He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
I hear people use this passage to argue that Zacchaeus’ decision to make restitution to those he had defrauded was evidence that he was saved. Therefore, these same people argue, we too had better had similar evidence in our lives if we expect to be assured that salvation has come also to our house.
Is this really what the passage says though? I think not. In fact, I think it tells us something very different.
I will assume the reader knows about the facts surrounding the account. Zacchaeus was not simply a tax collector, but rather a chief tax collector. This marks him out as an inordinately wealthy man, wealthier even than the wealthy. Bearing this assumption in mind, notice first verses 5 and 6.
5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.
Here we find Jesus intruding into Zacchaeus’ life without an invitation. Jesus did not ask Zacchaeus whether he would mind having Him at his house today. In fact, He failed even to make a proper social introduction, not even taking the time to learn Zacchaeus’ name. And why should He? After all, He already knew it!
The point is though, rather than asking for an invite, Jesus instead instructs Zacchaeus to come down from the tree, not because Zacchaeus wants to, but rather because God had eternally willed it. “I must stay at your house today,” He says. Must. Not merely wants to; but rather, must. I must stay at your house today. Zacchaeus receives this news with joy. He hurries to do what Jesus has instructed him to do.
But notice what happens next in verse 7 when the crowd hears the news.
7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
Who is “they”? The they are the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Scribes. They are the self-righteous hypocrites. They have been following Jesus along with the crowd, listening to and watching Him.
It should be noted that in His parables Jesus often contrasted the Pharisee against the tax collector. The two men who went up to the Temple to pray, for example, was one such parable. Two men went up to the Temple to pray, said Jesus, and one was a Pharisee while the other a tax collector.
The reason for this contrast between Pharisee and tax collector was simple enough. The Pharisees hated the tax collectors. While the Pharisees saw themselves as pious men, righteous and above reproach, teachers of the blind and the leaders of Israel, they saw the tax collectors as disgusting sinners, utter reprobates.
In truth however, the Pharisees were the most reprehensible and unrighteous men in all of Israel. Jesus often criticized them for their hypocrisy and wickedness.
8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” 9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
In the place of God’s holy law, the Pharisees had erected their own law. They called these laws, fence laws. They followed their own laws flawlessly even when their laws violated and ignored every jot and tittle of God’s law. As a consequence of this, they believed themselves righteous and in no need of salvation.
Jesus criticized them for this, telling them that it was not for the righteous He had come, but rather for the sinner. They did not and could not heed the warning.
Now here they stand though, near the foot a Sycamore tree, listening to Jesus inform a chief tax collector that He intended to stay at the man’s house today. I can almost hear the disgust in their voice as they grumble. “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” What scandalous behavior!
Two things happen in the wake of Jesus’ good news announcement to Zacchaeus. First, Zacchaeus finds himself overwhelmed with joy by the good news. He is so overwhelmed with joy that he informs Jesus he is going to make financial restitution to all the folks he had defrauded over the years.
Zacchaeus is not saying this in response to the crowd’s grumble. In fact, in his surprise and joy he probably hadn’t even heard the crowd grumble.
Jesus heard it though. And it is here where the second thing happened. Jesus says something to Zacchaeus within earshot of the crowd.
9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
We could spend all day just on the phrase, “he also is a son of Abraham”, but I want to address the first point I raised. What did Jesus mean by today salvation has come to this house?
How did salvation come to this house? Had Zacchaeus done something to make salvation come to his house? Had he earned salvation for his house by deciding to make financial restitution to all those who he had defrauded over the years?
No, of course not. Salvation is by grace alone. Had Zacchaeus earned salvation for his house, then salvation would not be by grace alone.
No, Zacchaeus had done nothing to earn salvation for his house. Rather, salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house, because Zacchaeus was a man whom God had predestined from eternity to save; and because he was predestined to be saved, he was now also a sinner who needed the very salvation God had predestined for him. He was a sinner in need of salvation. He was not a righteous man in need of an attaboy-pat-on-the-back from God.
Today, salvation has come to this house because today was the day which had been predestined for Zacchaeus. The timing of it had nothing to do with Zacchaeus’ decision to make financial restitution.
Zaccheus was simply expressing gratitude for the free gift of salvation the only way he knew how – by making financial restitution. If there is evidence of anything here, then it is evidence of his gratitude, not of his salvation.
His need for salvation was the evidence of his salvation. It was his need for the good news Jesus would explain to him.
By announcing that salvation had come today to the house of this son of Abraham, Jesus was exposing the darkness in the hearts of those Jews who grumbled. Salvation had not come to the houses of those who had grumbled even though they too were sons of Abraham like Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus knew he was a sinner even though he was a son of Abraham, and he believed Jesus was the only way he could receive this salvation. Those sons of Abraham who grumbled though, did not know they were sinners and so did not believe they needed to be saved.
Today, many of the self-righteous continue to believe they are without need of the cross either for salvation or else for assurance. They believe instead they have done enough to earn their assurance. This is why when they cast about for evidence of salvation they look always to their performance. They read a passage like Luke 19 and they immediately interpret Zacchaeus’ restitution as proof of his salvation.