Who was the Zacchaeus of the Bible? Zacchaeus was a little guy with a massive salary. Although a Jew, he collected taxes from the Jews for the Romans and climbed the ranks to become a chief tax collector. He was loaded and loathed. Something compelled Zacchaeus to throw off what made him feel important and dig up what made him feel embarrassed—and lay it all at the feet of Jesus.
If I said you remind me of Napoleon Bonaparte, would you take it as a compliment? It’s tricky because Napoleon had two very different sides. On the one hand, his appearance was unimpressive: the “little emperor” was short and pot-bellied, pale and somber, with greasy and receding hair. On the other hand, he was a colossal conqueror: subduing continental Europe, ending the French Revolution, dissolving the Holy Roman Empire, arresting a pope, and heading an imperial dynasty.
So, do you laugh or tremble? British newspapers mocked him as “Little Boney” yet dreaded the threat of a Napoleonic invasion. In 1806, one Prussian king’s army outnumbered the French army 63,000 to 27,000, yet when he was told (falsely, it turned out) that Napoleon was leading the other army in person, he turned his army and fled. Napoleon’s name belongs to a select list in history with titans such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. And a mathematical case can be made that Napoleon was the greatest tactical general of all time—by far.
Zacchaeus of the Bible: “His small stature and imperial ambitions sure make an unlikely pair. Or do they?”
His small stature and imperial ambitions sure make an unlikely pair. Or do they? Some have claimed to scientifically show the validity of the “little man syndrome” (also known as the Napoleon Complex), according to which shorter men compensate by acting more aggressively. Stalin, Putin, Tom Cruise—maybe there’s something to this.
But it’s bigger than just short men. The need to compensate for getting a D- in one area by focusing the spotlight on our A+ area is something we all do. The kid who has trouble keeping up with his classmates academically learns to make them laugh as the class clown. The kid who can’t make the basketball team becomes a rock star on the clarinet. The state without a single valid reason for tourism boasts having the friendliest people (not likely). The same impulse can find its way into the church too: The youth minister at your church may struggle to be as cool as the kids in his youth group—but just try beating him at foosball. If your music minister leads with a guitar, he might not be able to read music—but he can probably fit Van Halen “Eruption”-style tapping into a worship song (solo dei gloria).
Zacchaeus of the Bible: “the Napoleon of his town.”
Zacchaeus was the Napoleon of his town. He was notably short, as in, climb-a-tree-if-you-want-to- see-the-parade short. He was likely less than 5’ tall if we’re going by Mediterranean standards of the time. Having church people sing about you throughout history sounds pretty cool—until you realize it’s groups of 1st and 2nd graders singing about how you’re a “wee little man.” The song says it twice in the first line: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.” How incredibly patronizing.
Zacchaeus also came up short spiritually. In Hebrew, Zacchaeus’s name was Zakkay, short for Zechariah. Not only was Zechariah the name of a godly priest and a godly prophet in the Old Testament, but the name meant “the righteous one.” As a tax gatherer for the occupying Romans, he was notoriously unrighteous, a traitor to God’s chosen nation. Zacchaeus was a spiritual disappointment to his people.
Zacchaeus of the BIble: “Although a midget in stature and spirituality, Zacchaeus had tall ambitions in another key area of life.”
Although a midget in stature and spirituality, Zacchaeus had tall ambitions in another key area of life: money. This was a battlefield on which he emerged as a conqueror. He climbed the ranks until he became the chief tax collector in Jericho, a wealthy city on the border between Judea and Perea (east of the Jordan River). There, he would have overseen lower-level, but still wealthy, tax collectors in gathering taxes on individuals, land, and sales, as well as goods coming over the border. They could overcharge with all the backing of Rome and pocket the excess.
Being a morbidly wealthy person probably helped Zacchaeus forget his substandard size most days. His financial overabundance might have even made him forget his spiritual bankruptcy from time to time. But not the day he heard that Jesus was coming through town. That day, Zacchaeus had to get a glimpse of this miracle worker and possible messiah.
But in connecting with Jesus, he came up short in more ways than one. The crowd was too thick and tall for him to get a good look. So, Zacchaeus found a tree and climbed it. In doing so, he unknowingly obeyed one of Jesus’ more obscure commands, making it more concrete than hours of seminary lectures could: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3).
Zacchaeus of the Bible: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Anyone who saw the tiny man scampering up the tree must have laughed. Let them laugh, Zacchaeus must have thought. I’ve got to see this Jesus. When Jesus saw him in the tree, he responded as if they had made the tree climbing a prearranged signal: “Zacchaeus! Come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).
So long as I’m concentrating my and everybody else’s attention on what makes me impressive, I remain tragically unaware of how badly I need Jesus. But when I realize how badly I need Jesus, I can be honest about what embarrasses me about myself. I can dig it up and present it before Jesus as a sheepish child holding broken vase pieces. He’s a safe person to take my embarrassments to.
“When I realize how badly I need Jesus, I can be honest about what embarrasses me about myself.”
When the people watching mutter their disgust (“He has gone to be the guest of a sinner!”), Zacchaeus doesn’t retreat back into his impressiveness. Rather, he keeps pulling out embarrassments and handing them to Jesus: “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.” I’ve lived in opulence and ignored the poor. I’ve cheated people. I’m embarrassed and ready to change. Jesus responds by telling him, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
Why? everyone must have wondered, Zacchaeus most of all. Why salvation for somebody like Zacchaeus? Jesus answers by explaining, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
So that’s why. Jesus is looking for the lost. That means that, for spiritual midgets like myself, my only chance for a real life in Jesus is to humble myself, even if it means looking childlike as I throw off what’s impressive, dig up what’s embarrassing, and lay it all before him. He responds in grace, and I respond in relief.
The younger you grow in childlike humility, the more of yourself you can give over to Jesus to make you new. The new you elicits neither laughter nor trembling, but rather curiosity. What happened to that person? Might even make somebody lay aside their layers of self-importance and climb a tree to get answers.