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Zacchaeus, the rich young ruler, and Christians in America

By Scott Tibbs, September 18, 2013

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. -- Matthew 6:24

Luke 18:18-25 and Luke 19:1-9 provide a fascinating contrast between a "righteous" man and a wicked man as they deal with Jesus, as well as a lesson for us in how we submit our finances to God.

First, the rich young ruler (RYR) asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus says he must keep God's commandments, and the man (no doubt with a very haughty attitude) bragged that he had kept all of those commandments. (Never mind that Jesus opened up the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount to be much more expansive than not directly breaking them.) Jesus, knowing his heart, challenged him to sell his possessions and give to the poor - at which point the man leaves in sorrow.

It is likely that the RYR wasn't seriously asking a question - he was taking an opportunity to puff himself up. Jesus saw through this and knew that the RYR loved his wealth more than he loved God.

In the next chapter, Zacchaeus is called out by Jesus as He wants to go to the tax collector's house. Historical context is important here: Tax collectors were universally hated by the Jews because they were collecting money from their countrymen for the oppressive Roman Empire so that the Romans could fund their occupation. If you look back historically at how the colonists felt about British taxation and you get a small taste of how the Jews felt about Rome. But it was more intense because the Romans were an outside conquering force and they were pagans opposed to the one true God that the Jews worshiped.

The tax collectors were notorious for being corrupt and enriching themselves at the expense of their countrymen as they served the hated Romans. Zacchaeus was even worse, because not only was he a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector. It is easy to see why the Jews following Jesus were angry that He would dine with such a notorious sinner.

For us, this provides a helpful lesson. The RYR was outwardly righteous, but in his heart he was an idolater. He may have been a son of Abraham in a genetic sense, but he was not saved. How many people in church pews today fit the description of the RYR? This is why the Apostle Paul urges us to examine ourselves in II Corinthians 13:5. Do we worship God or money? This question is especially important for American Christians, because we are so rich.

Zacchaeus, like the woman who washed Jesus feet in Luke 7:36-50, knew he was a sinner. This "dignified" man set aside his own pride to climb a tree and repented of his worship of money when Jesus called him out. The RYR had a hard heart because he felt he was righteous, but Zacchaeus knew he was a reprobate and needed to be forgiven. How many of us would be willing to give up our wealth for the good of His kingdom? How many of us even give ten percent of our earnings to a local church? These are questions we should consider in our hearts.