Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Luke 19:1-10)

By | August 19, 2012

Tales From The Darkside #2


     July 20, 1969. I had recently graduated from High School. But in my teen years I’d lived through some horrible events. I was in Citizenship class when news of JFK’s assassination came across the intercom. On my 17th birthday, April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Then two short months later in June Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The war in Viet Nam was escalating exponentially. My Draft Lottery number was 42.

     But July 20th I sat glued to the TV watching in wonder as Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon. Because of that glorious moment, my world and universe suddenly grew much larger. But I also wondered why we couldn’t do the same glorious sort of thing in the world by bringing peace instead war; hope and freedom instead of fear and separation. That was a defining moment for me. That was the day and the moment I became an adult.

     It’s amazing how one single day can make such a difference in someone’s life isn’t? It might be a birthday; it might be your wedding day or the day you got engaged. Maybe it was graduation or a promotion or when your first child or grandchild was born. Those kinds of days can be wrapped in joy or overshadowed by tragedy but they are life changing.

     Zaccheus had one of those life changing days. The day Jesus came to Jericho and invited himself for dinner. And that’s today’s Tale From The Darkside, Zaccheus.

     The story of Zaccheus is one of the richest stories in the New Testament. It encompasses everything there is about Jesus and why he came. It encompasses everything Wesley taught about Gods’ movement of Grace in our lives. The only problem is over the years it’s been reduced to a children’s story and a song we all know so well.

     Zaccheus was a wee little man

     And a wee little man was he.

     He climbed way up in a sycamore tree,

     For the Lord he wanted to see…

     And as the Savior passed his way,

     He looked up in the tree.

     And he said, “Zaccheus, you come down!

     For I’m going to your house today,

     For I’m going to your house today.”

     I hope that tune doesn’t get stuck in your head all day. If it does, I apologize. The point I’m trying to make is that we’ve sort of trivialized the story of Zaccheus by relegating it to children’s story. When in actuality, it’s a powerful story of the transforming power and grace of God in Christ. So let’s look at the story of Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-10 (NRSV).

[1] [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it.  

[2] A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.  

[3] He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.  

[4] So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.  

[5] When 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.”  

[6] So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.  

[7] All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  

[8] Zacchaeus 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.”  

[9] Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  

[10] For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

     That last verse somehow gets overlooked. Maybe it’s because we get lost in the busyness of Jesus ministry or trying to discern the parables he told before and after.

     In the Chapter 18 Jesus told them the parable of the Widow and the Judge and the Parable of Pharisee and the Tax Collector. He taught them how important children are and how we should come to God with the faith of a little child. We saw a Rich Young Ruler reject the Gospel because it was too costly for him. We heard just how hard it will be for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God, as hard as it would be for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle. At the end of that chapter, just as Jesus was entering the town of Jericho, he healed a blind beggar.

     In the verses following this story, Jesus befuddles them with the parable of the pounds, a variation of the parable of the talents. Or maybe it’s because according to Luke, the next step in Jesus journey is his entrance into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. Whatever the reason, we miss the richness of the story of Zaccheus when we make just a story for children. So, let’s look at the story.


     A. Zaccheus had no idea what was in store for him when he got up that morning. He assumed it was going to be a day like any other day in Jericho. I sure Zaccheus chose Jericho for his home because it was one of THE places to be.   Known as the City of Palms, Jericho was literally an Oasis. Josephus called it “a divine region,” “the fattest in Palestine.” The Romans carried its dates and balsam to world-wide trade and fame.

     Herod had made it popular by building a Winter Palace there. Jericho was 3400 feet lower than Jerusalem which was only about 12-15 miles to the southwest. So, it was a long steep walk uphill to Jerusalem which probably would take about 7 to 10 hours, depending on the pace.

     Jericho was a beautifully lush city of plenty in the middle of the dry and desolate vastness of the Judean Wilderness. And although Zaccheus lived in the heart of this lush paradise, his heart was just as dry and desolate as the wilderness around him. Part of that emptiness was brought on by his decision to become a Tax Collector. In essence, he had given his allegiance to the occupying forces of Rome.

     As Chief Tax Collector he was equivalent to a chief IRS agent. I don’t know what the Roman IRS was called. Maybe it was ROT, the Roman Office of Taxation. It certainly would fit with how rotten everyone thought the taxes and tax collectors were.

     Zaccheus may have grown up Jewish, but he’d slipped, he’d stumbled and fallen, and more likely than not he’d leapt into his status as a tax collector with as much fervor as anyone could have. Driven by the promise of wealth, he began to drive a wedge between himself, the people and God.

     Zaccheus was looked down upon by everyone around him, both literally (because he was short) and metaphorically (he was seen as morally deficient and a traitor because he was a tax collector). Maybe there was more to him than that but no one took the time to find out. But we do know there was something missing in his life. Something that drove him to climb that Sycamore tree when he heard the commotion of the crowds as Jesus passed through Jericho.

     I think it was God’s Prevenient Grace. Everyone else had given up on Zaccheus, but not God. Zaccheus may have fallen but not so far that he couldn’t hear Jesus’ call. It was that call, that wooing of his dry and thirsty spirit by God’s Holy Spirit that drew Zaccheus to drink deep from the water of life.

     B. The crowds were upset, though. They all thought Jesus would stop and teach them, maybe even heal their sick. The last person they expected Jesus to even speak to, let alone eat with, was Zaccheus. But when Jesus rounded the corner and saw Zaccheus up in that Sycamore tree everything changed.

