Anything for a Buck
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
It’s not on television anymore, but each episode of the show 24 covered an hour of time. So over the 24-episode season, you watched one 24-hour day unfold—and an epic day it was. The lead character Jack Bauer always saved the world from threats and terrorists we didn’t even know existed at the start of the day. It was a violent show, so I’m not necessarily commending it to you.
I bring it up because of where we are headed in Luke’s gospel. When we return to Luke’s gospel in chapter 19, we are just a few sermons away from the passage often called the “Triumphal Entry,” which is where Jesus rides into Jerusalem hailed as king. And when we reach that passage, the chronology in the rest of Luke’s book really only spans just over a week, and it’s an epic week. It’s the last week of Jesus’s life.
In a way similar to watching the show 24 on television over 24 weeks, we are going to take one slice of Jesus’s last week each Sunday for the next few months, ending just after Easter. The passage this morning is not in that final week yet, but as you’ll see in verse 1, Jesus continues his movement from Galilee in the north part of Israel to Jerusalem in the south (cf. Luke 9:51). Jesus continues his mission to seek and save, which means going to Jerusalem, going to the cross.
Follow along with me as I read from Luke 19:1–10, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich.3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .”
I hope you haven’t suspected this of me before, but back in the day—way back in the day—my family used to call me “Anything for Buck” Benjamin. The name was first given to me on an early spring day in Iowa. We were at our grandparents’ house, and they had a swimming pool. The pool was still freezing from the winter and had not been cleaned, and no one dared swim. It was two months too soon to swim in a pool that will still be cold then. One of my uncle’s dared me to swim across it, promising me $1 if I did.
I’m not saying there were chunks of ice floating in the pool, but I am saying it was basically freezing and very dirty. Like the foolish 10-year-old kid I was, I did it. I got my dollar and my nickname. There’s a certain humor to it, I suppose, but it’s not so funny when a person grows up, and they still do anything for a buck.
For some of you, when you hear the name Zacchaeus, you might have trouble hearing his story as a Bible story that has anything to say to adults because you mainly know Zacchaeus the way he’s enshrined in the children’s song about him: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man / And a wee little man was he / He climbed up in a sycamore tree / For the Lord he wanted to see.”
But his story is not merely a story for children. If you made a movie of his life, his backstory and rough people he used to run with, the movie about “Anything for a Buck” Zacchaeus would not be PG. A grown man amassing dishonest wealth, perhaps even through violence, is not a children’s story. A man who climbs to the top of an organization that is run like organized crime—the Jericho tax cartel—is not a children’s story. But it is Zacchaeus’s story.
And in some ways, although maybe not as dramatically perhaps, it might be part of your story. Who of us living in America can say that his or her life is not shaped—even in the smallest ways—by our culture of greed and consumerism. I know I feel it. If you don’t feel it, perhaps it’s only because you’re not aware of it, like a fish that doesn’t recognize it’s wet. I read recently that the average American goes into debt over $1,000 on Christmas shopping, all while the average credit card debt is over $6,000 per person.
A lot of people were hurt by the economic crash in 2008–09, but it wasn’t entirely the fault of all those “rich, greedy people” on Wall Street. Greed can seduce the average home buyer into buying more than they can afford. I remember meeting with our first mortgage lender after I was married. When I saw the amount of money we were “pre-approved” for, part of me started to dream about the size of the house it would buy, which was large. But it would have been a terrible thing to spend the full pre-approval amount beccuase I knew was going to go to seminary part-time and Brooke was going to work at home with our children. Yet when our greed gets stoked, we can make poor decisions. Money has a strange intoxicating magnetism over us, and that magnetism can lead us to humorous places, like swimming across a freezing swimming pool, and it can lead us to dark places, some places not humorous at all. That’s what happened to Zacchaeus. Where has it led you?
The good news of the passage is that wherever the love of money has led you, Jesus is seeking you for your good.
Our passage falls out in two halves. The first half takes place on the streets of Jericho in vv. 1–5, and the second half takes place in the home of Zacchaeus in vv. 6–10. This is going to be one of those sermons were we just read a few verses and talk about them and then read a few more and talk about those verses.
1. On the Street of Jericho, vv. 1–5
Let me re-read the vv. 1–3,
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich.3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature.
Jericho was a huge city center. The notes in one study Bible tell us that
“Herod the Great had obtained Jericho from Caesar Augustus and proceeded to build aqueducts, a fortress, a monumental winter palace, and a hippodrome in the vicinity of the more ancient town. . . . One striking feature of the palace site is its huge pools . . . . Jericho boasted a tropical climate and excellent access to water for agriculture . . . . [and] was a major toll collection point for goods passing east and west.”
