Bible Stories for Big Kids–Zacchaeus

All of you probably know at least something about Zacchaeus.

You may be familiar with the song above. If you are of a certain age and grew up in church, you may be able to picture your Sunday school teacher placing the flannel figure of a little man up in a flannel tree on a flannel board. Maybe you really don’t know much about Zacchaeus, but somewhere, sometime, you heard that he was short.

That is, after all, his most famous attribute. He was a wee little man.

Zacchaeus was Jew by birth, but he was a full-fledged agent of the Roman system that oppressed his own people. He was a Jew who had chosen the other side in order to profit for himself.  

Zacchaeus probably had a talent for justifying his actions. I mean, after all, somebody had to collect the taxes, didn’t they? If he didn’t collect the taxes, it’s not like they would just go away, would they? And he had a family to support, didn’t he? He probably had this conversation with himself in the ancient equivalent of the mirror every morning before he set out to take people’s money.

Perhaps the money brought him some comfort. He may have been a small man, but his bank account was anything but.

Zacchaeus was rich. Short of stature, but rich. Some days it was almost enough, but not every day. He tried to list the positives:

I’m a good provider.

My family has a roof over their heads and food on the table.

I don’t have to beg in the streets.

I can buy all the figs and dates and milk and honey that I want.

Who needs friends when you can afford to buy the good sleeping mats?

He knew people despised him, but he also knew more than a few would take his place if they had the chance. Hypocrites. Work, even unpleasant work, was better than no work, he told himself. And so it went, day after day after rationalized day.

Zacchaeus longed for something more. He didn’t talk about it with anybody, but he knew that making a living wasn’t the same as making a life. He knew he was missing something.

Then one ordinary, yet extraordinary, day he heard shouting in the street: “Jesus of Nazareth is here in Jericho!” A few days before, Zacchaeus had overheard somebody say, “Jesus of Nazareth? Yeah, I’ve heard of him, but I’d stay clear. He’s a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” What if it was true? A friend of people like him!

Though he usually tried to avoid crowds, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. But people were already standing three-deep along the road. He spotted the sycamore tree he had climbed as a child. He didn’t care who stared or laughed. He hooked his legs around the bottom branch and hoisted himself up. He felt like he could see all the way to Jerusalem. He’d tell his family, “I saw Jesus, today — you know, the prophet everyone’s been talking about. He was so close I could have touched him.”

Just then, Jesus stopped and looked up. It was probably a second; it could have been a lifetime. “‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’”

Some things you can never explain. Zacchaeus couldn’t explain why he climbed up in the tree or why he came down or how Jesus knew his name or why on earth Jesus wanted to come to his house.  He couldn’t explain what came over him that day that Jesus came to dinner. He just knew that it changed everything. Jesus said that salvation had come to his house that day, and he was right. That was the day Zacchaeus stopped making a living and began making a life that was really life. He gave half of his possessions to the poor and promised to pay back fourfold anyone he had defrauded.

Jesus came to seek and to save the lost—and the search doesn’t wait until we die. Jesus still seeks those who have lost jobs and those who are lost in their jobs. He seeks those who are consumed by the pressure to succeed and those who are simply trying to pay the rent.  Jesus stops and calls to us, whether we are proud of our successes, ashamed of our failures or exhausted by our efforts.

Jesus meets us where we are, invites Himself over and changes everything.

Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer provides tools and encouragement for the rollercoaster ride of your faith journey. Follow me on Facebook , Instagram and YouTube. You can also follow on TikTok. Get emails to keep up with all that is happening.

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