Need Help? Call Now
Identity Traps

Zacchaeus: Seeking Significance Through Possessions

Rev. Philip Miller | February 5, 2023

Selected highlights from this sermon

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, which meant he was notoriously rich. Everyone knew him to be one of the wealthiest people in Jericho, and they hated him for it, despite being impressed by it. Zacchaeus lived for wealth and built his identity around gaining influence through possessions.

But despite his riches and status, Zacchaeus’ soul was still searching for something more. One day, he climbs a tree and a certain Teacher calls to him and invites Himself to stay with Zacchaeus. And that changed everything for Zacchaeus.

Download the Identity Traps Schema: Nine Ways We Lose Ourselves And How Jesus Makes Us Whole.

Well, good morning everybody. It’s good to see all of you. Before I begin I just want to give a shout-out to Pastor Eric Targe for doing a great job opening God’s Word. Can we thank him? (applause)

So welcome back to Identity Traps. We’re looking at nine ways we lose ourselves, and how Jesus makes us whole. 

Each of us builds an identity to gain three basic things.

  • We need significance. We need to know we matter.
  • We need security. We need to feel safe in life.
  • We need a sense of satisfaction, that we’re fulfilled and happy in life.

And those deep identity needs were meant to be fulfilled ultimately in relationship with God as His children. But the reality of life is that we wake up in the universe, estranged from God, and so what we tend to do in our orphan-hearted living is we tend to try to get those deep identity needs met somewhere else.

And there are three basic strategies that we can use, three places, that we can look to get those deep identity needs met. We can try to get them met through people, approval, acceptance, that sort of thing. We can try to get them met through power, control and having our way, or through possessions, money and stuff and materialism. And I would suggest in this series that for most of us, one of those deep identity needs is primary. In other words, what we most want is significance, or security or satisfaction. One of those three things is dominant in our souls. And then one of the strategies—people, possessions and power—is our primary way of trying to get that need met. And so what that means is there ends up being about nine different identity traps we can fall into. We can look for significance through people, power, or possessions. We can look for security through people, power, or possessions. We can look for satisfactionthrough people, power, or possessions.

And I would suggest that because each one of us wakes up in the universe estranged from God because of our sin, we learn to live in the world as orphans. And one of these identity traps, one of these nine permutations, becomes for us kind of a habituated pattern of managing and coping our way through life as orphans. And so then, when the good news of the Gospel drops in, that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling us to Himself as His forever children so that we no longer have to live as orphans, but we can now live as children of God, by grace through faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit. We can live as children of God but when it comes to the habits of our hearts, they’re hard to break, aren’t they?

Our orphan instincts run really deep. And so we need our heavenly Father, we need Jesus, we need the Holy Spirit to teach us how to live as children of God to find the deep identity needs of our life, for security, significance, and satisfaction, to find those met in Him alone.

And so in this series it’s our prayer...We’re asking our Father to remind us who He is so that we’ll remember who we are, so we can learn to act like ourselves, our real selves, not orphans but children of God.

And to help us along our way we’re looking at nine different Bible characters, each who embody one of these nine identity traps, and we’re watching their transformation into a new identity as children of God. And hopefully one of these characters resonates with you and your story, and you can learn the way that the Lord is calling you into true sonship, true daughtership, true child-of-God-living, a transformed identity. That’s our prayer.

Today we’re going to be looking at Zacchaeus’ identity trap. He tried to find significance through possessions, and that’s what we’re going to look at this morning. We’re going to be primarily in Luke, chapter 19. If you have a Bible you can grab it and join us there. You’ll find it on page 878 in the pew Bible. 878 – Luke 19! And to organize our thoughts this morning

  • we’re going to see Zacchaeus lost,
  • we’re going to see Zacchaeus found, and
  • we’re going to see Zacchaeus free.

Lost, found and free this morning.

Would you bow your heads? Let’s pray as we dive in.

Heavenly Father, we pray this morning that you would free us from the traps we find ourselves in. Father, for those who have come this morning, that this message is for them, Father, I pray that you would do some real meaningful heart surgery this morning, that you would open our eyes, open our hearts to the realities of what it means to live as a child of a good Father in this universe. And so we look to you in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.

