For those of us who grew up attending Sunday School, the name Zacchaeus calls to mind a cutesy tune about a “wee little man,” who “climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” But we’re a bit hazy on the rest of the story. We might have missed the point that Zacchaeus’s story is much more significant than simply a tale of a tiny guy climbing a tree and meeting Jesus.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector, meaning he was in league with the hated Roman Empire, and a thief who overcharged his fellow Jews, skimming the profits for his own benefit. Throughout the Gospels we read of “tax collectors and sinners” as a group of despised, loathsome people hated by God-fearing Jews for their immorality. Zacchaeus was chief among them. So when Zacchaeus made the decision to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus, he was discarding what little dignity he had left.
But that is not the truly surprising part of the story. When Jesus saw him, He called Zacchaeus by name, as one who knew him, and said, “Hurry and come down because today it is necessary for me to stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). After all, He did not come to call the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).
In the face of judgment and complaint, Jesus went to Zacchaeus’s home. The text has little to say about their conversation; it simply records the transformation that took place. Zacchaeus willingly offered up half of his wealth for the poor and promised to repay everyone he had extorted four times what he had initially taken (Luke 19:8). By Jewish law, a just repayment would have been full repayment with a twenty percent penalty (Leviticus 6:5). But Zaccheus offered a four hundred percent repayment, because true repentance is not just ceasing to sin, but turning away from it altogether and hating it. When Jesus heard this from Zacchaeus He simply said:
“Today salvation has come to this house…
because he too is a son of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9–10).
By declaring this, Jesus was calling Zacchaeus a true child of God, a person of true faith (Galatians 3:12). This was a man turning from the idol of money to follow Jesus no matter the cost. He was no longer putting his faith in wealth but trusting that God would never leave him or abandon him (Hebrews 13:5). Rather than hoarding wealth that would rot away, Zaccheus began storing up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19).
In truth, Zacchaeus’s small stature matters little in his story. Only his change of heart matters. His change of Lord matters—from that of money to Jesus (Matthew 6:24). He is a picture of true and deep repentance and the lasting transformation it brings.
Written by Barnabas Piper