OT: Isaiah 1.10-18
NT: Luke 19.1-10
A Change of Heart
An elderly preacher was dying. He sent a message for his IRS agent and his senator (both church members), to come to his home. When they arrived, they were ushered up to his bedroom. As they entered the room, the preacher held out his hands and motioned for them to sit on each side of the bed. The preacher grasped their hands, sighed contentedly, smiled and stared at the ceiling. For a time, no one said anything. Both the IRS agent and senator were touched and flattered that the old preacher would ask them to be with him during his final moment.
They were also puzzled because the preacher had never given any indication that he particularly liked either one of them.
Finally, the senator asked, "Preacher, why did you ask the two of us to come?"
The old preacher mustered up some strength, then said weakly, "Jesus died between two thieves, and that's how I want to go, too."
Wee man Zacchaeus is not the first tax collector to have a bad reputation. That’s been the case for many moons. But today’s story about Zacchaues the tax collector is a story about a change of heart…just not the one you expect.
Turn with me to verse eight. In the pew Bible, verse eight reads, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Other translations are similar, saying, “Look, I will give half of all my possessions to the poor, and I will pay anyone I’ve cheated back four times over.” When translated that way, it makes it sound like Zacchaeus is either giving away his possessions for the first time or he is promising to do it in the future, right?
Now, I don’t want to sound like an English teacher, especially with so many educators here in the church, but there’s a significant grammatical error in that translation. The problem is that the Greek verb—the New Testament was written in Greek—is a present tense verb. In other words, it’s not a past tense verb where Zacchaeus says he gave away half of his possessions to the poor last year. It’s not a future tense verb where Zacchaeus says he will give away half of his possessions to the poor next year. It’s a present tense verb where Zacchaeus says is already doing that. He gives away half of his possessions to the poor and pays back anyone he has cheated four times over. So if it’s not Zacchaeus who has a change of heart, because he is already doing good, then whose heart is changed? Let’s go back through the story and you’ll see.
Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus walking down the road and into town. He can’t because he’s short, and there’s a crowd along the road. If you are in a crowd and a short person wants to see what is happening, what might that person do? They could politely ask those in front to let them through since they are short, right? They could sit on the shoulders of a taller person, right? But both of those options require the kindness of the people in the crowd. Zacchaeus did not receive any kindness from the crowd. He is forced to climb a tree to see because no one will let him see. Remember, he’s a tax collector. People loathed him.
Zacchaeus shrugs it off and climbs a sycamore tree, sees Jesus, and Jesus sees him! Jesus knows him by name. How does Jesus know who he is? As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was a public figure who would’ve been well-known, and this wasn’t Jesus’ first trip through Jericho. Jesus also has a knack for seeing through to people’s hearts. Perhaps he saw something in Zacchaeus others did not.
There’s one more possibility. Do you remember who Jesus lifted up in last week’s story as an example of humility and generosity? A tax collector. Is it possible that Jesus was referring to Zacchaeus? Hold onto that thought; we’ll come back to it.
Next, Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, which was a sign of great respect and honor. He did it in front of the whole crowd, and when he did, the people grumbled and scoffed for they considered Zacchaeus a “sinner.” This simply confirmed what we already knew when they wouldn’t let Jesus through to see Jesus on the road—the crowd hates Zacchaeus. They treat him like he is less than a person.
Tell me. When a crowd fixates on one person whom they hate, and that person happens to be in the crowd at the very moment, is that person’s life in danger? Zacchaeus’ life is in danger in the middle of this mob. So by inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus is offering his protection.
Overwhelmed, Zacchaeus says to Jesus who will be his guest and the crowd who calls him a sinner, “I give away half of all my possessions to the poor, and if I ever cheat anyone then I pay them back four times over.”
Jesus takes time to point out that Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham, which simply means that he is telling the crowd that Zacchaeus is one of them. Next, Jesus says, “For the son of man came to seek and save the lost.” Who was lost? Zacchaeus? No, he was doing good all along. Jesus knew his heart and lifted him up as a positive example of faithfulness. So who was lost? The crowd. After Jesus intercedes to save the wee man Zacchaeus, he reminds the crowd that even though they were lost in their mob mentality, he has come to save them as well. He calls on them to have a change of heart.This is a conversion story for sure. But it’s not about the conversion of Zacchaeus. It’s about the conversion of the crowd. The man they’d always seen as a short, stout mizer was actually a generous man of faith. When people think with the crowd, they can make huge mistakes. Jesus holds us to a higher standard in Luke 19, challenging us to see through the drama and the rumors and the chatter to the heart of things. Amen.