Who Wants to See Jesus?

Who Wants to See Jesus?

This morning’s passage is yet another reminder of our Lord’s mercy to those who want to see him—which is another way of saying that Jesus is merciful to those who see their sin, and want to be free from it. By the time we arrive at the events described in the nineteenth chapter of Luke, Jesus’ fame has spread far and wide. Word has gotten around about who he was and all the things he had done.

I went back through the previous eighteen chapters of Luke’s Gospel to remind myself of the many things people had seen Jesus do prior to his encounter with Zacchaeus. As we’ll see, he had an extraordinary ministry of healing and casting out demons. And again, make no mistake, word had gotten out about him. His reputation, without question, preceded him. Now in considering these instances named by Luke, we need to keep in mind that this lists indicates only some of the specific instances recorded for us. The list isn’t exhaustive. So for instance, once during Jesus’ sermon on the plain, Luke simply states that many who were sick with diseases and impure spirits came to hear Jesus “because power was coming from him and healing them all.”[1] So there really is no way for us to know the final tally. As John similarly states at the end of his Gospel, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). Even so, here are some of the specific acts done by Jesus that take place before his meeting with Zacchaeus in chapter 19 of Luke’s Gospel:

Six times Jesus had cast out demons or healed people with them;[2]

Twelve times he had healed people with various kinds of illnesses—from fever to leprosy to paralysis to a withered hand to an issue of blood to crippling to bodily swelling to blindness;[3]

Numerous times Jesus performed various kind of miracles—from drawing such a large number of fish that the nets began to break after experienced fishermen, who later become his disciples, had been unsuccessful in catching any[4]—to bringing the dead back to life[5]—to stilling the wind and the waves[6]—to feeding five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish;[7]

And twice Jesus forgave people their sins;[8]

So think about it. All of these events took place in a relatively prescribed area of 20 miles or so—that’s about the distance from Ipswich to Lynn. If someone today were performing these kinds of wondrous works in Lynn, we would have heard about it! And simply because ancient societies didn’t have television or twitter or smart phones or satellites doesn’t mean that people in such a relatively small geographic area were isolated from one another. Word about Jesus—the things he was teaching, the miracles he was performing—had definitely gotten out.

And as we turn to our passage, we’re told that “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through” (1). So Jericho wasn’t his final destiny—in fact Jerusalem was as Jesus was headed towards his crucifixion.[9] But as Jesus was passing through Jericho, our attention is brought to “[a] man…there…[named] Zacchaeus” (2a). Other than his name, all we are initially told about him is that “he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy” (2b). Now Zacchaeus being a tax-collector and wealthy isn’t a coincidence. As we’ve seen before, tax collectors at this time were despised by the Jewish people not only because they worked for the Roman Empire rather than for the Jewish community but also because, along the way, they managed to line their own pockets as well. As one study guide notes, “Jericho was near a major trade route and famous balsam groves. There was much to tax, and Zaccaeus was accordingly quite rich.”[10] So not without cause were tax collectors considered corrupt for they collected more taxes than required—including Zacchaeus’ ill-gotten wealth.

In verse three we learn a few more things about Zacchaeus. First, “he wanted to see who Jesus was.” Our familiarity with this account may cause us to miss how unusual this reaction was. Whatever else Zacchaeus may have heard, he no doubt knew that Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, upheld the law. So why would someone who had made his living breaking the law be interested in seeing someone who upheld the law? Normally a thief has little interest in encountering a police officer. But maybe that’s the point. Though an upholder of the law and the incarnation of God’s holiness, Jesus’ focus was ever upon sinners who were so deceived and trapped by the wiles and lies of the devil and by their own desires to serve themselves rather than the God in whose image they were made, that they could not keep themselves from sinning, from going against God’s law and thus harming themselves and those around them in the process. Jesus was a different kind of upholder of the law. He understood that the law was intended to teach us how we are to live and flourish; that is, to teach us what love for God and love for neighbor looks like in practice; and, by our inability to keep it, the law further shows us our need for our Maker and his mercy and grace.

So in this account, Zacchaeus is “exhibit A” of what the reaction of every sinner—which is just another way of saying every person—ought to be towards Jesus. In addition to learning that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, in verse 3 we’re also told that he was short and therefore “could not see over the crowd” and so, verse 4, he “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.” Now you must want to really see someone to climb a tree in order to do so! And, again, Zacchaeus clearly really wanted to see Jesus.

Next we’re told that Jesus, to whom nothing was a surprise for he was not only completely human but also completely God, when he “reached the spot” where Zacchaeus was perched, “he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today’” (5). We can only imagine how great Zacchaeus’ surprise must have been for unbeknownst to him, Jesus was as eager to see him as he was to see Jesus. Zacchaeus being up in a sycamore-fig tree was no surprise to Jesus. His stopping at just that spot and looking up, indicates he knew and was expecting to find him there. And, wonder of wonders, Jesus, a teacher of righteousness, not only called upon this unrighteous man to come down from the tree but let him know that he “must stay at [his] house” that very day. The Righteous One was to receive the hospitality, to enter the home, to be the guest, of someone despised as being one of the most unrighteous in that society. And rather than respond in fear, knowing all too well the kind of life he’d led up until that point, Zacchaeus responded with gladness and joy. As we’re told in verse 6, “So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.”

