Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Jesus wanted to save Zacchaeus. The correlation between these two is hidden in our English translations of the text. Luke uses the same verb to describe their mission—Zacchaeus sought
to see Jesus and Jesus came to seek
and save the lost (Luke 19:2, 10). This language brackets the theological significance of the Zacchaeus story.
Text: Luke 19:1-10
The component parts of the story, so familiar to Bible students from their childhood, give the seeking language their significance.
• Zacchaeus is not only a tax collector, but he supervises other tax collectors (he is the chief, or “ruling” (archi-), tax collector.
• Zacchaeus is wealthy and probably gained this wealth in questionable ways—he at least gained his wealth through complicity with the pagan Roman oppressors.
• Zacchaeus is regarded by his neighbors as a “sinner” and thus excluded from the community of the righteous (and his name is a shortened form of Zechariah which means “righteous one”).
• Zacchaeus is an outsider to the children of Abraham—politically, religiously, socially.
But he wants (seeks) to see Jesus. He goes to embarrassing lengths to fulfill his desire. He runs ahead of the crowd—he is determined and eager. Imagine a short, wealthy and politically-connected man climbing a tree to see this prophet passing through Jericho. It is a humorous picture and has been the subject of jokes for almost 2000 years. Do you think he tried to hide himself behind the evergreen branches of that small sycamore tree? Perhaps he was spotted—and mocked—by others.
But he wants (seeks) to see Jesus. No doubt he has heard about Jesus, but what he has heard? Perhaps he heard that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors; maybe even that one of his disciples was a former tax collector himself. It seems obvious that Luke wants us to hear this story in the context of Jesus previous ministry. As readers, we know Jesus is Zacchaeus’ friend, but Zacchaeus is uncertain.
Jesus wants (seeks) to see (save) Zacchaeus. Indeed, he must go to his house today. He initiates contact. He offers the invitation—though it is a self-invite to Zacchaeus’ home. Jesus crosses the boundary that shocks everyone else. He will gladly enjoy the hospitality of a sinner because his mission is to “seek and to save the lost.” It is the nature of his ministry to cross boundaries—it is demanded by his identity and his mission. This is who Jesus is.
Others, however, “see” something else. Zacchaeus sees the grace of Jesus. Jesus sees the need of Zacchaeus. But the crowd (not just the leaders) “see” something different. They are scandalized by Jesus’ self-invitation. They want to distance themselves from this act of grace. Zacchaeus is undeserving; he is a “sinner.” The crowd that crowded the streets to “see” Jesus did not know him and what they “saw” appalled them. They were shocked by what they saw when they actually expected something else.
Do we really want to “see” Jesus? To see Jesus is to be transformed, changed. To see Jesus is to repent and act in penitent ways. It means that we regard our wealth as secondary to the experience of eating with Jesus. It means we share our wealth with the poor. It means we make amends to those we have wronged or offended. It means we eat with those whom we would otherwise avoid. It means we become seekers of others—especially outsiders—just as Jesus sought out Zacchaeus. To “see” Jesus is to become Jesus and to act graciously toward those others would reject.
This changed is highlighted in the text, though hidden by the NIV. Indeed, Luke uses a form of the verb “to see” to highlight it. “Behold,” Luke writes, when he introduces Zacchaeus in verse 2, and then “Behold,” Zacchaeus announces, in verse 8 when the penitent sinner declares his commitment to discipleship. “Behold the sinner” and “Behold the change” is the effect of Luke’s language.
Do we really want to “be Jesus” in the world? Do we really want to change and experience the discomfort of discipleship? Perhaps we are too comfortable with who we are and where we are. To follow Jesus and to be Jesus makes radical demands upon us. Some are not willing to follow (“the rich young ruler,” for example). But Zacchaeus is willing because he sees his own faults and hears the grace in the invitation of Jesus.
Do we really want to “see” Jesus? To see him is to see our own failures, but to see him is also to experience his grace. If we truly “see” Jesus, then we hear the gracious invitation to follow him, embrace his mission to outsiders in the world, and embody his identity in our own lives. Our vision of Jesus becomes our vision for meaningful life.