The Time Jesus Thrilled an All-Around Bad Guy
Remember the time Jesus hung out with that dirty rotten scoundrel and flipped the world upside down?
Jesus enjoyed hanging out with those society deemed “sinners”. And that’s a nice sentiment we often appreciate. We all know what it means to struggle with temptation. And we can easily feel compassion for the outcast Samaritan woman that Jesus met at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-42), for instance. We like that Jesus liked the unliked.
However, not all the sinners He hung out with were the struggling, misunderstood kind. Many of them were loathsome, unsavoury individuals. And none were more notorious than the tax collectors, who cosied up to Rome for the express purpose of defrauding their own people. These are the guys who’d sell out their own mothers for a fast buck.
And if you thought your average rank-and-file tax collector was repugnant and repulsive, then a chief tax collector was the indisputable supervillain. And this is the sort of sinner Jesus chose to spend the night with in Luke 19:1-10.
It was on His way through Jericho when Jesus met the detestable chief tax collector named Zacchaeus, whose small-man syndrome is probably one reason why he clutched for a position of power to make himself big through abusing and exploiting others. And the story is a little comical. The evil supervillain needs to scale a tree in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus, the talk of the town.
Jesus spotted him hanging off a branch of a sycamore tree and called him out. But rather than condemn the man, Jesus invited himself over for the night much to the tax collector’s delight and the horror of those who thought they’d finally worked Jesus out.
We’re not told too much about what goes down, but we get the headline: Zacchaeus does a full one-eighty. In contrast to the rich ruler in Luke 18, which we covered in The Time Jesus Offended an All-Around Good Guy, Zacchaeus defected from the system he had profited from, saying,
Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
Jesus obviously considered the man’s repentance and restitution valid. He declared:
Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
(Luke 19:9, 10, italics added)
Firstly, notice that the issue is not about quantity. Unlike the rich ruler, in Zacchaeus’ case, half of his goods were enough. The issue is about renouncing the systems from which we profit, and choosing instead to use the privileges we’re afforded for the good of others. (That’s a recurring theme in Jesus’ message.)
Second, notice the strength of the phrase “Today salvation has come to this house” allied to Jesus’ statement of intent: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost”.
Saved From What?
The question is, salvation from what?
Of course, we might presume that Zacchaeus “got saved”, reducing it to an after-death transaction as we like to do. However, that is an assumption we read into the passage. We’re actually not told this; in fact, it’s not the point of the passage.
What? Someone’s eternal salvation is not the point?
No, it’s not. To both ancient Israel and Jesus’ audience, salvation wasn’t about eternal salvation; it wasn’t about “getting saved and going to heaven”.
The Hebrew and Greek words used for “salvation” mean to deliver, to heal, to forgive, to help, to rescue, to preserve, to protect, to secure and even to prosper and judge. They are rich, beautiful words that refer to God’s deliverance, His victory and His intervention. Importantly, they speak of God intervening in human affairs to defend, protect or rescue His people. Jesus was, of course, the ultimate God-intervention. He is the “Saviour of the world” (1 John 4:14), restoring us to the Father and inviting us to partner with Him in appropriating His intervention project.
So, Who Got Saved?
If we take the passage at face value, Jesus made this incredible declaration of salvation for one reason: Zacchaeus defected from a system that he had profited from at the expense of others. The man once corrupted by his alliance to the Empire was now delivered from its snare.
But Jesus’ declaration didn’t stop there … because salvation is not just about one man cleaning up his act.
Zacchaeus’ defection (repentance) not only saved him personally from the vices of greed, cruelty and fraud, but just as importantly, if not more so, it saved numerous others from being exploited by him. We’re talking about those he defrauded in the past, those he was swindling in the present, and those who would have been harassed by him in the future. Zacchaeus’ newfound generosity and commitment to restitution would prosper past and present victims, and his new heart would prevent future victims.
The one-time rascal who had, by his own admission, abused his position of authority to falsely accuse and defraud others, was now the means God used to bring justice and restoration to those once defrauded.
Without answering an altar call or saying the sinner’s prayer, the man and the world about him experienced God’s intervention (salvation).
In that real, raw, glorious moment, the Kingdom of God had come.