Jesus Eating with a “Sinner” (Again!)

Breaking Bread with Jesus

Sunday April 4th   Easter Sunday In-Person worship at 10:30 — must be registered by Friday April 2nd – email to or speak to Pastor Dick.

Opening Reflection

God desires for us to live humbly — every single day. God does not approve of the haughty, arrogant approach that is often so common in our relationships and leadership. We know of God’s desire for us not only through numerous biblical texts but also through the words of Jesus and the life he lived. Meekness reveals our trust in something — someone—bigger than ourselves.

Jesus Eating with a “Sinner” (Again!)

A Reading from Scripture           Luke 19:1-10 NIV

19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short, he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 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.” 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.”

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Lent is a time for reflection and redemption, a time to draw closer to God as we ask for and receive forgiveness for our mistakes and seek to live better and love others as Jesus did. The Lenten season is 40 days plus Sundays, and we will continue to work with the Gospel of Luke as we look at the meals that Jesus had with others.

You just heard the Vacation Bible school song about Zacchaeus — it is sung – and it is about his stature and his meeting with Jesus. Zacchaeus was a small guy and his best way to see Jesus was to climb a tree and hang into the branches so he could get a great view of Jesus, whom he has heard so much about from the community of Jericho. Which by the way, is the same road that the story of the Good Samaritan takes place on. 

The story starts with the fact that Zacchaeus was “a chief tax collector and was rich.” (Luke 19:2) Tax collectors, as we know were absolutely despised in that day for their cooperation with the oppressive Roman government. The Pharisees considered tax collectors sinners as did most everyone else. They were in cahoots with the Romans.  

Zacchaeus had apparently done well for himself in this line of work.  He was a chief tax collector, which means he must have been promoted at some point for cooperating with the Romans.  “In a corrupt system, the loftier one’s position, the greater one’s complicity in that system.” [1]The text further points out that Zacchaeus was rich. Tax collectors were generally known to be lining their pockets at the expense of their neighbors. Zacchaeus is not just any run of the mill tax collector.  He has apparently excelled at taking advantage of people for his own gain.

Let me pause for a moment and add a comment: Luke, more than any other Gospel writer, is consistently concerned about matters of wealth and the treatment of the poor. In the previous chapter (Luke 18) a rich man, when asked to give away all he had, departs Jesus in sadness. When Jesus declares that it is nearly impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, the disciples — who like most of their time believe wealth a sign of God’s favor — are incredulous. Now we will see how Zacchaeus reacts to Jesus.

Zacchaeus is fascinated by what he has heard of Jesus.  Fascinated enough to do something a wealthy official would not normally do, scampering his way up into a tree so that he could catch a glimpse of Jesus as he walked by with the crowd.  What had Zacchaeus heard about Jesus that made him curious enough to go to such extraordinary measures to see Jesus with his own eyes? It seems “he has heard and believes that Jesus really is a ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”

Whatever his reasons, notice that Jesus has a plan of his own.  I wish we had a snapshot, of the faces of those in the crowd as Jesus calls everyone to a halt under that sycamore tree.  Zacchaeus had, after all, exposed himself to some ridicule in his rush to see Jesus.  But Jesus seems to take it all in stride.  “Hi, Zach.  Hurry and come down now; you’re hosting me for dinner tonight.”  And if we had wondered whether it was just idle curiosity about Jesus that got him up in that tree, Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus implies that there was more going on.  For “he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.” There Jesus goes again, off to be the dinner guest of one who is a sinner. 

Keep in mind, it is easy for a rich man to isolate and insulate himself with his wealth, to feel that he has all he needs.  And Zacchaeus must over the years have justified to himself the means that he employed to become so very rich as a tax collector.   It would not be at all unreasonable to suppose he was somewhat comfortable in the life he had built.  But Jesus sees through all of the trappings of financial success and looks straight into the heart of someone longing for a change. So, Jesus going to dinner in Zacchaeus’ house. The crowd is muttering —he is going to be a guest of a sinner. Nothing new about Jesus – he associates with people the world calls sinners – but Jesus sees all people in need of compassion and healing.

And it all comes pouring out.  Zacchaeus is not happy with the life he is built, as it turns out.  He has not fooled himself into believing the ends justified the means.  “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  

I read it as a cry for help.  Help me, Lord, to change.  Help me, Lord, to put behind me those old selfish patterns.  Help me not only to be just and fair, but to be generous, extravagantly generous even.  “After all, repentance is not solely a transaction of the heart.  Repentance bears fruit.” [2]And in this transformation comes his salvation, Jesus says, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)

There are all kinds of ways to get lost.  It is easy to call to mind the more dramatic ways, because we hear about them in the news every day.  How utterly lost must a young man be, for instance, to pick up a gun and head out to spas in Atlanta on a shooting spree?  An ultimate movement of depravity! Or, in the obituary reading of a young person who over-dosed on fentanyl. Being lost seems to be rampant in our society.

But remember that we can become lost in other, far more subtle ways too.  In fact, some vices can work their way into our hearts so gradually that we do not even notice.  Among those sneaky vices are selfishness and greed.  We will not all defraud others to get ahead, as Zacchaeus did, but it is dangerously easy to convince ourselves we really do need just a little bit more.  And then just enough more than that, that there is not much left over to help anyone else.  None of us are exempt from that danger.

Zacchaeus may or may not have been a wee little man, but his need for heart-to-heart conversation with Jesus was huge.  The result of that conversation?  A life transformed.  Salvation comes to his house.  And it took a very concrete form.  Helping the poor and practicing radical generosity.

The good news for every one of us is that Jesus did come “to seek … and … save the lost.”  Which means he can reach us wherever it is that we have gotten mixed up and turned around. Jesus can reach us, and help us, and transform our hearts and our lives.  He can even do it around a dinner table.  In fact, that was one of his favorite places for conversation with those longing for his help.

Whether our own desire for transformation is great or small, whether it involves the way we relate to your family or to our neighbors, to our job or to our bank account, remember that the table is set, and we are all invited.  What is the conversation you are longing to have with Jesus?  Hurry and come down, for Jesus is dining here today.


[1] Fred Craddock’s Commentary on Luke, pg 218

[2] Craddock pg 219