What can Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus teach us today?

When Jesus crossed paths with Zacchaeus

Making restitution

Luke 19:1-10

19 1Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a sinner."

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."

9 Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."

A short man who climbed a tree to see Jesus

Week 16 (April), Devotional on Luke 19

"Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he..."

The story of Zacchaeus, which only the Gospel of Luke records, is more than a catchy song for children. It's also more than a story that provided the letter Z for alphabet rhymes in the New England Primer of the 1700s.

of New England Primer

Luke's record is the very real story of a man who met Jesus. Zacchaeus had heard so much about the Messiah that he desperately wanted to see Jesus. Most importantly, this is the story of a man whose life was changed by meeting the Lord.

Bible study outlines on this story usually suggest that one lesson to be learned from it is that the gospel is for the rich as well as for the poor. That's okay as one lesson, but I think Zacchaeus' story can teach us some other things.

Do you remember that Zacchaeus had a height problem? I can identify with him. I'm barely 5'6". It seems to me that most biblical commentators -- who are probably tall anyway like my tall and lanky seminary professor Dr. Ralph Earle -- pass lightly over what to us short people is one significant truth of the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus: The gospel is not only for the tall, dark, and handsome. It's also for the short and scrawny. The gospel is for the jaded rich as well as for the hopelessly poor.

What did Zacchaeus do after meeting Jesus?

Jesus loves us all, just as we are. Zacchaeus' story clearly shows the seeking and saving work of Jesus. In the face of withering criticism, Jesus seeks for the soul of Zacchaeus, the hated tax man. And Jesus wins him over.

The story is told simply by Luke. But what a moment it must have been as Zacchaeus realized the radical changes that were taking place inside him. Genuine repentance was, for Zacchaeus, a costly affair. Following Jesus had for Zacchaeus the high cost that Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about in his book The Cost of Discipleship. (More on Bonhoeffer and The Cost of Discipleship

In fact, the restitution that Zacchaeus made was not simply to even out things in making wrongs right. He returned four for one in the spirit of the Old Testament restitution requirement.

Is there a moral or lesson for us in Zacchaeus' story?

There are a number of very sound reasons why making restitution like Zacchaeus should be a part of our becoming and living as disciples of Christ:

  1. Restitution will have a cleansing effect on our souls.
  2. Making restitution will strengthen our integrity as Christians.
  3. Making restitution will give us opportunities to witness to those who knew us before we met Christ (even if we didn't have to climb a tree to do that).

Maybe the Holy Spirit is dealing with you about making something right. Is God leading you? Why not write a letter or an email right now, or pick up the phone and text or call? You'll be glad you did.

Three other themes that stand out in the brief story of Zacchaeus' encounter with Jesus are acceptance and inclusiveness, the importance of actively seeking a relationship with God,, and the joy of salvation.

Discussion questions

  1. What significance might there be in the detail about Zacchaeus' height in the story of his encounter with Jesus? Could this point lend support to the idea that the gospel is for everyone, regardless of appearance or status?
  2. How does the story of Zacchaeus demonstrate the transformative power of the gospel, both in terms of personal repentance and making restitution for past wrongs?
  3. In what ways can making restitution for past wrongs strengthen a Christian's integrity and witness to others?
  4. What lessons can we learn from Zacchaeus' story about seeking out Jesus and being open to radical transformation in our lives?
  5. How can Christ-followers today apply the example of Zacchaeus in their own lives and relationships, particularly when it comes to issues of repentance and restitution?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

I wrote this devotional article while Barbara and I were serving as missionaries in Italy. It was published in Standard, a weekly Faith Connections take-home curriculum piece for adult Sunday school classes produced by The Foundry.

Classic children's song about Zacchaeus

Background to Enrich Understanding

Salient facts about the story:

Memorable Quotes About Zacchaeus

More devotional reflections from Luke's Gospel

More devotional reflections

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