Last week, we discussed the love of money being the root of all evil. I want to continue on that theme today with an interesting story which I pray will encourage us. If you went to church as a child, you have probably heard the story. It was so popular that I remember a song we used to sing about a wee little man named Zacchaeus who climbed up in a sycamore tree to see what he could see.
Let me set the historical stage so we can better appreciate the scene. Israel had a long history of being a sovereign nation. Sure they had their times of being conquered but they took pride when they had autonomy and independence as in the great days of King David and his son Solomon when kings and queens came from afar to see the splendour of their Jewish kingdom.
By the time of Zacchaeus, the Roman empire had spread over most of the civilised world at the time, including Israel. Imagine being independent to now being ruled by someone an ocean away. Imagine working so hard and being demanded to pay this emperor heavy taxes.
Romans were smart. They didn’t bring in a guy from Rome to collect their taxes. They hired a local guy — someone who would know the truth about how much people were really making. Someone who knew just how to squeeze every penny. The deal was the tax collector got a commission on how much money he received, and the Bible says Zacchaeus was a very rich man. That means he decided he would rather sacrifice his relationships with his friends and relatives. He didn’t care if he hurt them, exploited them, lied to them, or abused them. At the end of the day, he just wanted to be rich! Mission accomplished! But, he was hated in the process.
We still have our own Zacchaeus’s today – men and women who abuse their power in order to get rich at the expense of their own people. Just like in the Roman times, these people are talked about and distrusted, but at the end of the day, their faith is more in their wealth than in their popularity.
Now, here is where the story turns interesting. No one liked tax collectors. They were liars. They abused their political power. They were greedy. They were mean (how else do you squeeze people for excess money?) They didn’t have many real friends (who respects and truly trusts a man who has decided to side with the government against the welfare of his own people?)
One would think a man like Jesus who stood for love, treating your neighbour as you would want to be treated and for justice would not want to be associated with the likes of the outcast tax collector. He had chosen this life of extortion and corruption.
Then something odd happens. Jesus is walking down the road and our man, “Z”, is so short that he climbs up a tree just to see this man whom everyone was talking about. Suddenly, our kind Jesus looks up and says, “Z, I am going to eat at your house tonight!” What!? People were like “Jesus! That man is a sinner of the worst kind! So corrupt! He abuses his political power for his personal gain! He is a tax collector! (imagine the look of total disdain)
Jesus never reconsidered his decision. He chose to love Z and go against everyone’s advice to avoid him and go dine with the “sinner”. Imagine how Z felt. For years, he had been a social outcast. When he passed by, people whispered. When anyone was nice to him, he always wondered what they wanted because he didn’t have any real friends with the life he had chosen of exploitation. He was lonely. He might have regretted the choices he made to abuse his own people for material gain. But it was too late. He was a tax collector and the money was good. It was too hard to turn back. Then, Jesus did something radical. He didn’t judge him. He didn’t lecture him. Nope. Jesus accepted him. Jesus reached out to him. Jesus sought him out to befriend him.
In light of that kind of love, Z felt convicted. Z decided that the friendship of Jesus was worth all the money he had! He knew all along what was right, but he was scared to make it right. Everyone knew he had stolen money but he was scared to admit it. Jesus loved him! Jesus knew he was wrong but he loved him anyway. And he decided to do the right thing. He decided to give back all the money he had stolen. That must have been so hard to do the right thing.
Money he had worked so hard for, lost so many relationships for… why give it back? Because when you truly understand the love Jesus has for you then you understand that money pales in comparison. Maybe today you know what you have been taking. You know you are wrong, but you aren’t motivated to make it right.
Please be encouraged that same Jesus who sought out Z seeks you out, loves you as you are, and making things right with him and those around you is worth you returning any ill-gotten gain. It will not be easy, but Z’s story shows it is worth it to gain eternal salvation. “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” Mark 8:36
- Ashley Thaba is a life-coach, team-building facilitator and motivational speaker