The word Zaccheus means pure, just, clean. If this man ever deserved so good a name, it was not till grace changed his heart. Before that he was anything but pure. Many a man has a name to which he is a disgrace. Zaccheus was a head man among the publicans, or tax-gatherers. The lowest order of publicans were no better thought of than thieves and pickpockets. An ancient Roman writer says that some of these tax-gatherers were honourable men. But in Judea, where many thought it was not right to pay taxes to a foreign power, the Jewish publicans who collected the tribute were always hated. A Jew who collected tribute for the Romans was looked on as a heathen. Some say they were not allowed to enter the temple, or even a synagogue. Such was Zaccheus, a man despised for his calling.
But this man still had curiosity. “He sought to see Jesus, who He was.” That is, he wished to see what Jesus looked like. But he could not for the crowd. He was a small man. The crowd would not give way to him. So he “ran before and climbed up into a sycamore tree”. It is sometimes very inconvenient to be small, and sometimes it is very inconvenient to be large. God settles these matters. What we have to do is submit to Him.
The sycamore tree of the Bible is a kind of fig‑tree; some think it is more like a mulberry. Like our apple tree, it puts out branches a little above the ground. Into such a tree Zaccheus climbed. And when Jesus came to the spot, “He looked up and saw him”. His eye had been upon him for good all along. He said to him, “Zaccheus!” The good Shepherd calls His own sheep by name, and they hear His voice. Christ said, “Make haste and come down: for today I must abide at thy house”. It must have surprised Zaccheus very much that so great a person as Christ noticed him. And “he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully”. That is the way to receive Christ. To do otherwise is to reject Him.
Such an event caused great talk. Among the people were those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others, and all of them despised the publicans. So they found fault and “murmured, saying that He was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner”. But Zaccheus felt very differently. His heart was touched with Christ’s kindness.
A great change had come over him. And when he reached his house, he said to Jesus, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor”. He did not say, I have always been giving to the poor. But he said, I do it now. He was a new man, and now began to lead a new life. But why did he not give all, instead of merely giving half? The answer is: he had no right to give it. It was not his to give. It belonged to other people whom he had wronged and robbed by false accusation. So he kept that to restore it to others from whom he had wickedly taken it. He not only gave back what he had taken, but, according to the law of Moses, he gave back four times as much.
The Lord Jesus knew his heart, saw he was sincere and was bringing forth good fruits. He said, “This day is salvation come to this house”. Up to that time, that family had lived sinfully. But now there was a change for the better. Zaccheus was a Jew, and the change in him made him a true son of Abraham. And Christ justifies Himself in what He did for Zaccheus, by saying, “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost”. Almost everybody agreed that Zaccheus was lost. He himself saw that he had been lost. It is the lost sheep that needs to be sought and found. It is the lost child for which people go through the streets ringing the bell.
1. It is well to be in the way of getting good and of meeting Christ in public and private worship. It is a pity that everybody does not go to the house of God. A woman said she would not go; she was afraid it would make her worse. But did it not make her worse to stay at home, at ease in her sins? Often during His life, and often since He ascended to heaven, Christ has said, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear”. Zaccheus, led by curiosity, went where Jesus was to pass, and he was saved! Whitefield tells us of a very bad man, who went to church “to pick a hole in the preacher’s coat, and the Holy Ghost picked a hole in his conscience”. Persuade people everywhere to come and hear the gospel.
2. True earnestness, whether natural or gracious, is not easily discouraged. Zaccheus was the head of a family, but he was intent on seeing Christ, so he did something boyish; he climbed a tree. Many sufferers had to pass through great obstacles to reach Christ’s help. If people would be saved they must be in good earnest; they must be in dead earnest. He who is turned aside from his purpose by trifles, or even by great hindrances, will never be saved.
3. When we know our duty, it is wicked to hesitate. Christ said to Zaccheus, “Make haste, and come down . . . . And he made haste and came down.” That is the way David was converted: “I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto Thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep Thy commandments” (Psalm 119:59,60). Do not linger.
4. It is a great thing to know our time. Zaccheus knew his. Probably he had never seen Christ before. So far as we know, Christ was never in Jericho again. We must “take time by the forelock”. An old emblem for time was a human head with one long lock of hair in front, but all the rest was bald. This taught that, when you met an opportunity, you must grasp it and hold it tight; when it was past, there was no “hindlock” to seize. O that people knew their time. “Hell is the truth seen too late.”
5. We must yield ourselves to God without reserve and without condition. Zaccheus did not say to Jesus, If Thou wilt do such and such, I will give my goods to the poor. No! We must give up all hopes, all plans, all thoughts which are opposed to Christ, and fall into His hands. An old writer tells of a prisoner of war who was to be sold as a slave in Rome. Someone asked him, Will you be faithful if I buy you?” His noble answer was, “I will be faithful whether you buy me or not”. So we must give all to Christ, as our Lord and Master, come what will.
6. Regeneration makes a great change in anyone. In some this change appears greater than in others. But in all cases it is marked and definite. This very much applies to serious sins. Zaccheus’ special sin was the love of money. As soon as he was converted he gave it up. If our piety does not subdue our worst sins, it is not genuine.
7. Poor wretched sinners may be saved. Zaccheus was a lost man, but Jesus saved him. Zaccheus lived in a city which God had long before delivered up to destruction; he was thought to be one of the worst men in it and yet he obtained mercy. Christ’s mission into this world was to seek and to save that which was lost.
8. It makes a great change in a house when salvation comes in. Even for one of the children to believe in Jesus is a blessed thing. But when the head of a family turns to the Lord, then salvation comes in, as it were, at the front door. It is a fearful thing for a man to stand at the very entrance of his home and shut out the Lord Jesus and all the blessings of eternal life from his children. If a man will go to hell, he had better go alone than drag others with him. If a man will not go to heaven, let him not hinder others. There is no happier sight on earth than a whole house embracing Jesus Christ together.
9. The real cause of the change in Zaccheus was the grace of God; but the thought which seems to have overcome him was the kindness of Christ in noticing a man so commonly hated. Love conquers, when terror merely hardens. If we are ever led to repentance, it must be by the goodness of God. His right over us is complete, but our vile hearts resist everything till He gains the victory of love. The love shown in the cross of Christ is even greater than that shown in His visit to Zaccheus. He must be a bad man, with a wicked heart, who does not love the Lord Jesus Christ.
[Taken, with editing, from Short Sermons for the People, reprinted in the Young People’s Magazine, July 2014. The text for this sermon, by W S Plumer, was: “And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zaccheus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who He was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature. . . .” (Luke 19:1‑10).]