Luke 19.1-10: A Personal Testimony and reflection

If I ever visit the Holy Land, I think I will head straight to Jericho. Because, in Jericho is a sycamore tree with a wall around it commemorating the story of Zacchaeus! Now, it may not be the actual tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus above the crowds as the miracle working teacher passed through the city some two thousand years ago… but it is certainly an old sycamore tree in the same city as the story. And that is good enough for me! Because I love the story of Zacchaeus and personally relate to it. Not because I am a tax collector, working for the Romans and cheating people out of their hard-earned money, but because of the way that I was so lost when the Lord came to seek and find me.

The story in Luke 19.1-10 is well-known but just as a quick reminder it goes something like this: Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector who wants to see Jesus who is passing through Jericho but has to climb up a tree in order to see the Lord over all the crowds. Jesus stops at the tree and tells Zacchaeus, “Hey! I am coming to your house today!” After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus promises to repay anyone he has cheated four times over. The story ends with these famous words of Jesus: “Today salvation has come to this house… The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (19.9-10).

And for me, these words spoken by the Lord are the key to the story: it is a tale of lost and found much like those familiar parables of sheep, coins and sons in Luke 15.

Now, the first thing to note is about names. You know that biblical names are never just names but regularly tell us something about the character of the person. In this case, Zacchaeus means “righteous”. But there is a little problem… the “righteous” Zacchaeus has become “lost” along his way and is living one of the most unrighteous lives of first century Judea – a tax collector! We have all heard the stories about those tax collectors; working for the Romans, cheating their own people, universally hated and despised. That is why the parable in Luke 18 features a tax collector as the foil for the Pharisee: by using a contemporary example of unrighteousness, Jesus shocks his audience by exalting the tax collector above the Pharisee!

And, like the tax collector in the parable of chapter 18, Zacchaeus presents Jesus with another opportunity to challenge people’s expectations and judgments on who is good/bad and in/out. Although Zacchaeus has lost his way; after meeting with Jesus he lives up to his name of “righteous” and acts in a righteous manner towards those he has previously cheated. Zacchaeus is changed by his meeting with Jesus but does not become a different person. It is more like his innate character has been restored/saved/made good/made new! What I mean is: there was always righteousness inside of the one named “righteous” – God had created him as such – but the way of the world/bad choices/and who-knows-what-else resulted in his created core being lost. Jesus however, seeks and saves what has been lost. Righteousness is restored to the one named righteous.

As I already mentioned, this story speaks to me personally because I feel that “I once was lost and now am found”.

At the age of eighteen I had no knowledge and definitely no interest in anything religious. I knew that Christmas meant presents and Easter meant chocolate eggs. I could probably tell you something about Noah’s Ark. But that was about it! And then suddenly, I might say, utilising the language of Luke 19.1: “Jesus was passing through Jericho” and the things of God began to fascinate and surround me. It seemed as though everywhere I turned there was a church building I now found to be of great interest. I started to meet people who unexpectedly revealed they were Christians. And over the next year or so I became more and more interested in the man called Jesus. I wanted to find out about him, read books about him, listen to songs about him, and I suppose (in some spiritual sense!) I started climbing up the sycamore tree to try and see him over the crowds. By some divine mystery, the more I felt surrounded and pursued by the presence of the Lord, the more I was desperate to meet him in person!

How awesome to think of our Lord appearing or arriving where we are, looking for us. To me, all those years ago, that unexpected arrival of the divine presence was so irresistible, so attractive, I had to find out what – or who – was surrounding me. And I let him pursue me, I allowed myself to be sought and surrounded until that day at the age of twenty when I stopped, with no more hiding places, and said, “Alright Jesus, you’ve found me!”

Up until that time, I was lost. I had no idea who I was, what God had created me to be – or even that there was a God who had created me! I had no direction, no plans, no opinions, no drive. Looking back, I might equate myself to the earth in Genesis 1.1, a formless void waiting for God to speak words of life and light. That sounds extreme I know! But I believe that the Lord sought me and saved me from that dark void of an existence because I was so far away from living life in all its fulness. In fact, I am not sure that I was really living at all.

If we are to truly live however, Christians are required to give our lives away. In order for the Lord to restore and make new what has been lost in us, we have to release our grip on certain things that we have come to depend on, often over many years of living in the world. In my own story, being finally “found” by Jesus at age twenty was incredible and momentous, but it was only the start of something much bigger than I could possibly have imagined. It has taken a long time to even begin to realise what God created me to be – what illusions about my identity I have held on to so tightly – and the immense glory of what I am invited to step into. Indeed, to this very day I continue journeying towards understanding all that Jesus wants to “find”, restore and make good in me.

As such, I have come to believe that the Lord’s seeking and saving what has been lost is not a single event specifically related to becoming a Christian. Rather, I think this is one of the most important and relational ways in which the Lord works with and within us. In relationship with each other, as we follow in the way of Christ Jesus, he also continues to pursue us. And I am so grateful that he does! Look at those disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. They had been with the Lord all of that time but were now lost, heading in completely the wrong direction away from Jerusalem, when suddenly Jesus finds them on the road!

It may sound strange, but we can easily become lost as Christians and require finding again. And again. And again. People come to church (even a virtual online kind of a church!) carrying all kinds of burdens and experiences. Look at this wonderful verse from Psalm 119.176:

“I have gone astray like a lost sheep;

seek out your servant,

for I do not forget your commandments”

What a beautifully truthful verse of scripture this is! And how well it describes the situation I am speaking of! There are times when we still have faith, sing the songs, pray the prayers, try to love our neighbour, but still somehow go “astray like a lost sheep”. Of course, we are in a process of renewal and new creation, a step-by-step adventure of becoming more like Christ; but we are still subject to our own weaknesses as human beings. In the words of the hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing:

“Prone to wander Lord I feel it

Prone to leave the One I love”

Note the good news in the psalmist’s request: “seek out your servant”. We can ask that God may come to seek us out, because we know that this is how the Lord works! During those times when we feel so far from God, we know that our gracious, patient and kind Lord will not let us go, will not leave us or forsake us! Remember: “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk. 19.10). Nothing at all can separate us from the love of Christ – if we go astray and become lost, as we often do in ways both small and big – I am convinced that he will be working on the way of recovery, ready to draw us back to the presence so we may continue our journey together.

But I think we must allow ourselves to be found. If we stubbornly pursue our own way, blocking off our senses from the loving call of our Lord, we just cause damage to ourselves and delay the inevitable moment of joy when we become found once again. Even when we have wandered far from the Lord; even when we have gone backwards; I believe we can still recognise that presence of the divine as it draws near. Just like the voice of the shepherd is known by the flock, somehow the Lord’s presence will be familiar to us when we experience it afresh. The voice will be one that we know. The embrace will be comforting as it once was. And then… will we let ourselves be found again?

The reasons for our wandering are many – the pull of family, a new relationship, work commitments, temptations of the world we left behind, maybe just laziness and boredom. The reasons for our walking away from church are often real and painful – abusive church leaders, critical fellow Christians, questions about our faith that no one seems to be able to answer. But the One who pursued us in the first place, and rejoiced over finding us, is never done with us. In order that he might continue the work of restoring us to what we were created to be; taking us forwards to the fullest, best, most challenging expression of life, Jesus will prove faithful when we are faithless, and he will heal when we are in pain.

However far away you may feel, you are within easy reach of the hand of the Lord.

If today you hear his voice, please do not harden your heart (Psalm 95.7-8), but respond, allow yourself to be found, and receive the joyous welcome as our Lord says again over you: “Today, salvation has come to this house!” (Luke 19.9).

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