In other words, when we read in v. 1 of Jesus passing through Jericho, don’t picture him walking down some street in obscurity but walking down Main Street Jericho in something like a New Year’s Day parade. That’s the kind of commotion depicted here, especially because just back in chapter 18, just outside the city of Jericho, Jesus had healed a blind man, which presumably only increased the size of the crowd.
And now about Zacchaeus. In the same breath we’re told his title is “chief tax collector” we’re told he was “rich.” The Bible has categories for righteous rich people and unrighteous rich people. Let me as you a question. We just spent the fall preaching through the book of Job, who was very rich. Which was Job: righteous rich or unrighteous rich? Job was a righteous rich person. Now another question, what about Zacchaeus? Unrighteous rich.
Here’s how taxes ordinarily worked at that time. Israel was occupied by Rome, and Rome extracted taxes by contracting Israel’s own citizens to do the dirty work and to do so excessively and, if necessary, with force. So, a tax collector would “bid” on a certain region, saying something like, “I could get $500 million from this Jericho region.” Then whatever they could take over and above that, say, an extra few million, they could keep.
In just two verses we learn that Zacchaeus had a prominent role in a prominent city. He’s a big fish in a big pond.
We also learn at the end of verse 3 that he’s not very tall. In fact, he’s short, so short that, even though he is seeking to see Jesus, he can’t on account of the crowd. No one wants to move for him, and we understand why. They hate him. The crowd is four-deep with people, but this business mogul, who is ordinarily so powerful, can’t seem to get a peek. So let’s read what he does in vv. 4–5.
4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
Think of the humility exhibited here. Actually, it’s not so much humility as it is humiliation. A man who is typically chauffeured around on the finest camels has to climb a tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And he gets way more than he bargained for, which is always the way it is when we seek Jesus. We always get more than we expect. Zacchaeus did. We read that Jesus didn’t say he wanted to stay at his house or that he hoped to stay at his house, but he must stay at his house—today. The wording makes it sound like Jesus has purpose and intent and urgency, like this meeting is not arbitrary or peripheral. The wording makes it sound like Jesus is on a mission. That’s because he is.
2. In the Home of Zacchaeus, vv. 6–10
Now, the rest of the passage seems to take place at the home of Zacchaeus.
6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord . . .
Note, Zacchaeus is joyful about this. We sometimes ask the question, “If you could have anyone over to your house for dinner—dead or alive—who would it be?” Christians feel duty-bound to say, “Well, I guessed I’d invite Jesus . . . And if I was stranded on a desert island, and could only bring one book, I guess I’d bring the Bible.” Zacchaeus is stoked to have Jesus as a guest.
The crowd doesn’t feel the same way. But we can sympathize with the crowd grumbling, can’t we? Zacchaeus was not just some generic sinner out there somewhere in the world. His love of money had made him a sinner who had sinned against these people in particular ways. Zacchaeus was rich with their money. He rode a luxury camel bought with their money. He slept on Egyptian linens bought with their money. He drank pomegranate juice bought with their money.
We don’t really feel the scandal of Jesus having a meal at his house with all the force that they did because today attending someone’s party doesn’t carry the same level of endorsement. But to eat a meal with someone then was, in most people’s eyes, to imply you fully approved of each other.
To feel what Jesus does here, it might be more like me throwing a party and inviting the leader of Planned Parenthood to the party—which would bother some of you. And then after the party let’s say I changed my Facebook profile picture to one of me with my arm around her. That would be scandalous for an evangelical pastor—not just because I’m married. So, the crowd is mad, not only at Zacchaeus but at Jesus. Social media is buzzing. The pundits on C-SPAN and Fox News all give Jesus sharp criticism.
And that’s what I love about Jesus. He doesn’t care. It’s so easy to love some generic sinner out there somewhere in the world. It’s more difficult to love a sinner who has personally sinned against you, which is what Jesus does when he loves sinners. It’s what Jesus does when he loves you. Jesus loves those who steal his glory and mock his salvation and abuse his people. Jesus loves people who love money more than him. He’s on a mission. He’s there to bring salvation to Zacchaeus, which, as we’ll see next, is going to mean change must take place in his life. Zacchaeus is not going to be the same after today. Look at what he says next.
8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Jesus didn’t have a problem with taxes per se. In chapter 20, we’re going to see Jesus pay his taxes (vv. 20–26). And way back in chapter 3, we heard John the Baptist instruct tax collectors who came to be baptized to collect no more than authorized (v. 13). In other words, you can be a tax collector, but you can’t be an extortionist. You can work for the government, but you can’t work for organized crime, exactly the things Zacchaeus was doing. But no longer. He’s a changed man.
If it was humiliating to be seen up high after climbing the tree, I think the moment of being seen standing at the head of the table would have been more humiliating. It certainly would have been more awkward.