So, first of all, Zacchaeus lost! Zacchaeus lost! Look with me at Luke chapter 19:1-2: “He (this is Jesus) entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich.” (chuckles)

Okay, let’s pause for a moment. Zacchaeus’ name means pure, or clear—transparent. This is ironic because he’s a tax collector. Tax collectors were obviously revenue agents for Rome. Anybody like the tax man? Don’t raise your hand. Nobody really likes the tax man, right? So they didn’t like the tax guy, but it was a bigger deal for them because the Romans were oppressors of the Jewish people, and so these were Jewish sellouts to Rome, so there were Jewish people who decided to become revenue agents for the overlord empire, right?

So the Jewish people were insiders. They knew where all the wealth was, right? And so they could help Rome find it. It was a pre-digital age. You can hide wealth when you don’t have digital footprints and all that kind of stuff. And so the Jewish people hated them. These were turncoats, right? They turned their back on their own people.

If you think of the story of Robin Hood, where Prince John is the real villain, but the sheriff of Nottingham is pretty bad  (Right?) because he’s the enforcer. He is the one collecting all the money so you hate him too. That’s what the tax collectors were like, and not only that. They were cheats. They were cheats. They would line their own pockets. They would inflate your tax bill without you having...You had no recourse. You had to pay it or they would throw you in jail and they would just keep the rest, and line their own pockets, and they would grow wealthy at everyone else’s expense. So everybody hated them and despised them. These are the tax collectors.

Now immediately preceding in this context in the preceding chapter, in Luke 18, Jesus tells the story about two guys that go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a very honorable person, and one is a tax collector. Okay? Immediate context: the Pharisee says, “God, I thank you I’m not like other men, extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or even a tax collector.”

Okay. That just shows you how much disdain there is, and the tax collector said, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” And Jesus says, “Guess which one went home forgiven. The tax collector!” And it’s scandalous. No, not the tax collector! He’s the bad guy. He gets forgiven? Yeah.

So Zacchaeus is one of those bad guys, not just one of the bad guys. He’s the chief bad guy. He’s the chief tax collector. He led the charge. He ran the racket, okay? And he was rich, filthy rich! Not quietly rich, you know like one of these people that dies a millionaire, and you’re like, “What? He had all that money?” No! He was publicly, obviously, notoriously rich. Everyone knew him to be one of the most wealthy people in Jericho, and they hated him for it. That’s Zacchaeus!

Now, the Bible is full of warnings about the dangers of wealth, not because money and possessions are bad in and of themselves, but because they have a tendency to capture our hearts. Jesus put it this way in Matthew 6:21, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” And in fact, just a few chapters earlier Jesus warns of the dangers of wealth with a story.

This is Luke 12:16-21: “And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I’ll do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Jesus told this parable to illustrate the truth that He stated a few verses earlier in verse 15: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” That’s a good line. Life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. And this really is the trap of the tax collectors. Wealth is what they live for. They sold out their own people to get wealth. They cheated and defrauded to get wealth. They lived with scorn every day of their lives for wealth. It was their fast track to wealth and affluence, the kind they couldn’t get any other way. This was the way they would be put on the map. People might impugn their character, but they were impressed by their wealth. And the tax collectors would make that trade all day long, and Zacchaeus most of all.

Zacchaeus was infamously rich in Jericho. He had all the trappings of wealth. He would have lived in the best part of town. He would have had the finest luxury goods. He would have been adorned with status everywhere he went. He stood head and shoulders above the masses of Jericho in terms of his financial position, which is a big deal because he turns out to be quite a short man. We’re about to see that. So he’s a little man with a big bank account, and he wants you to know, okay? A little man with a big bank account!

