The story of Zacchaeus climbing up the tree to see Jesus is familiar in Sunday Schools. On the surface, it is simply the story of a man trying to get a glimpse at Jesus from a better vantage point. Underneath the surface, this story has a profound message. It is a message that threatens to undo us. We must read it only if we have courage.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector, actually a chief tax collector. He was part of the Roman Empire working to extract taxes. He was not a popular person at all. As money was taken from others, Zacchaeus’ lifestyle became extravagant. He took people’s money, probably more than was fair, and he worked for the Empire. In all of Jericho, few were probably more disliked.
But then Jesus comes to town and sees this man. Jesus sees through this man. In Luke’s gospel we have just read how difficult it is for the rich to follow the way’s of Jesus (Luke 18:18ff.) Jesus knows that there is hope. Maybe Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34, 15:1). The two of them, Jesus and Zacchaeus came face to face. Jesus invited himself over for supper. Everything changed.
Zacchaeus repented. This is not just a change of heart. This repentance results in a change of action, behavior, lifestyle. Tax collectors asked John the Baptist: “what should we do?” (Luke 3:10-14). Here we see a change of heart in action. Conversion, repentance, is not simply about getting ready for heaven. Conversion is about a change in life now, a transformation of life now. The expectation of discipleship is that one’s life will look noticeably different. The good news of discipleship is that God moves into people’s lives with transformative power (2 Corinthians 5:17).
People grumbled. People thought that Jesus’ actions were completely inappropriate. Jesus saw a person reaching out towards the mercy of God. The kingdom of God was becoming real in this chief tax collector.
Extravagant repentance (NT Wright) means that because of Jesus everything changes in our lives. This is discipleship that follows the way of the cross. This is discipleship that demands everything. This is discipleship that is not for the faint-hearted. Don’t let this popular Sunday School story fool you. This story is dangerous.