Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lived at the time when Soviet communism sought to harness human engineering to create a new society. The goal was to develop a new kind of human being. Greedy, competitive and alienated individualists were to be transformed into co-operative and generous altruists. Capitalist men and women were to be changed into a socialist society.

Even before the fall of the USSR, Solzhenitsyn concluded the experiment had failed. It suggests that dreams of a better world and a better life based on human invention and force will founder. But let me suggest that we don’t have to despair. A ray of light shines in the darkness of our world.

Come with me to an unexpected encounter that changed a wealthy money-grabber into a benevolent philanthropist. The man’s life was changed more rapidly and more radically than even Karl Marx would have believed possible. We read about it in Luke chapter 19, verses 1 through 10.

Zacchaeus was very rich, yet his wealth didn’t earn him respect. In fact, the reverse was his experience: he was a social outcast. He was a chief tax collector.

Jewish tax collectors were regarded as traitors because the money they collected went to the treasury in Rome. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, it was reckoned that 99% were crooked.

But there seems to have been something appealing about Zacchaeus. Short in stature, there was a touch of humorous eccentricity about him. And this was evident when Jesus of Nazareth came to town.

As do celebrities today, Jesus drew huge crowds wherever he went. Zacchaeus wanted to see him but, pushed back by the crowd, he discovered he couldn’t. Thinking outside the box, he climbed a tree.

We easily miss the incongruity of the scene. Here was Zacchaeus, an eminent, affluent public servant, shinning up a tree to get a look at the man who, himself, was considered an outsider by the elite. Zacchaeus risked being ridiculed by the crowd.

What prompted Zacchaeus? Curiosity?  He certainly wanted to see the celebrated miracle-working teacher from the north. People have always been attracted to celebrities and heroes, and encounters with Jesus often begin like that — curiosity about a celebrity.

But consider what happened: When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down; for I must stay at your house today’ (Luke 19:5).

We can only imagine how startled Zacchaeus must have felt. It was a critical moment. He didn’t expect this. How would he react? He hurried and came down and received him joyfully (19:6).

Perhaps it was more than curiosity that prompted Zacchaeus to climb the tree that day. He may have felt growing regret over his lifestyle.

Over the years in ministry, I’ve encountered people like this. They find life doesn’t turn out as expected — a broken marriage; difficult children; money ill-spent; a lost reputation. They feel trapped. But they know they can’t turn the clock back.

Zacchaeus may have felt this sense of despair. But maybe he’d heard how Jesus had changed other people’s lives – Matthew, another tax-collector, for example. Whatever prompted him, Zacchaeus jumped out of the tree and without a moment’s hesitation took Jesus in for lunch.

It was a life-changing moment, for clearly Jesus impressed Zacchaeus. So much so that during the meal Zacchaeus stood up and said, ‘Behold Lord, the half of my goods, I give to the poor;  and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold’ (Luke 19:8).

Zacchaeus’ promises are specific and immediate. There’s no fabrication. We can almost hear him turning the key in the lock of his safe. Meeting Jesus led this self-centered wealthy, but probably lonely man to a radical change within. He turned away from greed and revealed compassion for the poor and powerless. He also demonstrated a sense of justice.

What caused the change? Zacchaeus suddenly understood who Jesus really was: he called him ‘Lord’. This was more than a courtesy title. He knew he was in the presence of greatness.

In his work Zacchaeus would have experienced the deceitfulness of human nature in paying their taxes, and the dishonesty of tax-collectors in collecting taxes. He now knew he was in the presence of someone who could see right through deception and fraud. Jesus was the one man with whom you had to be completely honest.

There’s a transparency and humility about Zacchaeus’ reaction. His awakened conscience had led to his heartfelt repentance.

‘Today salvation has come to this house…’ Jesus said (Luke 19:9). It wasn’t good works or making amends for past wrongs; it wasn’t his generosity to the poor, that saved Zacchaeus. Rather it was his personal encounter with Jesus and his genuine repentance.

It was a significant moment: a man’s life was transformed. It’s the kind of transformation that politicians try to achieve through economic and other strategies. Revolutionaries use a gun. Jesus did it by inviting himself to lunch.

You may be thinking this kind of change can’t really take place in our world today. But consider Jesus’ further words: ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham’ (19:9b). Because of his repentance and the evidence of that repentance, Zacchaeus, formerly an ‘outsider’ was now an ‘insider’ in his relationship with God and his people – he could now be called a true son of Abraham.

Significantly Jesus goes to the heart of the reason for his coming: ‘For the Son of man came to seek out and to save the lost’ (19:10).

Let’s think about this. From God’s perspective every one of us is lost. Created to know and love God and enjoy him forever, we have all succumbed to self-worship: we fail to love him first. However, God didn’t reduce us to the particles and dust from which he had formed us. Rather, he spoke to one man, Abraham, and made three promises: ‘I will give you a land’; ‘I will make your name great’; and ‘I will bless all the nations through you’ (Genesis 12:2-3).

The history of Abraham’s family and their dealing with God is not a pretty one, but God persisted. He had a plan, and at the right time came amongst us in person. It was this God/man whom Zacchaeus encountered. Jesus came into the world to awaken us and rescue us, by laying down his own life so that we might enjoy life in all its fullness now and forever.

When we know Jesus, we will want to fall on our knees in repentance and love. In turn we will surely also want to find ways to arouse the curiosity of others – perhaps inviting them to coffee – so that we can introduce them to him too.

A prayer. Almighty and eternal God, grant that we may grow in faith, hope, and love; especially make us love what you command so that we may obtain what you have promised; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.

You may like to listen to Magnificent, Marvelous, Matchless Love from Keith and Kristyn Getty.

© John G. Mason

Note: Today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my book in the ‘Reading the Bible Today’ series, Luke: An Unexpected God, 2nd Edition, Aquila: 2018.

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