     Jesus invited himself to Zaccheus’ house. Strictly speaking, in Jewish culture that was a Corky No, No! That was a social faux pas. You didn’t invite yourself to anyone’s home. It just wasn’t done. But Jesus did it anyway. “Hey, Zaccheus, come on down here, I want to stay your house today.”

     The crowd couldn’t stand it. Everybody began to grumble, including the Disciples. They all were totally flabbergasted and angry. How dare Jesus deal with that short little so and so. Doesn’t he know what a sinner he is. It was the kind of grumbling we all do when we think we’re being treated unjustly and someone who doesn’t deserve it gets recognition or favor. Of course we forget that we’ve suddenly moved into the seat that reserved only for the Son of God, the judgment seat, but that’s beside the point, right. It’s not fair.

     C.      I love title of the Berenstain Bears Book, “Inside, Outside, Upside Down,” because that’s what happened here. Jesus went Inside with Zaccheus. They came back Outside and the whole crowd witnessed how the grace of God turned everything in Zaccheus’ life Upside Down, for the good.

     I’ve often wondered what Jesus said to him that day. For years I pondered the conversation but then it dawned on me just how private and personal that conversation really was. Jesus took Zaccheus aside for a purpose. He didn’t want the crowd to hear. And I realized that it’s best that we don’t know what was said. Besides, I wouldn’t want everyone to know the intimate conversations I’ve had with Jesus about those areas in my life that need to be changed, would you?

     The point is, whatever was said that day, it was life changing for Zaccheus. Jesus showed them the miracle of a camel going through the eye of a needle because this rich man was able to pay the price. He gave everything. He humbled himself and made a public confession of his wrong doing to the crowd.


     A. So touched and moved by Jesus’ visit and whatever was said during that visit, Zaccheus changed. From the inside out he was turned upside down. And the cost of that decision was everything. What had once been important to him, making money was no longer important. He no longer needed his wealth. Instead of the passion to get as much as he could, he now had a passion to give everything he had for Christ.

     First he gave half of everything he owned to the poor. The he offered recompense way beyond what was expected. And in all probability didn’t have much left afterwards.

     According to Jewish Law, if had been caught cheating, he would have had to pay back double. But if he confessed publicly and voluntary restitution was offered, he would have been required to pay the original cost plus one fifth. But in order to prove that he was a changed man, Zaccheus did far more than the law demanded. He paid four times what he’d cheated them out of.

     Unlike the rich young ruler which Luke tells us about in chapter 18, Zaccheus willingly, publicly, gave up everything to follow Jesus.

     Wesley noted that “Zaccheus is a proof, that it is possible, by the power of God, for even a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Again, the point is, Zaccheus changed. Because of that change Jesus said: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”  

     And then Jesus summed up his entire ministry, all that had gone before and all that was about to happen, in one verse, a verse we usually overlook at the end of a story we’ve relegated to children. [10] “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” People like Zaccheus whose focus in life turned out to be unfulfilling and who needed something else.

     B. Have any of you ever seen the movie Brother Orchid starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphry Bogart and Ann Southern? It’s a funny little gangster film and is the only film in which Bogart and Robinson starred in together where one of them doesn’t die.

     This 1940’s movie is about Little Johnny Sarto, a big time racketeer who grows tired of the gangland activities. He tries to quit and pursue his quest for real class and refinement. After a not so successful trip to Europe Johnny returns home and finds his old haunts and colleagues not so welcoming.

     Johnny finds himself a marked man who narrowly escapes being murdered after the Humphrey Bogart character Jack and his boys take him out into the woods to finish him off. Johnny escapes, wounded, and finds his way to a secluded Monastery where he is taken in by the kindly monks and brought back to health. Along the way Johnny learns a few things about life. And what he regarded as initially an ideal hideout until he could plot his revenge against Jack, turns into a life changing experience and the one time hood becomes the placid, life appreciating “Brother Orchid.”

     Despite the chance to reclaim his turf and his girl, Johnny returns to the monastery where he at last finds the real “class” in life, not in possessions or money but in the company of decent, honest men who have their own class simply by who and what they are, not what they can get.

     The closing scene shows a Zaccheus kind of change in Little Johnny Sarto’s life. It’s not a great movie but it’s got great ending. And it points to our call to discipleship.


     Zaccheus gave up everything to follow Jesus. And that’s the cost of discipleship for everyone. Now before you all faint dead away or misunderstand let me ask you: What are your values? What is your life built on? What is your identity?

     “Successful businessperson?” “Social leader?” “Popular personality?” “Leader in the church and community?” If that identity is more important to you than your relationship with God, then that’s what you will be asked to give up. That’s what it will cost you. We’re called to give up what is important to us in exchange for what is most important to Him.

     That doesn’t mean that you will stop being successful, or pretty, or popular, or a leader in the church and community. What it does mean is that those things will stop being the most important things in your life. Your priorities will be different because You will be different. Your relationship with God will be different and your priorities will be God’s priorities. Why? Because Discipleship does have a cost. Salvation is free. But discipleship is costly.

     It’s not enough to believe, we have to follow. We all hear different messages from this story. For outcasts and those who feel lost like Zaccheus this passage is an affirmation your right and your invitation from Jesus, Himself, to belong to the people of God.

     For any community that’s inclined to exclude others because of their skin color or status, this is a challenge reminding us of the meaning of Jesus’ mission.

     For people with wealth, this can be both a challenge to look priorities but also a model or an ideal of what conversion means.

     For everyone it’s a challenge to be like Zaccheus and welcome Jesus into our homes and into our hearts by putting our relationship with God above all else. That one day made a huge difference in his life. It can do the same for us.

This is the Word of the Lord for this day.