Word Magazine February 1985 Page 26
REFLECTIONS ON THE WORD OF GOD
“WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A SINNER MEETS CHRIST?”
The Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas
“What happens when a sinner meets Christ?” That is what the story about that short Chief Tax Collector of Jericho is about. Most of us know how Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus when He traveled through the town, how he wanted to see Jesus, but wasn’t able to because all the taller people got in front of him, and how he ran ahead, climbed a tree, and got a look. We also know how Jesus saw him, called him, entered his house for a meal, and called him saved when he offered to make restitution for his wrong doings. In this column we are going to look at this passage a bit more carefully.
That Zacchaeus was a sinner was not questioned by anyone in Jericho. Verse 2 says it in a cryptic manner for us, but very clearly for any first century Jew: “he was a chief tax-collector, and rich.” He was in the employ of the Pagan Roman government. He was a high official of the oppressive system. He was clearly in the position to extort unjust taxes. He was rich — which meant to the people that he in fact did exploit them. Clearly, he was a sinner!
Nevertheless, something in him was moved to want to see Jesus when He came through town. It was more than curiosity Verse 3 says “he sought to see who Jesus was.” That is a more serious interest. He must have heard things about Jesus. It was important enough to him so that he made a special effort. Somehow his heart was searching for something . . . Maybe Jesus could supply it!
The crowd kept milling around Jesus as he walked, so that finally Zacchaeus gave up trying to get close to the Lord. Then, he decided to “run ahead,” and, as verse 4 tells us, he climbed up a “sycamore tree”. It was so important for him to see Jesus!
Then it happened. Just as Jesus was coming by the tree, He stopped and looked right at Zacchaeus. He addresses him personally and by name: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down. . . .” He knows his name! He speaks directly to the man. Then Jesus immediately gives Zacchaeus an order to come down from the tree. But it is an order directly related to an unbelievable and totally unexpected fulfillment of Zacchaeus’ heartfelt desire to see Jesus. Verse 5 continues, “. . . for I must stay at your house today.” Can you believe that? Zacchaeus makes a special effort to reach out to Christ, and Christ not only sees him, but talks to him, and calls him by name. And then — wonder of wonders! — Christ tells him that He intends to come into his house! When you meet Christ, all kinds of fabulous things can happen.
So what’s a fellow to do? It’s overwhelming. Once you catch your breath you respond to the Lord. First, you do what He tells you, to do — lickety split! “So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully” Did you notice those words in verse 6? “And received him joyfully.” You not only do what the Lord tells you to do, you also “receive Him.” Into your heart! Into your life! Into your thoughts! Into your whole being! That means a big change in your life. Especially if everybody knows that you are a big sinner. It’s hard for people to accept repentance in others, especially when they are “big sinners.” So hard, that all those people who were crowding around the Lord just a few minutes before, praising and fawning over Him, suddenly had a turn of mind.
Verse 7 describes their reaction: “. . .they all murmured, ‘He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ “ Christ saw what was in Zacchaeus’ heart, but the people were blind to all that. They not only judged Zacchaeus (“a man who is a sinner”). They even murmured against Jesus. The people, no doubt, had frequently charged Zacchaeus with being a sinner. Surely, he knew that they were aware of his injustices. But he never repented, in spite of the fact that they condemned him, and called him a sinner. That hardly ever works!
Now, however, in the presence of the Sinless One, Zacchaeus sees and readily acknowledges his own unworthiness. When Christ meets sinners — they see themselves as they are. On his own Zacchaeus comes to repent of his former deeds of injustice. He admits his sin. It’s not just words: he acts. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor:” that is an act of gratitude for what Christ has done for him, a case of genuine stewardship.
But more than that happens when a sinner meets Christ. Verse 8 quotes Zacchaeus, and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Here he is doing what the Old Testament defined as just (Exodus 22:3, 8, and 4th Kings 12:6 [Septuigint]). But the important thing to notice is that Zacchaeus didn’t do this because he was told to, but because now that he had “received” Christ into his life, he began to act, and think, and desire in a new and different way.
He was a new person! A person no longer distorted by sin. A person who was once again “whole.” He was now clear where the real values of life were. His humanity had been restored to him. That’s what is meant by “salvation.” Jesus put it definitively in verse 9: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus was no longer spiritually and morally exiled from the people of God, whether they wanted to recognize it or not. . . “since he also is a son of Abraham.”
Thus, Zacchaeus shows that when a sinner meets Christ, the Lord cares about him enough to personally respond to his need to find forgiveness and redemption. When the sinner meets Christ, ways are given to him to repent. When a sinner meets Jesus, guidance is provided for a new life. When a sinner meets the Lord and “receives Him,” an inner change takes place which makes life new again.
Do you think, maybe, that Zacchaeus just might be a model for the rest of us?