And it was at this point that the trouble began for Jesus, as it often did when he interacted with “those sinners.” In verse 7 it states, “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’” You see Jesus wasn’t the only one whose reputation preceded him. Zaccahaeus was not only a despised tax collector, but he was a chief tax collector who was probably in charge of other corrupt tax collectors; he wasn’t only someone working for the Roman Empire collecting taxes from the Jewish nation and enriching himself financially in the process, but the fact that he was Jewish himself added insult to this great injury. And the people knew this. And the people muttered. They expressed their disapproval. They expressed their dissatisfaction. For how could Jesus who knew the law; how could Jesus who taught the law; how could Jesus who upheld the law stoop so low as to become the guest of not just any sinner, but of a sinner such magnitude as Zacchaeus so clearly was?

But what the people didn’t know—which Zacchaeus clearly did—is that Jesus came into the world not to punish those who couldn’t uphold the law, but to deliver them from their inability and their lack of desire to do so. Zacchaeus knew himself to be a sinner. And, despite his wealth, he wasn’t happy about the means he had used to procure his affluent lifestyle—his cheating others for his own gain. And because Zacchaeus knew himself to be a sinner, he was able to know Jesus as his Savior and Lord.

When the people began to mutter about this unlikely turn of events—what self-respecting righteous man would ever stay at the house of a sinner as his guest?—“Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord,” verse 8, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and[,] if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Whereas the people expressed their disapproval at Jesus’ behavior, Zacchaeus expressed his delight for he understood that this was his chance to make amends for all the wrong he had done. He understood that this was his moment to turn his life around. And notice that Zacchaeus spoke not to the muttering people, but to his gracious guest, Jesus his Lord.

And gracious Jesus similarly turned not to the muttering people, but to joyous Zacchaeus, and proclaimed in verse 9, albeit loudly enough for the mutterers to hear, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Why did Jesus say this? How did he know salvation had come to this once corrupt son of Abraham? Jesus knew this because of Zacchaeus’ response to him.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so badly that he had climbed a sycamore-fig tree that he might just see him.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so badly that when Jesus told him to come down from that tree so he could stay at his house, he did so gladly;

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so badly that he knew what he would need to do to keep seeing Jesus—to now follow Jesus. Zacchaeus knew he would have to be like Jesus and love others as the law would have him love them. So he not only offered to give away half of his considerable possessions—not just his money, mind you, but half of his possessions—to the poor—to those most in need of such help—but he would also pay back four times of what he had cheated others in his position as a once-corrupt chief tax collector. In doing so Zacchaeus did far more than the law required for the law stipulated that the amount to be restored by someone who had stolen was to be whatever had been taken plus a fifth, or 20 percent, more.[11] But Zacchaeus went far above and beyond this amount. In giving half of his possessions and pledging to return four times what he had cheated others, he probably was left being materially poor. Even the muttering people would have recognized Zacchaeus’ extravagant generosity.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so much that he was willing to become financially poor that he might become spiritually rich and, in the process, become and own the true son of Abraham that he should have been behaving like all along. Before this he had been a son of Abraham in name only; now he was a son of Abraham, a follower of the one true God of Abraham, in name, word, and deed.

Again, Zacchaeus’ response of faith to Jesus, as demonstrated by his vast generosity, indicate and demonstrate that he has owned and acknowledged the salvation Jesus offers to all who would receive it.

As I was talking about this passage with Ron earlier this week, he reminded me that in chapter 18 of Luke we have an account of another rich man who wasn’t able to respond in the manner that Zacchaeus did. Unlike Zacchaeus in chapter 19, the rich young ruler of Luke 18[12] had a sterling reputation. In fact that rich young man, by his own admission, had kept the commandments from the time he was a boy. Yet upon hearing this, Jesus responded to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And then we’re told this other rich man’s response: “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.”

The end of both of these passages in Luke’s Gospel affirm the same truth. Upon seeing the rich young ruler’s refusal to give away his material goods to the poor in exchange for the spiritual wealth he would gain from following Jesus, Jesus stated, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!  Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Conversely, consider the final verse in our passage this morning. After celebrating the fact that salvation had come to the home of rich Zacchaeus who did give half of what he owned to the poor and restored four-fold those whom he’d robbed, Jesus stated, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The Son of Man came to seek and to save even a rich man who was less likely to enter the kingdom of God than was a camel to go through the eye of a needle. So what was the difference between these two rich men?

Zacchaeus knew that though he was materially rich, he was spiritually empty—the rich young ruler didn’t;

Zaccheus knew that lasting treasures were heavenly, not earthly—the rich young ruler didn’t;

Zacchaeus knew that the pleasures of wealth were illusory—the rich young ruler didn’t;

Zacchaeus knew that the one thing that mattered was following Jesus—the rich young ruler didn’t.

