Let Zacchaeus Have His Day

By Justin Rossow

You probably know the story. Or at least the song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” You likely know the setup—a high-ranking, chief tax collector, in the kind of robe only big money could buy, making something of a fool of himself: “He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” Odds are, you are at least familiar with the shocking Gospel: “The Lord said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m coming to your house today!’”

Our church is doing a fall generosity emphasis, as many congregations often do, so we read that familiar story in worship on Sunday. I was struck again by some of the details in the way Luke recounts the scene. Jesus says, “It is necessary for me to stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Wow, that’s a loaded phrase!

“It is Necessary”

That particular formulation often (though not always) indicates that God’s saving work is at stake. The things “that are necessary” tend to be things like Jesus being in his Father’s house when he was 12 (Luke 2:49), or Jesus preaching the Good News of the Kingdom (Luke 4:43), or even the sacrifice of the Passover lambs (Luke 22:7).

Ultimately (and repeatedly, Luke 9:22; 17:25; 24:7, 26, 44) Jesus’ suffering, and death, and resurrection are the things that are necessary: Jesus had to suffer; Jesus had to die; Jesus had to rise again on the third day. Yes, of course because the Bible said so (Luke 22:37). But Scripture only says so because that’s how God saves. (I love how the Father of the Prodigal son says that the joyful celebration following his son’s return “is necessary” Luke 15:32—it’s a salvation party!)

And Zacchaeus, this short little Roman sympathizer, has all of that eternal salvation over for dinner: it is necessary for Jesus to go with Zacchaeus to his house for dinner (Table Fellowship is another important theme in Luke), and somehow this strange hospitality is tied up in God’s saving work. As Jesus says at the end of the story, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9).

It was indeed necessary for Jesus to visit Zacchaeus at home, even though the local social media influencers didn’t like it. It was necessary for salvation, for Zacchaeus; but maybe even more. It’s the kind of thing the Messiah has to do as part of his job description. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).

The Big Moment

Between the taxman up a tree and the statement of salvation’s arrival, our diminutive money monger has become a philanthropist. In a dramatic move, Zacchaeus stands up from the table (Is Luke telling a short joke here? I think not, but it still makes me smile. Everyone else is reclining at table, and Zacchaeus has to stand up to be seen and heard…). His announcement must have shocked the whole room (with the possible exception of Jesus).

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

Luke 19:9 (ESV)

Of course, that’s the part of the text our preacher mentioned in his sermon on generosity. But I was glad that he didn’t call for heroic financial sacrifice; instead, he simply invited people to wonder what small next step the Spirit might be inviting them to take, in service generosity, financial generosity, or in relational generosity. (Those are the three themes for our three-week sermon series.)

I was glad the preacher made the point of joyful response rather than laying on a burden of financial investment. I was already wondering how we were supposed to emulate the Zacchaeus model of generosity—not that the Spirit couldn’t move someone in worship last Sunday to give half of all they own to the poor, but maybe we shouldn’t hold that up as the standard response. So I was glad my guy didn’t.

As I went over the notes I took during the sermon, I wondered again about that amazing response. I like to talk about small next steps; it sure seems like Zacchaeus took a giant leap of faith! But I have learned, from personal experience, that what seems like a giant leap is often just one in a line of almost insignificantly miniscule next steps you hardly notice you are taking.

Every next step, no matter how large, comes with a hundred small steps before it; and every next step, no matter how life-changing, has a hundred small next steps that follow after.

Zacchaeus, Before

I wonder what that looked like for Zacchaeus. Was Z one of the tax collectors who heard John the Baptist preach (Luke 3:12)? Did he, even then, feel a deep calling to repentance? Had Z thought about what it would mean to leave all those riches behind? I almost think he must have considered it: “the half of my goods” seems like Z must know exactly how much he had to give away (and maybe how much he could get by on).

I imagine Z must not have only been corrupt: how could he repay, times four, the people he cheated if all he had was the money he got by cheating? The math doesn’t work out. No, I imagine that a smart little guy like Z knew exactly how much was at stake. And how would that rebate even work? Does Z have a record of those he cheated? Do they? Are some of them sitting in the room, watching this change of life, and knowing that in order to claim they had been defrauded by Z, they would have to admit to some defrauding of their own?

The text doesn’t tell us much… But Luke does say Z was “seeking to see who Jesus was” (19:3). Again, why? Ultimately, Z was seeking Jesus (19:3) because Jesus was seeking Z (19:10). But what did Z know? What did Z hope? What were the last thousand or so small next steps—prayers prayed in worship, Psalms and Prophets read and debated (Scripture it was necessary for Jesus to fulfill)—that led to this encounter?

What had Z heard, from whom, about Jesus? And why was this Jesus worth seeing, and running to see, and getting stuck up a tree without a paddle? Why did Z receive the Lord with such joy? Why does this 360 in lifestyle seem like it had been lurking just below the surface the whole time?

Zacchaeus, After

If I am curious about the thousand next steps that preceded this scene, I am just dying to know what happened to Zacchaeus next. We don’t know. We know what happens to Jesus: Luke 19 goes on to record Palm Sunday. Was Z in the crowd? Might you have seen him eyeing a palm tree and calculating his odds? Or was he too busy that day, distributing half his wealth to the poor and making amends for his double-dealing?

