The gospel story of Zacchaeus illustrates the effect that Jesus can have on a person with poor moral history. Think about your own fascination with Jesus and where that curiousity takes you.
Inevitably an encounter with Jesus leads us to war against our own sense of denial about right and wrong.
As we think about morality, what was Zacchaeus’ condition? The community had an opinion of him. He was a ‘sinner’ with a bad reputation for cheating people.
In his culture Zacchaeus would be regarded totally negatively because his wealth was "extorted" from fellow Jews on behalf of occupying Rome. This explains the public reaction to Jesus' invitation later in the story.[i]
But what did Zaccheus think of himself? In this short story we find a man who illustrates steps four and five. We see a man who has to take a hard look at himself and turn to God.
As a tax collector, he was the chief. He trained and supervised the other tax collectors. They answered to him. He was good with numbers and collection techniques. But in spite of his authority, he knew how to steal and get away with it. He abused his power.
As he encounters the acceptance and loving attention of God through Jesus, he is moved to consider how corrupt he has become. The searching, fearless, moral inventory reveals a history of disregard for the poor and criminal action toward his clients. The man who had good reason to keep secrets is moved to confess and start making things right.
As he looks at what he has unjustly accumulated, he realizes that he could make amends. Half of his assets will be sold or given away to people in need. Secondly, he would go over the ‘fudged books’ and do right to the people he had ripped off.
To repay someone four times over had special significance.
Normal restitution added only 20 percent (Lev 5:16; Num 5:7). The Mishna tended rarely to apply a more severe 40 percent penalty (m. Ketubot3:9; m. Baba Qamma 7:1-5). This rich man, touched by Jesus and responding with faith, exemplifies the restoration of a "lost one" and opens up his resources to be shared with others. He does not have to sell everything to receive Jesus' commendation. His heart is in the right place when it comes to possessions.[ii]
As a step five example, Zaccheus admitted to God, himself and the disciples the exact nature of his wrongdoing.
In the gospel we find that Jesus declares war on our denial. We are moved by God’s acceptance to become introspective and repentant. Our moral compass is remagnetized to point us in the right direction.