The first (and only) time we meet Zacchaeus, he’s up a tree, trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Zacchaeus couldn’t have known this, but Jesus’ life would end in a similar way, with him climbing up a “tree” to take the curse Zacchaeus deserved. We don’t know if Zacchaeus was at the crucifixion. But we do know he caught a glimpse of that radical sacrifice and love when he met Jesus.
When Zacchaeus tasted the goodness of Jesus—even just a little bit of it—it changed him in two main ways.
First, Zacchaeus had an immediate, newfound yearning to overcome injustice. No one instructed him to give his money to the poor and pay back everyone he had cheated; it’s just what he wanted to do. Coming face to face with Jesus has that effect. Those who have perpetrated injustice suddenly seek justice and restoration.
I often meet people who think they can come to Jesus and stay the same. They pray a little prayer like a “get out of hell free card,” get baptized, and move on. When you’ve truly met Jesus, though, you don’t stay the same. Your heart begins to yearn for what God yearns for—perfect justice and peace. Where you’ve wronged people, you want to make it right. You want to start living honorably before God and others.
Instead of wanting to remain in secrecy, bending the rules so long as you don’t get caught, you desire to live in the light. Like the Apostle John says in 1 John 1, any man who says he knows Jesus and continues in sin is a liar. Indeed, John says, “If [you] say you have fellowship with him while [you] walk in darkness, [you] lie and do not practice the truth” (1:9 ESV). Zacchaeus had a meal with Jesus in his house—but the impact of that meal spilled out into the streets.
Second, Zacchaeus had a sudden impulse for generosity. He went well beyond the justice requirements of the law as he gave half his possessions to the poor and paid back four times what he had taken from others (well above the 20 percent that was required). It wasn’t because he had to give, but because the grace shown to him by Jesus moved him to do so. Meeting Jesus does that to people—it transforms takers into givers.
Sometimes when we get into conversations about why relationships in our lives are strained, we get stuck on where it all went wrong. We are all-in on pursuing justice—for ourselves. Well, they did that, or They accused me of this, or I just can’t get over when he said that.
We do this in our marriages: The reason we are having problems is because she does this, and I don’t deserve it.
We’re like this in our jobs: Well, I’m owed this and I wasn’t given my full due here.
We’re like this even in societal racial discussions: Well, I’m being held responsible for what my ancestors did and that’s not my fault!
And that’s all true—if we’re only talking about justice.
But if you’ve encountered Jesus, you go beyond justice to mercy. You’ll ask different kinds of questions: What do I have by which I can lift up others? How can I use my position to pour myself out? I don’t want to merely repay what I owe; I want to give back four times as much.
An impulse for grace is the sign that grace has changed you. Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said,
The more you understand who Jesus is and what he has done for you, the more generous you become … I fear there are many hearing me who now know they are not Christians because they do not love to give. To give largely and liberally, not grudging at all, requires a new heart. An old heart would rather part with its lifeblood than its money.
Is your life characterized by justice and mercy? If not, Zacchaeus would say, “I don’t think you’ve met the same guy I have. There’s no way to encounter that kind of grace and stay the same. There’s just no way.”