I’ve been teaching my daughter the song “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.” Because of this catchy little tune, and because he was short, this seems to be the story about Jesus that most children really seem to grab a hold of. (I was hoping to find a flannelboard picture of Zacchaeus, but no luck. 🙁 The cheesy picture to the left will have to be sufficient.) I was looking at this story a few days ago, and there is so much more going on than what we capture from it as children…
Here’s the story in the New International Version from Luke 19:
1 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 being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamorefig 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 what was lost.”
I’m especially interested in why Jesus said what he did in verse 9. This is one of only two times Jesus ever even says the word ‘salvation’ in the gospels. Why here?
For so long, I have understood this verse as if Jesus was granting salvation (ie eternal life and forgiveness) to Zac because of his actions. Jesus would certainly have the authority to do this, but if that is the case, it sure looks a lot like Zac just received his salvation through his works.
Maybe that is not at all the point. Maybe Jesus is not granting salvation to Zac, but something far greater is going on.
First of all, consider that Jesus was acknowledging what was happening in Zac’s life. He was not simply handing the gift of salvation over to Zac. Instead, he was acknowledging that Zac had just discovered a newer and fuller way of living. His salvation came not only as something that Jesus could grant to him, but it came because he had discovered how God had truly shaped him to live, and he was beginning to conform to that pattern. Could it be that Jesus is responding to what he sees happening in Zac?
Here, though, is where I think it really gets good. By mentioning salvation, Jesus is making a deeply political statement. As a tax collector, Zac was an employee of Rome, and ultimately Caesar. As I talked about a bit in this post, it was publicly stated that the Caesar was the one who brought salvation to the empire. However, Zac has just completely renounced his former life as a loyal (or at least greedy) subject of the Empire. Jesus proclaims that in doing that, and in choosing to follow him, Zac has found where true salvation lies! It is no mere coincidence that Jesus mentions salvation here!
If we consider salvation to only be forgiveness so that something good can happen later, we miss it. Salvation can be found now as we allow the Spirit of God to shape us into our true humanity.