One day he’s walking through the streets of Jericho and a crowd gathers parade-style, by the side of the road to welcome him. In the crowd is a short tax-collector named Zacchaeus. He can’t see over the crowd so he climbs a tree to get a look at Jesus. Jesus sees him in the tree and invites himself over to Zac’s house for dinner.
This was odd thing to do, even for Jesus. Inviting yourself into someone else’s home simply wasn’t done in the ancient world. Actually, it’s not the smoothest move today. As usual,there is a purpose behind Jesus’ strange behavior. A purpose that is revealed when the onlooking crowd grumbles that Jesus is going to the house of a “sinner.” (There he goes again, hanging out with the wrong people.) It’s no accident that all of this happens in front of Zac’s neighbors.
Once they get to Zac’s house, we’re not told how long they talk or what they talk about, but at some point during the meal, Zac stands up and pledges to give most of his money away and promises to stop using his position as a tax-collector to exploit others. Here is Jesus’ ministry strategy condensed into a short story. Jesus accepts a sinner and the sinner responds to being accepted with repentance.
Jesus answers Zac’s pledge with declaration, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
“Son of Abraham” was a Jewish way of saying that Zac was a member of God’s family. He is no longer to be identified as a “tax-collector,” “sinner,” or “religious outcast.” Zac’s pledge to change his life is the first step toward living into his new identity.
Jesus was already treating Zac like a Son of Abraham before he called him one. There’s an interesting play on words in the story. Jesus tells Zac, “I must come to your house today” and then later he says, “Salvation has come to this house today.” The name “Jesus” means “The Lord Saves.” When Jesus invited himself over to Zac’s house, “Salvation” is literally walking into the house to save another Son of Abraham.
One detail in this story that I always come back to is image of Zac up in the tree, trying to see Jesus. What is he doing up there? Something must have been missing from his life. He must have been pretty desperate. He must have been hoping that Jesus would be the solution to his biggest problem.
When he climbed up in the tree so he could see Jesus, I bet he wasn’t expecting that just a few hours later he’d be giving away most of his money and changing the way he did business. That’s the power of a new identity.
It makes us do all kinds of crazy things.