So in terms of an identity schema, if we were to map him on our little thing there. I would suggest that Zacchaeus’s identity was built around gaining significance through possessions, that this is his orphan-hearted identity strategy. Zacchaeus...He’s like, “Look, I’ll be whoever I need to be if I can get fabulously rich and have it all, and then I’ll know I’m enough. I may be short in stature, I may be short on honor, but I’ll look down on all of them from the great mountain of wealth that I have possessed and built up for myself.” It’s an identity strategy. He’s seeking significance, the significance his soul desperately needs through the possessions that he can amass for himself in this world. He’s an orphan. Do you see? He’s an orphan. He’s lost in the universe. So that’s Zacchaeus lost.

Now let’s look at Zacchaeus found. Luke 19:3-5: “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way. 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.’”

When I was a kid in Sunday School we had a little song, a little ditty we would sing. Some of you are nodding your heads. You know exactly what I’m talking about.

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.

And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down,
For I’m going to your house today.
I’m going to your house today.”

Right? Now, as a kid—my parents still like to tell this story— when I was about five years old I came home from church singing this song, but I botched the lyrics and I had Jesus saying, “Zacchaeus upside down.” Anyway, I still kind of prefer those lyrics to this day, but as a kid, I could relate to Zacchaeus, you know? It’s a good kid story. I understood feeling short in a crowd where you couldn’t see. I understood the desire to climb a tree. I was into that. And the idea of Jesus coming over to my house for dinner? That’s cool! That’s cool, right?

But this is far more than a kid’s story. In fact, I was in a seminary class. We were looking at this text in seminary, and one of my classmates was from Africa, and he asked a question I had never thought about of this text. He goes, “Why would a rich man climb a tree?” That’s a good question. Why would a rich man climb a tree? He said, “Rich men don’t climb trees! Rich men have people, servants to climb trees for them. Rich men don’t climb trees. Why is he climbing a tree?” I never thought about that.

Zacchaeus was wealthy. He was dignified. He was a senior leader in the world of global finance. If you wanted to know more about Jesus, didn’t he have people? He had contacts. He could have asked people. He could have networked. He could have sent one of his (no doubt) many servants to go figure out who Jesus is. Why does He go personally? And why a tree? Why is he up a tree? I mean, we know he's short, but this is a kind of risky choice. I mean everyone back then wore robes, which are not at all conducive to tree climbing, okay? At a minimum for decency he would have had to tuck his robe into his belt, exposing his legs and thighs and climbing up into the tree. It was undignified, embarrassing to show your legs as a mature man. In this society it was a taboo. Something’s going on here. Someone is driving Zacchaeus to throw caution to the wind. And whatever it is, it is very personal to him. He can’t send anybody else in his stead, and it is worth risking his status with people. He’s desperately reckless here. This is a humiliating move. He’s risking the significance he has built up for himself through his wealth and status in order to just see Jesus, to find out, to know who He is.

And I imagine he’s heard the rumors running around Israel of a prophet, a healer, a teacher who might even be Messiah, the Lord and King and Savior of the people of God, this Jesus who is turning the world upside down and people keep saying, “I don’t know who He is but He changed my life forever.” And even though Zacchaeus has everything, he’s still searching for more. Do you see that? Even though he has everything, Zacchaeus is still searching for more. He has it all. He has all the wealth, status, affluence he could possibly want, but deep down he knows it’s not enough.

Zacchaeus still hasn’t found what he’s looking for because here’s the thing about orphan-hearted identity strategies. They work until they don’t. They work until they don’t. I’m sure with every socio-economic status breakthrough moment, with every massive purchase, with every new property he acquired, with every new threshold of wealth he obtains, Zacchaeus got a little jolt of significance, and he felt like, “I did it. I made it. I’ve arrived in life,” and then it wore off, and he needed more. He needed another jolt, another purchase, another pursuit, another acquisition. And after round and round of acquiring more wealth and more assets and more niceties, more luxuries, Zacchaeus began to realize over time that “no amount of stuff will ever give me the significance I am longing for.”

Remember John D. Rockefeller’s famous statement? They asked him, “How much is enough?” and he said, “One million more.” (chuckles) It never ends.

So Zacchaeus, no doubt, is beginning to wonder, “If significance isn’t going to be found in my possessions, perhaps it can be found in a person.” If significance isn’t found in possessions, perhaps it is found in a person and so Zacchaeus, with his deep soul ache desperately, recklessly, humbly climbs a tree in desperate hope of catching a glimpse of the One who just might be able to give him the significance his soul is longing for.

