By Doug Mamvura It is God’s goodness that brings man to repentance not condemnation or intimidation.
The Pharisees were always at loggerheads with Jesus because of their attitude towards sinners. On the other hand, Jesus was often described as a “friend of the sinners”. One of the groups of people which was extremely unpopular during Jesus’ time were the tax collectors.
There is a story in the Bible involving Jesus, which in the eyes of these Pharisees and the other religious folk was considered to be disgraceful and outrageous. This story was considered scandalous by these “righteous and holy men”.
Before I explain what this outrageous and ghastly event was, I need to lay a little groundwork so you can see and understand why this episode was so disgraceful in the eyes of that society. In reading the New Testament, you will notice a number of times where Jesus was seen in the company of “sinners and tax collectors.” I always found the distinction made between the two a little odd. We already know everyone is a sinner, so why say “sinners” and “tax collectors”? Surely, tax collectors are sinners, no more or no less than anyone else. Why the distinction and why are they singled out as if they were even more sinful than sinners? This has always puzzled me. It seems so redundant and unnecessary. It wasn’t until I did some studies on who these tax collectors were, how they operated, and how they got their job that I began to understand why they were singled out for special notoriety. It wasn’t because they were any more sinful than anyone else but because of how the public of that day viewed them. They were hated with a passion and were considered sell outs if we are to use our language here in Zimbabwe. Sell outs are people who decide to team up with the enemy at the expense of their fellow countrymen. They are also considered traitors and nobody loves traitors.
Among the Jewish population in Jesus’ day, the most stigmatised and hated men in the community were these tax collectors. Tax collectors were seen as the most devious and wicked thieves of that day. The Roman government backed them with power and authority, enabling them to legally steal or seize any asset or property they chose, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. Becoming a tax collector made you a traitor to your own people. Tax collectors were generally described as greedy because they took more money than they were entitled to. They got their job by guaranteeing they could extract more taxes out of their community than anyone else. The job of tax collector always went to the highest bidder. In light of this, it’s easy to see why the Bible gave them a special distinction. The reality was that even sinners rejected and hated tax collectors.
Luke 19:1-10 has a fascinating scandal in the making. A tax collector named Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to town. He was curious and wanted to get a glimpse of the man he had heard so much about, but he was too short to see over the crowd. To be able to see Jesus, Zacchaeus ran down the road where Jesus was walking and climbed a sycamore tree. Sycamore trees were considered “unclean” because they bore a fruit that was fed to pigs. In the culture of that day, it was humiliating for Zacchaeus to climb that tree. However, he had a goal which he was willing to pursue regardless of his status in that society. His focus was on the Lord not man.
Nothing was out of the ordinary that day. It was just another day when people were curious about Jesus and crowds were flocking to observe Him. Jesus saw Zacchaeus peering down at Him from up in the tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down here; today, I am going to stay at your house.” That is how this shocking scandal all started.
Everyone who heard Jesus say He was going to stay at Zacchaeus the tax collector’s house was shocked to the core. Jesus was Son of God. How could He dare enter the home of such a wicked and evil sinner? This was outrageous! Just to invite or to be invited into someone’s home to eat a meal was considered an act of the highest form of friendship in Jewish society. Here was Jesus, offering His friendship, love, and acceptance to a man who was looked down on by everyone. Zacchaeus wasn’t even allowed in the temple. His old friends and family had rejected him because of the position he held. He was arguably the most hated and rejected man in all of society. It was to this socially ostracized, little man that Jesus extended an offer of friendship. Nothing created more anger and resentment toward Jesus than this act. Allowing a prostitute to wash His feet, healing lepers and blind people, who religious leaders had assumed were being punished and cursed by God, didn’t rile and upset them as much as this. The most outrageous thing Jesus had done was choosing to enter a friendship with the worst sinner anyone knew.
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This acceptance of friendship had a powerful impact on Zacchaeus’ life, one that touched and changed him deeply forever. Entering a relationship with Jesus so transformed Zacchaeus’ heart that he publicly declared he would make right all his wrongs and he would return four-fold what he had stolen. What started out as a scandal, turned into a story of redemption and divine transformation. The local community went from being outraged to being mystified at the moral turnaround of this tax collector. This shows the power of God’s love and grace. He so loved the world that “whosoever believes in Him would not perish but have ever lasting life”. Whosoever is whosoever. It has nothing to do with your status in society or how evil you may be considered to be. Jesus’ blood will wash you whiter than snow.
One of the reasons why I think very little has been said about this passage is because so few actually understand how the power of acceptance and love can impact and change someone’s life. Jesus obviously understood this because He employed this as His way of life and consistently saw the miraculous results.
Apostle Paul also understood that people who received unconditional love would start to love unconditionally. In Romans 2:4, he wrote that it is the goodness of God that brings a person to repentance. It isn’t our repentance that gets God to be good to us; we repent because He is good. Jesus certainly proved that by how He treated and accepted Zacchaeus.
Finally, Jesus told Zacchaeus that salvation had come to his house. Why? The reason was that Jesus had come to seek and save that which was lost. Even though Zacchaeus was a child of Abraham, his own people had rejected him and he probably assumed God had also rejected him. Jesus said that when you see Him, you see the Father. It was Jesus’ actions that showed Zacchaeus that God hadn’t rejected him. It didn’t matter to God how bad a sinner he was; God’s desire was to bring him home.
Sadly, many in the church world would have ministered to Zacchaeus in a way that Jesus never would have. They would have demanded that he repent of his sins first. However, Jesus understood how the heart of man works and how it can be touched by mercy and compassion to bring about a godly change.
I pray God opens our eyes to His amazing, life-changing love and that we see people every day who have been rejected and shamed because of past negative interactions with Christians. These people may believe, like Zacchaeus did, that God rejects them, too. If Jesus wasn’t afraid to be a friend of sinners, then we as believers in Him shouldn’t be afraid. The simple act of friendship can impact history.
According to Clement of Alexandria, in his book, Stromata, Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias by the apostles and took the place of Judas Iscariot after Jesus’ ascension. The later Apostolic Constitutions identify “Zacchaeus the Publican” as the first bishop of Caesarea. God’s grace is amazing.
- Dr Doug Mamvura is a graduate of Charis Bible School. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @dougmamvura