No one in Jericho felt bad about the way Zaccheus was treated. He was a chief tax collector who had gotten rich by swindling the poor. And since he collaborated with the Romans, it had become a source of civic pride to despise him. Hence, he was ignored, grumbled against, and ostracized. He had not been welcome in the synagogue for some time and was never invited to participate in the community’s celebrations. His only friends were fellow tax collectors. That is, until Jesus strolled into town.
Luke tells us that Jesus sees Zaccheus up in a sycamore tree, hanging on to one of its sprawling branches. Perching up there is a humiliating thing for someone with Zaccheus’s position and wealth to do, but as a short man, it’s his best option for getting a glimpse of the man who’s been causing such a stir.
For His part, Jesus does what no one else is willing to do. He speaks to Zaccheus with kindness and respect. He also does something that is found nowhere else in the Gospels: He invites Himself over. From where He stands on the ground, He calls up to Zaccheus, “Hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). Jesus has been the guest of notorious sinners, of self-righteous Pharisees, and of faithful supporters, but only here do we read of Him initiating the invitation.
At this point in His public ministry, Jesus is popular. In a few days, the crowds will turn on Him and demand His blood—but for now, they’re coming out in droves to witness miracles and hear Him teach about His Father’s kingdom. Jesus could stay with anyone in Jericho, but He chooses the most despised man in town.
Zacheus’s only friends were fellow tax collectors. That is, until Jesus strolled into town.
The friendship between Jesus and Zaccheus did not develop out of a mutual appreciation. As far as we know, they shared no interests, no hobbies, and no common acquaintances. Jesus and Zaccheus were on opposing paths. While Jesus was headed to Jerusalem—where He would be betrayed, arrested, tortured, and crucified for a world of sinners—Zaccheus was on a path of power and prosperity. Jesus had emptied Himself of the glories of heaven and come to earth to rescue those who would shout for His death. Zaccheus had enriched himself by taking advantage of his neighbors.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .’” Yet when the Lord spies Zaccheus up in that tree, there is no “What! You too?” moment. Instead, Jesus reaches out to the chief tax collector precisely because they have nothing in common and because loving the unlovable is at the core of His life and ministry.
By this time, Jesus has long carried the epithet “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (7:34), but rather than trying to shed such an insult, He wears the label proudly. The kind of friendship Jesus offers the tax collector is a snapshot of the larger story that’s been unfolding since Genesis 3.
Though we were created in God’s image, that image has been distorted and broken. In our sin, we have nothing in common with a holy God—no basis for friendship whatsoever. And as people who “did not honor Him as God or give thanks” and who “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:21, 25), we, too, are far from lovable. Yet God reached out to broken people—invited Himself over, as it were.
This is what we see take place in Zaccheus’s home. There are no words of warning or condemnation on Jesus’ lips, no encore of the Sermon on the Mount. There isn’t even an acknowledgement of Zaccheus’s crimes against his fellow man or his God. Instead, God comes close. Zaccheus knows he’s a sinner, and in Jesus’ presence, his heart is changed.
Recognizing who Jesus is, and in awe of the fact that He would stoop low to enter a wretched man’s home, Zaccheus turns from his life of sin: “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). A fourfold payback was the Law’s requirement for theft (Ex. 22:1), so with that statement, the tax collector places himself under God’s authority, something he had flouted for years. And without another word—no discussion of doctrine, no sinner’s prayer—Jesus announces plainly what Zaccheus’s heart already knows: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).
Friendships where Christ is the center have the power to be the most meaningful and the most enduring.
In the same way, God made the first move toward each of us: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). He did this so we could be saved and become members of God’s family, sons of Abraham. And because God acted first, we can accept His invitation to friendship.
A New Kind of Friendship
When the Pharisees and other religious leaders called Jesus a “friend of sinners,” they meant it as an insult. However, Jesus embraced the title, saying, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). And now He calls us to do the same.
Jesus commanded His first followers to go out into the world—to people who were worse than tax collectors and sinners in the minds of devout Jews—and make true disciples of them (Matt. 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). Jesus wants something akin to this scene with Zaccheus to play out in every culture.
As missionaries and evangelists can attest, these kinds of friendships are often uncomfortable and rarely easy. A coworker once told me of a mission trip to South America during which he was served a stew that contained a hearty portion of monkey brains. He didn’t want to insult his host by refusing, so he ate every single bite. Whether or not monkey brains are part of the equation, the fact remains: Jesus calls us to friendships that are sometimes bumpy and challenging.
But Jesus doesn’t leave things there. Though the two men had little in common when they first met, by the end of the visit, He calls Zaccheus a brother, and they share a bond more significant than any that could be formed over sports, politics, or a common fence.
Friendships where Christ is the center have the power to be the most meaningful and the most enduring. When we invite ourselves into the life of someone wholly different than us, the goal is never that we stay wholly different but that we become brothers and sisters. This kind of friendship is possible only because of the new life that’s available to us in Christ.
C. S. Lewis was right. There is something absolutely wonderful about relationships that start with a “What! You too?” moment. But there’s another, more difficult road to friendship—the one Jesus Himself trod. And though all the signs that mark this path warn of rejection and social stigma, it’s the Jesus way. The way of love.