19He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
A husband and a wife were driving along 81 on a fall day when they got hungry and began looking for a place to pull over for lunch. They got off on 250 and began driving west toward a city spelled S-T-A-U-N-T-O-N. The man said to his wife, I believe that it is pronounced “Ston-ton.” She replied, “No, I think that it is pronounced like Stanton.”
They argued for a few minutes about the actual pronunciation of the city and they were getting on each other’s nerves. They finally pull of and go into a fast food joint, obviously frustrated with one another, and they came to the register. The friendly cashier asks, “How may I help you today.”
The frustrated man says, “First things first. I need you to tell me very slowly exactly how to say the name of this place.”
The cashier looked at the man and said, “Burrrr gerrrr King.”
We all ask silly question, but one of the things that separates men from women is our ability (or lack there of) to ask directions. I know it is very stereotypical, but I do not ask for directions…ever. I have maps, I have the internet, I have a GPS. What could some teenager working at a gas station tell me? I remember early in our relationship driving around for a period of time, and Sonya getting frustrated because I would not stop and ask for directions. She and I disagreed on some terminology. She defined our status as being lost. I explained to her that I was not lost; I simply was not where I was supposed to be. Not yet. She asked if I had ever been “lost” and I explained to her that I had never been in a situation that I was not able to find my own way home without asking for directions. I didn’t mention that I don’t always find what I set out looking for, but I do always find my way back home again.
I don’t know why it is, and I know that I can’t speak for everyone, but I refuse to admit it when I am lost. Or maybe I would admit it, if I ever was to get lost. But I do get into situations where I am not where I am supposed to be. We can call it what we want, but the Bible does not beat around the bush. The Bible refers to us as being lost.
As I read through the story of Zacchaeus, I wonder if Zacchaeus would have considered himself to have been lost. Not that he didn’t know where he was going, or how to get back home again. But I wonder if he ever realized that he was not where he was supposed to be before the day that he met Jesus. Zacchaeus would have been a Jewish man. We don’t know if he kept the law, if he went through the religious rituals and made sacrifices, or made frequent trips to the temple. But he was Jewish and would probably consider himself a child of God in spite of his current occupation. I don’t think that Zacchaeus ever thought that he was in danger of going to hell.
But this is how many of us in the church today define being “lost”. However, I don’t believe that is how Jesus is using the term “lost” in our scripture for this morning. Because I believe that even those who are saved, who are in Christ, can be lost. Because being lost isn’t simply about your eternal destination. Being lost is about not being where you are supposed to be.
Our scripture for this morning begins by telling us that Jesus was passing through Jericho and there was a man named Zacchaeus that has heard about Jesus and our text tells us that Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was.
Now what is the thing that we all know about Zacchaeus? He was short. He was short in the NT era when the average height for a full-grown man was probably close to 5’0”. So Zacchaeus was probably not much taller than 4 feet tall. So in order to see this Jesus guy, Zacchaeus runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree to enhance his view.
So imagine how this would look even today. A mature man, short in stature, running ahead and climbing a tree to see this famous person that was coming through the town. This would seem funny today, but it was even more strange in the 1st century because mature men did not run in public. We see grown men run all the time in our neck of the woods. I live right next to the park and there are always men running there. But in the 1st century, it was seen as childish to run. And it would probably seem a little bit strange to us to see an adult climbing trees. Again, that seems like a thing that children do, and that is likely true for Jesus’ day. Adults just didn’t run and climb trees. That is what kids do. But he wanted to see Jesus that much.
Then again, Zacchaeus wasn’t exactly a well respected man in his town before he started running and climbing trees. Our text tells us that he was a tax collector. He worked for the Romans, for the enemy. And the tax collectors were known to take more than their fair share and keep the extra money for themselves. So tax collectors were scoundrels in the 1st century. In the New Testament they are often lumped together with the prostitutes and the sinners. That seems to be the big three offenders, at least to the religious folks, in the New Testament: The prostitutes, the sinners, and those scoundrel tax collectors. They were second rate, they were the outcasts, they were nothing but a menace to society. You don’t make eye contact with one of these big three offenders when you pass them on the street. In fact, you might even walk to the other side of the street just to make sure that you didn’t have to talk to them or accidentally touch them. And Zacchaeus wasn’t any old tax collector scoundrel. No, he was the chief scoundrel.
When Jesus comes to the place where Zacchaeus has climbed the tree, he looks up at the man and he tells him that he is coming over tonight. Jesus is going to be the houseguest of this scoundrel, this chief scoundrel.
As many of you know, I thoroughly enjoy sports. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a great athlete. However, I have never been able to achieve those dreams. I played basketball all four years that I spent at Norwayne High School in beautiful Ohio. And I spent three of those years playing on the JV team. I was only on the varsity team my senior year because seniors were not permitted to play on the JV team in our conference.
Now for those of you that are not familiar with these terms, “varsity” is a word that refers to the best players on a team at any given school. So for instance, the best 12 or so players from each school are on the varsity team. The players that are not as good still have the opportunity to play ball, but they play at a lower level, the junior varsity. They play against other school’s JV teams.