Picture a noisy room going immediately silent as the host stands up from the table. Picture who was in the room with Zacchaeus! Picture who was at the table! We don’t have a guest list, but we can assume it wasn’t the self-righteous, religious crowd who had grumbled. They probably weren’t at Zacchaeus’s house. Likely it was Zacchaeus’s friends, family, and co-workers who were there, the very people who drew benefit from the same dishonest wage, and they just listened to Zacchaeus say he’s out of the game, he’s now going to make everything right to the people he’s defrauded. He’s apologizing for stealing cookies in a room full of people with chocolate on their faces and crumbs on the floor. And he’s joyful about it. That’s awkward and awesome!
He’s a changed man. And Jesus knows it too, declaring him to be a true son of Abraham. Formerly, he had a genic connection to the people of God, but now he has a spiritual connection through repentance and by faith, which is the only connection that saves. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.” This doesn’t mean that because Zacchaeus gave way his stuff and made things right, he earned favor with God. Not at all. All of these things are evidence that Zacchaeus has changed on the inside. And that’s what Jesus is on a mission to do, to seek and save the lost. That’s what he did then, and that’s what he’s doing now.
You see, we’re talking a lot about Zacchaeus and the love of money and Jesus and repentance and faith and grace and salvation, at that’s good. But Luke didn’t put this story in his gospel so we could merely talk about Zacchaeus and the love of money and Jesus and repentance and faith and grace and salvation. Luke wants us to talk about you and the love of money and Jesus and repentance and faith and grace and salvation.
Church, how are you doing with money? It’s a serious question. What steps are you taking to proactively war against the love of money and cultivate love for God? A theme in the Bible, but especially in the gospel of Luke, is that the way you handle money is an indicator of the health of your relationship with God and perhaps whether you have a relationship with God at all.
Previously in Luke’s gospel, Jesus said, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). And before that, in chapter 12, Jesus told his followers to “be on [our] guard against all covetousness” (v. 15). In other words, you have watch out for greed because greed sneaks up on you. Then Jesus told a parable about money. In the parable a man foolishly stored up treasure on earth but not in heaven, and he was destroyed for it. Jesus summarizes that story with the statement, “[so it will be for everyone] who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (12:21).
Again, church, how are we doing with money? It’s a serious question. What steps are we taking to proactively war against the love of money? I know one pastor-elder here at the church who has asked a friend to periodically ask him about his finances and if he is miserly or generous, if he’s hoarding money or taking obedient, gospel-driven risks with his money. I’m saying all this because a theme in the Bible, but especially a theme in the gospel of Luke, is that the way you handle money is an indicator of the health of your relationship with God and perhaps whether you have a relationship with God at all.
To be clear, this isn’t a sermon to get more tithes at church. It’s not about getting more money to finish the renovations in the basement or any other project. It’s a sermon to make sure you’re not blinded by greed and going to hell. That’s what would have happened to Zacchaeus if God didn’t seek him out.
To close the sermon, I want to go back to something in chapter 18. A young rich guy comes to Jesus asking what he needs to do to go to heaven. They talk for a bit, and then, sensing his idol was money, Jesus tells him to give it away to gain treasure in heaven. The rich guy hangs his head and walks away. Then we read,
24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:24–27)
The story of Zacchaeus is the story of the miracle of a changed life. Something impossible happened. The mission of Jesus to seek and save happened. “Anything for Buck” Zacchaeus became “Anything for Jesus” Zacchaeus. That’s a miracle. He went through the eye of the needle.
What I want to encourage you with is that Jesus grabs ahold of your life, you always get more than you expect. No one who comes to Jesus humbly seeking forgiveness only gets forgiveness for wrongs done in the past. Because Jesus died for your sins, you get forgiveness for every sin you’ve ever committed in the past and will commit in the future. And you get friendship and warmth from the heavenly Father. You get it all.
When Jesus said that thing about the camel and the needle and the impossibility, Peter spoke up, and Jesus responded to him. This is what he said,
28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:28–30)
I don’t know what hard things lie before you as you denounce the love of money and cultivate love for God. Zacchaeus had many hard changes before him. But I do know that following Jesus, however costly, also means receiving “many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.
Pray with me as the music team comes back up to lead us in a final song. Let’s pray . . .
 Wayne Grudem and Thomas Schreiner, ESV Study Bible: Luke, 1,997.
 The change in setting is not explicitly stated, but it is implied. Zacchaeus comes down from the tree, and we’re told he receives Jesus joyfully, presumably meaning he receives Jesus at his house. And then we learn that people complain Jesus becomes his guest, which also implies they when to his house. And then in v. 8, that Zacchaeus stands up, presumably from eating a meal at his home. All this implies the setting change.