Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He was wealthy, a sinner, and much disliked by the people. However, when he learned that Jesus was coming into the area, he felt a desire to see this man he had heard so much about. There were many others who wanted to see him as well, and the streets were crowded. Zaccheus, who wasn’t very tall, was unable to see over the crowds. In desperation, he climbed a tree so he could look over the heads of the crowd.
Finally, Jesus came. As he watched the man some knew to be the Savior, he was startled to hear Jesus call him by name. Jesus told Zacchaeus to come out of the tree because he—Jesus Christ Himself—was going to stay at his home that night.
The crowds who heard the exchange were astonished. Of all the spiritual and moral people in the crowd, Jesus had chosen to take his meal and lodgings with a known sinner. Many probably didn’t understand why He would do such a thing. For some, it might even have been faith-challenging.
For those who truly understand God’s plan, however, Jesus’ choice made complete sense. The gospel is not just for the perfect or the already converted. God intended for His gospel to go to everyone. If Jesus had only taught those who were already converted and perfect, He would have converted no one at all. It is the sinner who most needs what Jesus Christ has to offer.
Jesus’ choice of dinner host was very inspired. Zacchaeus was so touched by Jesus’ unexpected kindness in selecting him and in whatever Jesus taught during their visit that he chose to repent and to repay anyone he had cheated in his career. He also chose to give half his fortune to the poor.
Jesus might have strengthened an existing testimony had he chosen a church member to dine with, but his impact by choosing a sinner was far greater. He was able to completely transform a life through his kindness to someone no one else respected or cared about.
As with most events in the Lord Jesus Christ’s life, several lessons emerge from this small event in the Savior’s life.
David A. Baxter, a Mormon high level church leader, told of hearing this story as a young boy who was not yet Mormon. (Mormon is a nickname sometimes used to refer to the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) His childhood was very difficult. His mother had divorced several times and he and his siblings lived in terrible poverty in Scotland. As the young boy listened to this story in a neighborhood church, he thought how wonderful it was that Jesus had known Zacchaeus’ name even though they had never met. He wondered if Jesus also knew his name. He thought that if a bad man like Zacchaeus could be saved, maybe a poor child and his family in far-away Scotland could also be saved.
When David was older, he came to understand the gospel was for everyone, even poor children living in difficult circumstances. Jesus did indeed know his name and loved him, even as the Savior loved Zacchaeus.
It is important for us to understand that Jesus knows our names and loves us. He wants everyone to accept His gospel, regardless of the mistakes we’ve made in the past, our social status, and our popularity in the world. As we watch how Jesus conducted His ministry, we note that he spent much of his time among the poor, the disabled, the unpopular, and the sinners. Many of these people were startled by the kindness Jesus showed to them because they were unused to kindness.
The story of Zaccaeus’ conversion also teaches the importance of repentance. No one is so sinful that he cannot repent and start over. The gospel of Jesus Christ has a powerful transforming impact on those who accept it, but sometimes the transformation is astonishing when it comes to someone who had walked far from Christian standards. The story of Zacchaeus teaches those who are living sinful lives they can repent and join the community of believers, be forgiven of their sins, and start over. The fresh start isn’t easy, but it is worth it.
Zaccaeus’ story also has a message for the believers. We do not have the right to decide who should or should not be given the gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostles sent it out to all the world and not just to the righteous or current believers. If we associate only with members of our own faith, we will never have the joy of helping the Holy Ghost whisper truth to those who did not know it. Only God can decide who has a right to hear the gospel, not us. We must offer it to everyone we know. It is this knowledge that leads Mormons to share their faith through full-time missions and everyday conversations with anyone who will listen. We cannot know who longs for the transforming grace of the gospel.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.