There would be any number of reasons for a player to be on the JV team. Usually the JV players were underclassmen, Freshmen, Sophomores, and sometimes Juniors. These were players that had not necessarily developed the physical skills to play at the next level. Some had not developed physically, the height, weight, quickness, to be able to play at the varsity level. And it is very possible that some of these kids would grow stronger, taller, faster, or more skilled as they moved into higher classes at school. But some people just never did develop and they played JV for as long as they could and then sat the bench at the varsity level when they became seniors. That was my story.
But there was more to being on the varsity team than just playing at the highest level in your conference. Being a varsity athlete was your M. O. If you were a varsity athlete, you had instant street credibility. You could buy a letterman’s jacket with the leather sleeves. You were all at once cool and everyone wanted to be your friend. You sat at the cool table during lunch. You hung out at the coolest places after school. And in stereotypical fashion, the varsity athletes dated the cheerleaders.
As a JV athlete, you didn’t get to enjoy the finer things of high school-dom. You didn’t have that automatic coolness. You might not be a total outcast, nerd, dork, or dweeb. But you didn’t have that free pass to sit at the cool table at lunch. And they sure don’t have cool jackets for JV players like they do for varsity athletes.
If Zacchaeus was a high school athlete, he would have been on the JV squad. And not because of his short stature, but because scoundrel status. He wouldn’t have sat with the cool kids at lunch; he wouldn’t have dated the cheerleader. He wouldn’t have had one of those uber cool wool jackets with the leather sleeves. Zacchaeus was a JV player for life.
But along comes Jesus and he finds this funny little man that runs around and climbs trees, this chief of all scoundrels, and Jesus says, “I am starting a new team and I want you to play for me. It isn’t just another JV team, I want you on my varsity squad. I want you to be a starter. I want you to be my captain.”
This was indeed good news for Zacchaeus, but not everyone liked what they were hearing. Verse 7 tells us, “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” They quickly begin to size themselves up with the competition. Jesus was picking teams and they just got picked after Zacchaeus. And they are thinking, “But I am taller than Zacchaeus. I am faster, I can shoot better, dribble better, you name it better. Why did he get picked before me?”
I don’t think that the point of all of this is that Jesus prefers the scoundrels, the tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes. Jesus doesn’t love one person more than another. But what Jesus is looking for is the people that are willing to follow him. The reason that Jesus seems to be attracted to the scoundrels is because they know that they have room to grow and improve. They know that they are on the JV team. The religious elite think they already have it all together. They are already on the varsity team, so why would they need to practice?
And Zacchaeus does change. It seems likely that he had cheated people and he knows it. So he says that he is going to pay back anyone that he has cheated 4 times the amount. And not only that, he is going to give away half of his wealth to the poor. Evidently he had a lot of money to give or he didn’t cheat very many people out of money, but Zacchaeus makes this generous proclamation right then and there for all to hear and keep him accountable to.
When we read the story of Zacchaeus in its place in the book of Luke, it seems to me that it is not by accident that Luke puts this story in the chapter immediately following the story of the rich young ruler. The rich young ruler comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus names about half of the 10 Commandments, and the RYR says that he has kept these commandments from his youth. But Jesus gives him one more challenge. He tells the RYR to sell everything that he has, give the money to the poor, and follow him. Then he will have treasures in heaven. But the RYR goes away sad because he had many possessions.
Move ahead one chapter and we have this scoundrel, who is also said to be rich, doing just what Jesus had told the RYR to do. Or at least he is doing it halfway by giving half of his possessions away. And what does Jesus say about Zacchaeus’ generosity and change of heart? He says “Today salvation has come to this house…For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
I think that sometimes we use certain language in the church so much that we actually get too familiar with it and can overlook what the words really mean. For instance, when Jesus says in our scripture for today that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house and that he came to seek out and save the lost, I don’t think that he is talking about saving people so that they go to heaven when they die. Yes, these words are used in other parts of the Bible to describe the forgiveness of sin and the atoning act of Jesus Christ on the cross. But I think that when Jesus is talking about salvation here he is talking about taking a man that was lost and putting him back on the right track again. This isn’t just about what is to come after death; this is about what is to come before death. Jesus didn’t just come to save us from our sins; he came to save us from our sinful ways.
So I go back to my original observation that I made all of those years ago as I was driving around with Sonya. When she said I was lost, I disagreed. I simply wasn’t where I was supposed to be. And I think that even those of us that have been a part of a church for all of our lives, even if you have been baptized and know Jesus as Lord, you can still be lost by this definition. Because if you are not living your life as God would have you live it, you are lost. You are not in the place that you are supposed to be. Like Zacchaeus or the rich young ruler, you might be a religious person, but if you are not living the life that God has called you to live, then you are lost. You are on the JV team.
But that’s okay because the JV team is being actively recruited by Jesus. Jesus knows that you were not intended to spend all of your life on the JV squad and that there is a varsity position available to you. Jesus has a varsity team made up of scoundrels and pastors, prostitutes and deacons, sinners and saints. Jesus’ varsity team is made up of people that have come to the realization that they are not where they are supposed to be and they are actively seeking Jesus who has come to seek and save us all. Not just to forgive us of our past sins, but to save us from our destructive lives into life-giving lives.