Readings: Isaiah 1:10-18 • Psalm 32:1-8 • 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 • Luke 19:1-10
This week’s theme is the joy and transforming power of grace. The prophet Isaiah points out to the sinful people of Sodom and Gomorrah that God is not interested in burnt offerings; he is interested in seeing change—seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, taking care of the widow. He gives forgiveness, he wants us to let it change the way we live. The Psalmist talks about confessing our sins and living in the joy of forgiveness. Forgiveness changes us. In Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, he tells them he boasts about how their living in grace has increased their love for one another. The sermon focuses on the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Zacchaeus displays the joy and transformation of receiving God’s grace.
The Transforming Power of Love
One of the songs that is part of the soundtrack for the classic 1980s movie Back to the Future is “The Power of Love,” by the group Huey Lewis and the News. The lyrics point out an important truth about love:
The power of love is a curious thing
Makes one man weep, makes another man sing
Changes a heart to a little white dove
More than a feeling, that’s the power of love.
You’ll notice that the lyrics talk about how love is “more than a feeling” and that love can actually create change in people. Love is a force that can transform a person. We can see this transformational process at work in the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector, which we find in Luke 19:1-10.
If you did not play “Speaking of Life,” read, or have someone read, Luke 19:1-10.
First a bit of background: Under the Roman system, tax collecting jobs were given to people who purchased the right to collect taxes. In other words, tax collecting was a business. As a business owner, Zacchaeus could set taxes at a rate that covered what he had to pay to Rome, cover business expenses, and pay himself a handsome salary. Add to that, Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector,” which meant he presided over other tax gatherers, adding to his profit status. Luke tells us Zacchaeus was a wealthy man—he had done well in business.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible does not state that Zacchaeus was dishonest. Zacchaeus’ statement to Jesus was, “If I have been dishonest, I will pay back four times as much.” The Bible does let us know Zacchaeus was considered a sinner because of his business choice—and his greed. One can determine Zacchaeus was more concerned about wealth than reputation simply due to the fact he chose to work for the enemy, and he chose a career he knew his fellow countrymen despised.
Jews not only hated being governed by Rome, paying taxes to Rome was just another thorn. Then to have some of their own countrymen collecting those taxes just added fuel to the fire. Tax collectors (publicans) were not liked by the people in any community and were presumed to be dishonest, corrupt and they were pretty much despised. So for Jesus to call out Zacchaeus and then say he wanted to share a meal with him was more than many people could handle. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Let’s consider some interesting ideas found in this passage:
- Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus. He was short, and he had to climb a tree to see. Zacchaeus may have even been putting his own safety in jeopardy by showing up in the crowd trying to see Jesus. People despised him because of his profession.
- Jesus called him by name. Jesus honored Zacchaeus by calling him by name. This implies that he knew him and his story, how he was excluded because he worked for Rome. Jesus knew his reputation, and he knew the truth about Zacchaeus’ business practices—whether or not they were dishonest.
- Those who grumbled did not understand why Jesus came. Many assumed that Jesus was going to break the control Rome had on Judea and that he would become the new king. Hanging out with a tax collector implied approval. They didn’t realize Jesus’s mission was to show that God’s kingdom operated with different rules, and that love and grace were at the top of that list.
- Zacchaeus’s offer of restitution was more generous than required by the Law. He was only required to restore the original value plus one-fifth (Lev. 6:5). Only premeditated and violent robbery required fourfold restitution (Ex. 22:1). Zacchaeus shows that he is willing to go above and beyond if he has cheated anyone, but he goes further and says he will give away half of his possessions. This is a bold move of a wealthy person, indicating to us that Zacchaeus is changed by Jesus’s loving acceptance.
- Jesus makes it clear that everyone belongs, regardless of their career choice or any mistakes they make. Jesus says that Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham,” reminding the others that he has a place with them. He may be a brother who chose a despised career, but he is first and foremost a brother.
- Jesus states his mission. Contrary to what the crowd thought, Jesus’ mission was not to become a king and create the type of government they were familiar with. Jesus’s mission was to “seek out and save the lost” by showing how all people were valuable in God’s sight, not just the “cool” ones, or the rich ones, or the religiously perfect ones. He was ushering in a system that was based on grace, not merit. He chose to spend time with those marginalized by the culture they lived in—women, the poor, those who were despised by others, those had made mistakes. He honored those the culture said were nobodies because in God’s economy, there are no nobodies.
- Transformation can only happen in the context of loving acceptance of a person where they are at right now. Jesus didn’t tell Zacchaeus he needed to make any particular changes. He said, “I’d love to spend some time and get to know you better.” In our relationships, we must put loving acceptance first and leave the job of transformation to God and his perfect timing. Consider how this impacts your relationships with family, coworkers, and other church members.
- Everyone is somebody in God’s kingdom. Everyone matters. Everyone has a place and purpose. We cannot judge a person’s contribution or value because all are invaluable in God’s sight. All are included and loved.
As we consider the transformation of Zacchaeus’ heart, we are reminded that love and acceptance create the conditions for transformation to occur, and this transformation will come from God, within a person, not from concerned onlookers. “The power of love is a curious thing,” say the song lyrics, but the effects of loving acceptance can be far-reaching and life changing.
Small Group Discussion Questions
From Speaking of Life and the sermon
- We observe that Jesus’s first words to Zacchaeus were not about the type of business Zacchaeus chose—knowing it was a business that was despised—but he asked to spend time with Zacchaeus. How do you think Zacchaeus felt when Jesus said he wanted to stay at his house? How would you feel if you were in his place?
- Those who were watching, who had probably felt they had been defrauded by Zacchaeus, grumbled against Jesus because he was choosing to spend time with someone who clearly benefited from the Roman occupation of their land. They thought Jesus was going to break the control of the Romans and become king; instead, he was hanging out with a tax collector. Share a time you expected God to work in a situation in a particular way, and he chose to handle it completely differently. Were your feelings and thoughts quick to change and adapt, or did it take a while?
- Jesus’ love and acceptance for Zacchaeus made him want to live differently, to be a better person, to be more generous. Share a time when someone’s belief or confidence in you made you better or stronger than you would have been by yourself.
- Jesus makes the point that Zacchaeus was part of the “family” (i.e., “a son of Abraham”). How can we convey that same loving acceptance to our own family when they make choices we don’t agree with? How can we convey that loving acceptance to our church family?