This New Testament character may be best known for the children’s song about his small stature, but students of every age can learn a lot from Zacchaeus and his interactions with Jesus. Zacchaeus may be one of the Bible’s most clear examples of a money slave who turns over a new leaf, giving us a case study in how money can enslave us and how we go about getting out of it.
Let’s dive right in to Luke 19:1-10, where we see the story of Zacchaeus:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “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.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
How do we know that Zacchaeus was enslaved by wrong attitudes toward money? In this case, the proof is contextual and historical. During Jesus’ time, Israel had been conquered by the Roman Empire, which taxed its subjects at very high rates. But instead of having Roman citizens collect those taxes, Rome’s government instead recruited Jews to collect taxes from their own people. They were charged with collecting the full amount owed to Caesar, and permitted to collect even more money to keep for themselves. With this authority, they were essentially government-sanctioned shake-down artists. Their countrymen saw them as traitors, swindlers and thieves.
As a tax collector, Zacchaeus was an unpopular guy in Jericho. He had essentially sold out his fellow citizens for money. He abused them, coerced them, and collected far more money from them than he should have. Zacchaeus traded his honor, good name and good relationships for a pot of gold. He was a money slave. And yet that all changed when he met Jesus.
When Jesus saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, He called him down, and asked to stay at his house. The religious people of the day were horrified by this, because they knew how corrupt Zacchaeus was. But Jesus didn’t care about that; in fact, He saw an opportunity to change a life.
What happened to Zacchaeus? He had an encounter with Jesus, and it changed him. He immediately recognized his sin, and set about making amends. “Look, Lord!,” he said. “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.”
Zacchaeus realized that his money had made a slave of him, and that he had sinned against a lot of people in his quest for wealth. An encounter with the love and power of Jesus changed who he was, and it set him free from his slavery. Jesus recognized this too, saying “Today salvation has come to this house.”
It’s interesting to note the differences between Zacchaeus and the Rich Young Ruler. Both were wealthy, and both had encounters with Jesus. But Zacchaeus’ wealth was earned as a result of sin; when he met the son of God and his sins were revealed to him, he had no desire to keep the money that he had stolen from people. In fact, in addition to repaying everything he stole four times over, he promised to give half of all he owned to the poor. His heart changed from a place of sinning for money to an attitude of using money to accomplish God’s will on earth.
The Rich Young Ruler, on the other hand, probably didn’t come into his wealth as a result of sin (the Bible really doesn’t say). In fact, he claimed to have lived a pretty righteous life, and Jesus didn’t dispute that. But he was unable to turn the corner in his heart — when Jesus asked him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, he left sad, because he was unable to separate his heart from his wealth.
So, what’s the lesson from all this? Sin can make us slaves to money, but Jesus can forgive us our sins and set us free from the chains. Whether or not we let Him do that is up to us.
Photo by Eran Finkle. Used under Creative Commons License.