We have been studying the nature of the kingdom of God in this section of Luke. Luke has been answering two questions in these last few chapters, “Who is in the kingdom of God?” “Who is going to inherit eternal life?” Luke has put four stories together to drive into our hearts how the people you would not expect are in the kingdom while those who would expect to be in the kingdom will not enter. Jesus told a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. The Pharisee relied on his own morality and good works, while the tax collector relied on the mercy of God. The tax collector was justified not the Pharisee. The rich ruler is the proof of this parable. He thinks he has kept all of the Mosaic Law, but Jesus exposes that the rich ruler had broken the first commandment. He had an idol in his heart which was his wealth. He was unwilling to give up his wealth to follow Jesus. By contrast, a blind beggar saw his need for Jesus, crying out, “Son of David, be merciful to me.” The blind beggar, though physically blind, was able to see his spiritual condition and knew he needed the mercy Jesus could offer. This brings us to the final surprising story to teach us who is in the kingdom of God.
Zacchaeus, The Tax Collector
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and is passing through the city of Jericho as he goes. A crowd is following Jesus on this journey. There was a man named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and he is rich. As we have noted throughout our study of the gospels, the tax collectors were hated by the Jews, not only because they were considered traitors to the Jewish nation, but because they were greedy and charged far more than the Roman Empire demanded. Luke wants us to think this way about Zacchaeus. He is a chief tax collector and he is rich, no doubt because of his business practices. But he is seeking to see Jesus. But the crowd was so great and he was a shorter person, he could not see or approach Jesus. So he climbs a tree to be able to see Jesus pass by.
As Jesus came to where Zaccheaus was, Jesus looked up into the tree and says something amazing. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” I want you to hear the outrage of the crowd. They began grumbling when they heard these words. How can Jesus go and stay at this guy’s house. He is a tax collector. He is a cheat. Listen to their words, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” How can Jesus stay with this person? Among the Jews it was unheard of for a rabbi or any other religious leader to lower himself by staying at the house of a tax collector. Please notice Jesus’ words, “I must stay at your house.” Just as Jesus had a divine appointment with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4), Jesus has a divine appointment with this rich, chief tax collector.
There are three things that Luke wants us to see in the response of this chief tax collector that reveals that salvation belongs to this man. First, he received Jesus joyfully. When Jesus tells Zacchaeus that he is going to stay in his house today, Zacchaeus hurries down from the tree and receives Jesus joyfully. This is an exciting thing. There is excitement in getting to know Jesus and spend time with him. “You will come into my house and spend time with me? How exciting!” So Zacchaeus hurries and receives Jesus joyfully. Luke draws the first contrast in this story between the rich ruler and this tax collector, Zacchaeus. The rich ruler was simply concerned with the minimum. What rule do I need to keep? What are my requirements? But look at Zacchaeus. He wants to know Jesus and spend time with him. It is not a question of what do I have to do, but a question of how can I see Jesus, meet Jesus, know Jesus, and spend time with Jesus. The attitude that is seeking Jesus is the attitude that finds salvation.
Second, notice his new heart that leads to generosity. When the people are complaining about Jesus going to this vile tax collector’s home, Zacchaeus wants to reveal to the people his dramatic change of heart. Zacchaeus does not try to defend himself by relying on his works. This would violate what we have seen in these last two chapters. The crowd was not wrong about this chief tax collector. He is not defending himself as righteous in the fact of the crowd’s claims. Rather, Zacchaeus is resolving on the spot to act differently because Jesus accepts him. Zacchaeus is willing to change everything in his life. He is going to give half of his goods to the poor. Luke draws our second contrast to the rich ruler in Luke 18. The rich ruler was unwilling to give up his goods to follow Jesus because he was very rich. In fact, Jesus declares how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The rich ruler could not see the great treasure of Jesus. He would not give up everything to follow him. Zacchaeus is also very rich, according to our story. But rather than respond like the rich ruler, Zacchaeus addresses the charges against him with radical life transformation. He will give half of his possessions because he wants to follow Jesus. He wants Jesus to stay with him and he will do anything to have that relationship with him.
Third, note Zacchaeus’ repentance. “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Under the Law of Moses the restitution law was to return what was defrauded plus 20% (cf. Leviticus 5:16). Zacchaeus has experienced such a transformation that he will give 400%. He does not want anything to interfere with his opportunity to be with Jesus. This is the heart of repentance that Jesus is looking for to grant salvation. Repentance desires to right previous wrongs whenever possible. I have encountered people who think they have offered repentance because they said they were sorry. Expecting someone to simply “get over it” is not repentance. Saying sorry is not repentance. We see an excellent example of repentance in Zacchaeus. He wants to right the wrong in a generous way. The man who was rich from swindling and extorting others has had a dramatic life change. Now he will give his possessions to the poor and he will restore anyone that he has defrauded. He does not have be told to do this. He does not ask Jesus if he has to give up his possessions. He does not ask if he needs to right his previous wrongs. His heart is so changed by the invitation of Jesus that he is moved by his heart to act. It is not about finding the minimum requirements. It is a desire to correct our mistakes and right our sins when possible all for the opportunity to spend time knowing Jesus.
The question was asked by the disciples, “Who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). If the rich ruler cannot be saved, who can be? The first answer was the blind beggar who saw his condition and recognized his need for mercy from Jesus. The second answer is the rich tax collector. Zacchaeus reveals the model response to Jesus’ initiative. He will give up and do anything to spend time with the Savior.
Listen to how Jesus ends this scene. “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). This vile, hated chief tax collector is receiving salvation today. He is a son of Abraham. This is an important declaration concerning Zacchaeus because Luke is taking us back to the beginning of his gospel. In Luke 3 we read about John the Baptizer who is preaching to the people to repent. Listen to his words: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham has our father. For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham'” (Luke 3:8). A person is a child of Abraham when they bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The heart of repentance defines who are God’s chosen and promised people and who are not. When our heart is changed by the Lord, it shows.
This wraps up Luke’s section on answer who is in the kingdom of God. Luke ends by showing us who is receiving salvation from the Lord. (1) Those who receive Jesus gladly. This should be obvious, and yet it needs to be said. If you do not want a relationship with Jesus and want to get to know Jesus, then you will not be part of his kingdom and receive salvation. You must want to see Jesus. You must want to spend time with Jesus. You must want to have your life hidden in him. (2) Those who will give up everything to be with Jesus. A relationship with Jesus is a call to sacrifice our desires and pursuits. Those who are receiving salvation are those who joyfully receive Jesus and then give all they have to remain with him. Luke has taught us to count the cost of discipleship, to give up our pride, to give up our wealth, to not think we can serve two masters, to come to him with thanksgiving and joy, crying out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (3) Those who desire and actively seek to right previous wrongs. When our heart is changed by the Lord, it shows. We will try to restore relationship and make restitution for our sins. We will have a radical change of life, molding ourselves to the image of Christ because of the offer of forgiveness he has extended to us.