Did Z make it to any of the places where Jesus was teaching in and around Jerusalem that week? Did the arrest make him second-guess his second chance? Did the public beatings make him doubt that Jesus could actually bring salvation to anyone’s house?

Did Zacchaeus hear his own mocking voice call out among the scoffers? Did he, too, shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”? Did he watch from a distance as Jesus died? Did Z start to miss the other half of his belongings then? Or was the change too deep for that?

I wonder where Zacchaeus was when he first heard the rumor. A missing body? A failed Roman military watch? (Whoever heard of such a thing??) A resurrection?

Was Z there when Peter preached his Pentecost sermon? Was Z one of the 3,000 who were baptized that day? (That must have felt like salvation had come to his house once again that day: a second second chance.) Did Z join (or host?) one of the house churches in Jerusalem? Did he hear of the Gospel reaching the Gentiles with a flash of recognition, from one outsider to another? Did Z sit down with a guy named Luke (who was interviewing people who saw Jesus first-hand) and tell his story with a smile that left his cheeks hurting for hours afterward?

We just don’t know.

But every next step, no matter how large, comes with a hundred small steps before it; and every next step, no matter how life-changing, has a hundred small next steps that follow after.

Big Moments and Next Steps

I’m a little skeptical of making too much of a big next step (like giving away half of all you own, or resigning your call and selling your house and moving in with your Mother-in-Law…) for fear that we will miss the importance of all the small steps that led up to that Big Moment, and all of the small steps that have to follow after.

It’s not that I begrudge Zacchaeus his Big Moment; it’s just that I don’t want him (or anyone else) to be disappointed when tomorrow or next week it doesn’t seem as exciting as that one moment did. I don’t want Zacchaeus to feel like he has to give half of his possessions away again next week to chase the experience; and half again the week after, until there’s nothing left. (Yes, I know; that’s mathematically impossible, but you know what I mean.)

I don’t want Zacchaeus to despair when that beautiful man, who got him down out of a tree and brought salvation to his house, gets lifted up on a very different tree less than a week later, because that’s what was necessary for salvation.

I don’t want an isolated Big Moment to get in the way of small next steps. Because, let’s face it: those thousands of small next steps that no one remembers (or even notices) are what actually make up a life of following. Once in a while a Big Moment comes along; but only in a series of small next step that lead up that Big Moment, and a series of small next steps that move on from there. Without the rest of the journey, the Big Moments don’t matter. I’m not sure they even happen. And if you think following Jesus is all about the Big Moments, you will miss most of the important stuff going on.

That’s what I was thinking on Sunday.

Another Big Moment

And then, on Monday, I received an email from a women who had recently heard me speak at an event. It turns out, the Next Step workshop she attended was kind of a Big Moment in her life, and even in her marriage. She shared a little of her journey and of her struggle, so I could clearly see that her Big Moment came only in a long line of small next steps, years and decades worth of small next steps. But, in her experience, something happened during that workshop that made a fundamental change. They didn’t give away half of everything they own, but the difference, as she reported it, was on that magnitude. Life change doesn’t happen in a morning; but after that morning, their lives changed.

I know enough to give God the glory for that change. All I did—all I ever do—is try my best to create an environment where people are aware that Jesus is present by his Spirit for them. A Next Step workshop isn’t anything if Jesus doesn’t show up. But he actually does; Jesus does show up. I might even go so far as to say it is necessary that Jesus show up, because it’s still in his job description as Messiah: Jesus still has to seek and save the lost. And I got to be there, at the table, when it happened.

I can’t say I noticed a particularly Big Moment; we were only practicing small next steps. But sometimes, after a thousand and one other small next steps, your next next step is a big one.

And, of course, every next step, no matter how life-changing, has a hundred small next steps that follow after. From the email she sent me, this woman understands that her journey isn’t over. She is actively looking for what small step the Spirit is inviting her to take next.

Let Zacchaeus Have His Day

Maybe, if it hadn’t been for Zacchaeus, I would have wanted to downplay (maybe even denigrate?) her huge next step for fear that she would be disappointed after the Big Moment wore off.

I still don’t want her to feel like every next step has to live up to the standard of that Big Moment. (And, I’ll admit, it is still a little odd knowing that Big Moment came during a workshop I was leading. I mean, it was a good workshop; but life-changing? That was Jesus, for sure.)

Instead, maybe I can simply acknowledge the fear I have, the concern that she might let this Big Moment go to her head, or that she might later be misled because she thought too much of this one Big Moment. Maybe I can set that fear of getting it wrong aside, and then recognize and give God thanks that this small next step was an important moment in her life of faith.

Maybe we should just let Zacchaeus have his day.

There will be other days, for sure—Good Fridays, and also Easters, and maybe even a Pentecost—there will be other days of confusion and grief, and understanding and joy, and repentance and refreshment.

But for now, that one big next step sure was important! Life-changing, even! I thank God for that Big Moment. And I trust Jesus for the hundred small steps that have to come next. In fact, you might even say, it is necessary to trust Jesus for the hundred small steps that come next. Salvation comes in Big Moments as well as small next steps, and Jesus is Lord of both.

Cover image: “Zacchaeus” by Ted is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Adapted from original.

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