This morning we begin a new series of messages titled Having A Heart Like Jesus. The goal of the series is to study stories from the gospels to learn what was central to the heart of Jesus, and in doing so learn how we can make those same qualities central to our lives. This morning we begin with the story of Zacchaeus, from the gospel of Luke, which is, I think, one of the most important stories in the gospels.
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.”
I think it’s fascinating to observe people. The only thing more fascinating than observing people is to observe people and their pets. I am particularly fascinated at the regularity with which people talk to their pets. Do you ever wonder why we do such a thing? Sometimes I talk to our cats and wonder why I do. Not too long ago I watched a guy talking up a storm to his dog. Not just a little bit of talking, but a long conversation. I wasn’t close enough to hear him, but I’m certain I still had a better sense of what he was saying than his dog did.
It may be a poor analogy, but I don’t think we are very good at understanding what God is trying to tell us, which is one of the reasons why God comes to us in the person of Jesus. We can understand another person.
Sometimes, at least. Many of the people in the day of Jesus did not understand what he was trying to teach and communicate about God. In particular, the people who should have been the ones most likely to understand and accept his message – the religious leaders – were the very ones who not only failed to understand Jesus, but were also most likely to be in opposition both to him and his message.
This is why I titled this series Having A Heart Like Jesus, because if we approach Jesus solely from a mental perspective we are more likely to misunderstand or resist what he said and did. This is because our thinking patterns are shaped by many factors, and those factors can make it difficult – if not impossible – to comprehend the truth. Those who opposed Jesus did not do so simply because they were stubborn, but because their thinking had been shaped in a manner that made it difficult to accept what Jesus taught.
Though our hearts can also mislead us, I believe God can speak to us far more effectively through our hearts than our minds, because our hearts are the gateway into our lives and our souls. It may be difficult, for instance, to argue a person into the importance of meeting the physical needs of others, but when that person is confronted with the need of another person, that experience will speak to their heart and open their life in a way that no argument will accomplish, no matter how well constructed the argument might be.
When we come to the story of Zacchaeus we find the central value to Jesus – his love for all people, and we see it very powerfully in the way Jesus responded to Zacchaeus.
1. Jesus valued Zacchaeus when others did not.
I don’t believe there are any offhand comments in the gospels. When Luke mentions in verse three that Zacchaeus was a short man it’s more than a casual comment. It does reflect upon the fact that Zacchaeus could not see over the crowd, but it also reflects his stature among the community as a whole. Zacchaeus was not just a person of little stature physically, he was lacking in stature in the eyes of other people as well.
Because he was a tax collector, Zacchaeus was a person who was not respected by his community. In fact, Zacchaeus was most likely a very despised member of his community. Tax collectors were seen as traitors to their own people because they worked in league with the Roman Empire, making their money by taking advantage of the way the Romans enforced taxation.
I imagine there was a bit of a crowd mentality on this occasion. Have you noticed that when a group of people come together the collective IQ will often drop a number of points, and people will do and say things they would not normally say or do? It’s because of the power of the crowd. We are naïve if we believe we are not susceptible to the attitudes and actions of a crowd.
Zaccheus was also a part of the crowd mentality. He did what was acceptable among his peers, the tax collectors. It doesn’t excuse it, but we all live in a particular context that context will unwittingly train us to behave in a certain manner. This is why we need an objective source, such as the gospel, against which we can measure our lives.
Because Zacchaeus was not a popular man, keeping him from being able to see Jesus was an expression of their contempt for him.
Jesus never treated people in such a manner. Never. In fact, Jesus took up for those who were condemned, ridiculed, and outcast. Jesus always stood up for people. His opponents were more than happy to stand up for religious regulations and their own interpretation of orthodoxy, but I think we would be hard pressed to find a single example where they stood up for an individual. I can find none.
Are we afraid of standing up for a particular person, or group of people, because of what people might think or say? Are we afraid of standing up for a particular person, or group of people, because we might offend someone’s religious sensibilities, sensibilities that might actually be in contradiction with those of Jesus?
2. Jesus did not ask Zacchaeus to change.
Isn’t it amazing the amount of energy we expend trying to get people to change? If you’re a parent, how much energy do you expend trying to get your children to change particular behaviors? We read books and articles and do all manner of things to find ways to shape their behavior. Employers try to change the behavior of their employees, employees try to change the behavior of the employers, just to name a few examples.
There may be a lot more to the exchange between Jesus and Zacchaeus than Luke records, but I think it’s very significant that there is no mention of Jesus lecturing Zacchaeus about how he needed to change his ways. Zaccheus did change, but Jesus never demanded he change before he would associate with him or before he would accept him. Not only did Jesus not ask him to change; he proclaimed that Zaccheus was a son of Abraham and proclaimed that salvation had come to his house. That was no doubt scandalous to many people, because those standing in judgment of Zaccheus had their lists of who was and wasn’t acceptable. Before they would even dream of accepting Zacchaeus, there would be a list of changes he would have to make.
I think the reason why a lot of people aren’t very interested in the church is because they sense they cannot come as they are. They sense they must meet the satisfaction of other people before they are acceptable. But that presupposes that we have reached a point where we no longer need to change and so we are free to judge others.
The love and grace of Jesus was such a powerful force that it compelled Zacchaeus to change. I don’t know where the moment of change began, but I suspect it might have come when he climbed into the sycamore-fig tree. It’s interesting that Zaccheus climbs into a sycamore tree, as it produced a fig-like fruit that was eaten as food by many poor people. Perhaps that experience was the first step in his spiritual transformation. When he climbed that tree, and saw the pitiful fruit that was the sustenance for many people – maybe even some of those whom he had taken advantage of through taxation – perhaps it opened his heart to change, a change that was complete when Jesus came to his home.
3. The heart of Jesus is always with people.
We can never forget this. We have facilities and programs to tend to. We have budgets and committee meetings to oversee. But the purpose of all we do is to love others, as did Jesus. If we ever forget that this is our central purpose we will have abdicated our primary calling.
I often wonder about how much of a personal nature to share in a sermon. The majority of my illustrations are my personal experiences, mostly because it’s easier to write from personal experience. It’s not to talk about myself, but to share what I have experienced in the hope that those experiences can be helpful to you, just as your experiences are helpful to me.
One of the most difficult experiences was one that began a journey that led me to this church. I grew up in a Disciples church but later in life, when I moved to a different region of the country, I joined another denomination. This is more of an observation than a criticism, but I found that denomination growing increasingly harsh and judgmental. People increasingly pushed me to speak condemningly of particular groups of people, which I would not do. My refusal to preach harshly or to sit in judgment of others made it difficult for me to continue not only where I was, but to remain in that denomination.
There are a couple of reasons why I am not interested in judging people or preaching condemning sermons. One is because I used to be much more condemning of people. Under pressure of the crowd mentality I sometimes joined in the chorus of condemnation or ridicule of individuals or groups. I wish I had stood up for people instead of joining in with the crowd, but there were times when I gave into the mentality of the crowd.
Another reason why I am not interested in condemning people is because I do not want to lend my voice to the creation of an atmosphere that leads to the oppression, ridicule, or rejection of other people. I don’t want to add my voice to the harsh chorus of condemnation that is far too prevalent in many corners of the religious community. Too many people want to judge and condemn others while ignoring the parts of their own lives that would be worthy of condemnation by their own standard.
If Jesus had a love for all people, so must we.