5When Jesus reached the spot, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6So he came down at once and welcomed Him gladly. 7All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:5-7, NIV)
If you’re familiar with Zacchaeus, you’ll remember that he lived in Jericho, where he collected taxes. The fact that he was wealthy meant he had charged ample handling fees in addition to the basic taxes. This meant Zacchaeus was despised by his neighbors as a sell-out to the Roman government and someone who had taken advantage of them.
But, for some reason, Jesus was interested in Jesus. Because Zacchaeus was short and the crowd was in his way, he climbed a tree to catch a peek of Jesus. When Jesus walked by, he spied Zacchaeus in the tree and called to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (v. 5). Zacchaeus was thrilled to welcome Jesus. But his neighbors did not share Zacchaeus’s enthusiasm. They started to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” (v. 7).
We don’t know exactly the nature of Zacchaeus’s sins, though it’s likely that they included “defrauding” people from whom he was collecting taxes (see v. 8). But the Jewish label “sinner” wasn’t used simply to identify people who did things contrary to the law. It was also a cultural slur, a way of saying that somebody was an outsider, someone who didn’t belong to the community of God’s holy people. Even though Zacchaeus was Jewish, his status as a sinner meant he was effectively cut off from his neighbors. Sinners like Zacchaeus didn’t belong. They weren’t welcome.
Today I want to reflect on what it means to be a sinner. This reflection is particularly relevant for the Lenten Season. During this season, we focus in a special way on our sinfulness. We remember that, because of sin, human beings, having been created out of dust, will return to dust. On Ash Wednesday millions of Christians receive the imposition of ashes on their forehead, a stark visual reminder of their sinfulness and mortality . . . and therefore also their need for a Savior. Ashes are imposed in the form of a cross to signify that the curses of sin and death will be rectified through the crucifixion of Jesus. Thus, though we begin Lent with the bad news of our fallen human condition, even that news points ahead to the good news that is to come on Good Friday and Easter.
One of the things I love about Ash Wednesday services is joining with other Christians to acknowledge publicly that we are sinful people worthy of death. After the ashes have been imposed, churches are full of people bearing visual witness to the fact that they are sinners. In this context, nobody accuses anyone else of being a sinner, as they once did to Zacchaeus. Why? Because we are all sinners.
Moreover, being a sinner doesn’t mean exclusion from the community of Christ. Rather, it’s a prerequisite to membership. As Jesus said after His encounter with Zacchaeus, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (v. 10). You can replace “lost” with “sinners,” if you wish. Jesus came for sinners. Jesus came to save folks like Zacchaeus, and me, and you.
We begin Lent with a recognition of our sinfulness and therefore our need of a Savior. And, with cross-shaped ashes to remind us, Jesus has come to save us from our sin, to bear our sin on the cross. Thus, as we take seriously the bad news of our sin and mortality, we also anticipate the good news that is to come.
Lord, I want to know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly. I’d love for you to “stay at my house” today.