Jesus was on His final approach to Jerusalem and He was passing through the city of Jericho. His fame by this point had already spread far and wide, but in addition to this just outside of Jericho he had just given sight to a blind man named Bartimaeus. So now there was quite a crowd that was accompanying Jesus as He walked through town; it must have resembled a minor parade, because people were lining the streets to catch a glimpse of Jesus—including a man named Zaccheus.
Zaccheus was not the most popular man in town. He was a tax collector, and not just a tax collect, a chief tax collector. And not just a chief tax collector, a rich, chief tax collector. So, nobody was going to make a place for him along the “parade” route, and that was a problem, because Zaccheus was short. For some folks that would have been enough reason just to go home; but Zaccheus had heard about Jesus, the controversial, miracle-working rabbi. Perhaps he had even heard about some of the powerful, wonderful, and convicting things that He had taught. And now Jesus was in his own home town. How could he pass up this opportunity to see Him? So, Zaccheus climbed a tree to get a view of Jesus—and a view is all someone like him (a sinner is what everyone in town called him) could really hope for. Others in town perhaps hoped to touch Him, some others might have hoped for a healing (like Bartimaeus), others might have attempted to engage Him in conversation, some might have held hope that He would accept an invitation to dine with Him; but Zaccheus’ expectations were lower, all he wanted was a view.
But then just as Jesus was passing by the sycomore-fig tree Zaccheus was in, Jesus looked up, looked right at the rich, chief tax collector and called his name, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”
“Wh-what?” Zaccheus must have thought. “Really? Did He really say my name? No way!” He may have almost fallen out of the tree as he hurried getting down with an ear-to-ear smile on his face.
But then the grumbling began, and Zaccheus quickly realized how this great honor to himself was turning out to be a great dishonor to Jesus— “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7). Now, Zaccheus may have initially thought of refusing Jesus’ opportunity, but what he does say is pretty impressive, Luke 19:8, “Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.’”
This is impressive not just because it is repentance, but because it is radical, enthusiastic repentance. Perhaps the taxes levied by the Romans, that Zaccheus had contracted to collect, had impoverished some of his neighbors; Zaccheus voluntarily pledged to give half of his own legitimately earned wealth to the poor. And if there had been any fraud in his collection (the word “if” is interesting here), he again voluntarily pledged to do better than the law even required: (Leviticus 6:5) “or anything about which he swore falsely; he shall make restitution for it in full and add to it one-fifth more. He shall give it to the one to whom it belongs on the day he presents his guilt offering.” Zaccheus wouldn’t repay them a mere 120%, but 400%! And none of this was required by Jesus; it was all volunteered from joy of Jesus coming to his house that day.
Jesus is impressed. He declares that salvation had come to Zaccheus’ house and He declares him to be a true spiritual son of Abraham. And I think that there is something to be learned by us here who aspire to be sons of Abraham—the enthusiasm that should accompany repentance.
The Lord, of course, calls for our repentance; but the response that we often give him is something a little less than enthusiasm—maybe a lot less than enthusiasm—maybe something a little more like grudging compliance. We repent sometimes, only because Jesus calls upon us to do so. Rather than gain the joy of the new life in Jesus, we settle for mere grudging compliance to requirements. No doubt it is because we enjoy the sin too much, blind our eyes to the death that it brings, and fail to see the joy and life-giving benefit of committed discipleship to Jesus.
But what if we followed Zaccheus’ example—really enthusiastically repented of our sins. What would our lives be like? What would the church be like? What would worship be like? What would the church’s numbers be like? What would your family be like? So, what’s keeping us from doing it?
Going to Zaccheus’ house was a surprise to everyone who heard and saw it that day, including Zaccheus himself. What was really surprising, however, was the heart-felt, eager, ardent, fervent, passionate, zealous, excited, committed, and earnest response to Jesus’ invitation. Complete, nothing-held-back repentance. Go on, surprise your world today!