The reaction of neither man was a surprise to Jesus for he knew the heart of man.[13] And remember that when Jesus first came upon Zacchaeus, he told him not only to come down but also that he “must” stay at his house that day. Why did he say he must stay at Zaccahaeus’ house? Because Jesus knew that that day he “must” bring salvation to this well-known sinner’s home.

On this Reformation Sunday, we are reminded not just of the heart of the Reformation but of the Gospel. For we Gentiles, too, are welcomed as sons of Abraham if we, like he; if we, like Zacchaeus believe God—believe Christ—and so have that belief reckoned, or credited, to us as righteousness.[14]

On this Reformation Sunday, by Zaccahaeus’ example we are reminded of that great Reformer Martin Luther’s teaching that the purpose of good works isn’t to save us, but that good works are intended to be an expression of gratitude for all that we have been given by God in Christ who took on our sins—took on our curse—took on our death on the cross that we might receive his righteousness—his blessing—his eternal life at his resurrection.

All those who wanted to see Jesus understood this.

Who wanted to see Jesus? Those who were physically sick and dying;

Who wanted to see Jesus? Those who were spiritually afflicted;

Who wanted to see Jesus? Those who were hungry;

Who wanted to see Jesus? Those who knew that the greatest material gain is nothing when compared to knowing God in Christ.

Who wanted to see Jesus? Those who knew that no matter how hard they tried, they could never be the people they wanted to be—much less the people God wanted them to be.

Who wanted to see Jesus? Those who were sick and knew they were sick and in need of Physician Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, so it was then—so it is now. Those who want to see Jesus are those who see their need of him—physically, spiritually, and in every way. Though we are called to be holy, though we are called to be like God, we are not holy yet. Holiness is not only difficult, it’s impossible apart from God’s Holy Spirit working in your life and mine; and it’s also impossible without each other’s help. That’s part of God’s intended plan for us.

To love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength we need God; to love our neighbor as ourselves, we need one another. Our lives should reflect these profound Scriptural truths as we seek to share with others the riches God has provided—as we seek to be good stewards of all that we are and all that we have—as an expression of our gratitude for these eternal riches we have been given by God in Christ. And we can rest in the assurance that as we seek to live like Jesus on earth, so we will one day see him in heaven, no longer by faith, but by glorious and joyous sight.

Let us pray.




[1] Luke 6:17ff: (v. 19 is quoted).

[2] Luke 4:31–37: Jesus drives out demons from a man in a synagogue in Capernaum in Galilee on the Sabbath; see Luke 4:40–41 below; Luke 8:2: Mention is made of women whom Jesus cured of evil spirits and diseases; Luke 8:26–39: Jesus heals a possessed man, sending the legion of demons into a herd of pigs; Luke 9:37–43a: Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy; Luke 11:14–20: Jesus drives out a demon from a man who was mute.

[3] Luke 4:38–39: Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law from a high fever; Luke 4:40–41: Jesus heals people with various kinds of illnesses and demons; Luke 5:12–16: Jesus heals a man with leprosy; Luke 5:17–26: Jesus heals a paralyzed man brought to him on mat by forgiving his sins; Luke 6:1–10: Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath; Luke 7:1–10: Jesus heals the centurion’s servant.; See Luke 8:2 above, footnote 2. See also woman with issue of blood in Luke 8:43–44 in footnote 5 below; Luke 13:10–17: Jesus heals a women crippled from a 13-year infirmity on a Sabbath; Luke 14:1–4: Jesus, at a Pharisee’s house on a Sabbath, heals a man suffering with abnormal swelling of his body; Luke 17:11–17: Jesus heals ten men with leprosy; Luke 18:35–42: Jesus heals a blind beggar.

[4] Luke 5:1–10: Jesus calls Simon—and James and John (Zebedee’s sons and Simon’s partners) as his disciple after the miracle of the large number of fish that causes their nets to begin to break.

[5] Luke 7:11–16: Jesus brings the widow at Nain’s son back to life; Luke 8:40–56: Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from death—and the woman with the issue of blood along the way (43–44).

[6] Luke 8:22–25: Jesus rebukes the wind and raging waters when awoken in a boat by his disciples.

[7] Luke 9:10:17: Jesus feeds the five thousand with five loaves and two fish.

[8] Luke 7:36–50: Jesus anointed by, defends, and forgives a sinful woman. Sa Luke 5:17–26, footnote 3 above.

[9] Luke 18:31–34: 31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”

[10] Reformation Study Bible.

[11] Reformation Study Bible. Leviticus 6:1–5: 1 The Lord said to Moses: “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbor, or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit— when they sin in any of these ways and realize their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found, or whatever it was they swore falsely about. They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. Numbers 5:5–7:The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.

[12] Luke 18:18–25: 18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” 21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

[13] John 2:23–25: 23 Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.

[14] Genesis 15:6:Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.; Romans 4:18–25 (also verse 3): 18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification; 2 Corinthians 5:16–21: 16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

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