Nielsen Greiner is from Lancaster, PA and recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Currently, he works full-time. He has a heart for high school ministry.

The sinner in the tree

“A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus … He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. … When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. … Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Luke 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus is symbolic of mankind and their search for something greater, which turns out to be a someone – Jesus. Zacchaeus’ heart led him to search, seek and climb for answers. He came to find something, and was instead found by someone. Why, if Jesus was surrounded by a whole crowd, did he call out for Zacchaeus, a sinner in a tree? The one despised by fellow Jews? The thief, liar and cheater — and, worst of all, he was rich. Why was it that he was singled out? The one who, on the surface, was most undeserving.

Why was he called “a true son of Abraham” by Jesus directly? It was surely not because he was righteous or deserved it; it’s not like he was worthy or holy enough according to the strict Jewish law. In fact, by all the standards of his people, he was the lowest. In the face of all of this, Jesus utters the most beautiful words a sinner’s ears can hear: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save those who are lost.”

It’s funny how he always seems to be at the right place at the right time.

“Zacchaeus! Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” When Jesus spoke these words, he addressed Zacchaeus less as a sinner and more as friend. He spoke to the sinner in light of who the sinner is when they have been redeemed by grace and forgiveness. It’s important because often time it isn’t the sin that’s trapping the soul. Most of the time, we need to be convinced we can be forgiven. It’s often more difficult for us to grasp the existence and possibility of forgiveness, let alone it being a free gift of God, than it is to admit the condition of hopelessness our sin produces. In direct opposition to appearances — who “deserves” this and who does not, who is “worthy” of that and who is not — our sin is swept us. Every damning word and thought is paid for, including the worst of us, represented here by Zacchaeus.

But the beauty of the story lies not primarily in this recognition of sin, but in the joy of forgiveness. Those who are lost to self-righteousness will never be righteous. The response of Zacchaeus reflected a revelation of his deepest need for a savior in his despair, but his celebratory reaction was more so a joyous reaction to the reality of forgiveness. His actions followed his search, which ultimately resulted in being called, chosen and found.

Jesus recognized the state of Zacchaeus’ heart, not his current sin. In his heart, Zacchaeus desired righteousness; otherwise he would not have chosen to respond. There were likely many in the crowd who had not lived in such “obvious” sin, but whose hearts were much more hardened by pride and self-righteousness, steeped in their own inner darkness. The true “son of Abraham,” Zacchaeus, was the one who recognized his darkness and his utter need for Jesus.

The Savior found him. The gospel, quite literally, is “the good news” — both to you and me, just as it was to Zacchaeus. If this is so, the gospel cannot end in just the awareness of sin, but in the reality of God and His forgiveness.

A quote from a book I read recently states the narrative of the gospel well. It comes from a conversation between a missionary and an elder from the Masai people of Eastern Africa. This Masai elder understood what it meant to be found by God: “You told us of the high God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.”

This is the gospel. This is the good news.