away, right? Well, no, that actually wasn’t the reason at all.

You see, it wasn’t the amount of money that Zacchaeus was giving away- it was why he was giving the money away.  The fact that Zacchaeus was prepared to start helping out people in need and give back the money he had taken was proof that he was really serious about living a God-honoring lifestyle. Unlike some other people, Zacchaeus made the decision to put God ahead of money and he backed up that decision with some definite action.

So what does Zacchaeus’ experience tell us? Well, it doesn’t matter how big you are or where you came from; it’s never too late to start living the kind of life that honors God- even if you have to start by climbing a tree.