And don’t you love this? Verse 5: “And when Jesus came to the place, the place where he’s up in the tree, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry come on down for I must stay at your house today.”

Don’t you love this? Jesus sees him. Jesus knows him. Jesus calls him by name. I don’t know how Jesus knew his name, but He calls him by name and He pursues him. “I must stay at your house today.” The verb here for “I must” is one that Jesus almost always uses to convey the divine will of His Father. “I must do this.” This is “I’m on my Father’s orders.” Of all the people in town Jesus singles out Zacchaeus, the outcast, the scorned, the despised, the guilty, and invites Himself over to stay as a guest in his home. Table fellowship in this honor/shame culture of the first century was the primary way you established who was in and who was out of your social group. No self-respecting Jew would eat with tax collectors. Nobody, much less stay as a guest in the house, but Jesus did. Jesus did. Now, does Zacchaeus deserve this? Does he deserve it? No. This is grace. This is all grace. Grace has found Zacchaeus.

So we have Zacchaeus lost, found, and now free. Luke 19:6-10:

“So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it (the crowd), they all grumbled, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’ 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.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham (Don’t disown this man). For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’”

What a remarkable transformation in Zacchaeus’s character. Zacchaeus gives away half of his wealth, half of his wealth! Boom! Writes a check to the poor, and he pledges, “I’m going to repay everybody I’ve ever cheated four times, not just with interest. Fourfold! I’m going to pay them back.”

How very different is this response from the way the rich young ruler responded to Jesus in Mark, chapter 10. This is what happens there. Mark 10:17-22: “And as He was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him (Jesus) and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”’ And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, all these I’ve kept from my youth.’ And Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You lack one thing. Go. Sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

You see, our possessions have a tendency to possess us. We look to wealth to give us significance, security, or satisfaction in life, and then, having built our identity around gaining those riches, they become a part of us. And we find ourselves holding on tightly. We find ourselves unable to let go, and our possessions end up possessing us. You see? That’s why the rich young ruler was disheartened here. He had great possessions, or more to the point, his great possessions had him.

Zacchaeus does here what the rich young ruler could not do. Zacchaeus lets go of his great possessions. He grabs ahold of Jesus. He calls him “Lord” you notice. Instead of being mastered by his possessions, he is now freed by the master. Do you see? And Zacchaeus’ liberality is evidence that he’s found a greater treasure and a richer significance. Do you see that? Do you see that Zacchaeus’ liberality is evidence that he’s found a greater treasure and a richer significance?

It's interesting. Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” When did it come? Do you ever ask that question? When did it come? Was it before or after Zacchaeus gave away his stuff, his possessions? That’s actually a really important timeline. That’s very important. If his salvation came after his radical generosity, then he gained his salvation by his good works, which is not the Gospel. Right? Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace that you are saved, through faith, and it is not of yourself; it is a gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast.” No, Zacchaeus’s radical generosity here is the result. It’s the overflow. It is the fruit of the salvation that has already come into this life. He is giving from salvation, not for salvation.

So when exactly did salvation come to Zacchaeus’ house? Well, we don’t know for sure, but I suspect it happened as he walked into the grace of Jesus’ pursuing love. Somewhere in there! Jesus saw him, and knew him, and chose him, and called him by name, and invited Himself over, and somewhere in that moment Zacchaeus realized the significance he has always been longing for, to be seen, to be known, to be chosen, to be called, to be pursued, to be valued, to be loved. To be treasured by Jesus is better than all the treasures of the earth. At some point it dawns on him: “This is what I was looking for.” And salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, because salvation is not a contract. It’s not a prayer you pray. It’s a person, the person of Jesus Christ. (applause)

And that’s why Zacchaeus can suddenly let go of all the things that he has held dear for so long. He’s finally able to give it away because he’s finally free. He finally realizes his significance wasn’t in what belonged to him. His significance was in the One to whom he belonged.

Friends, the significance our souls desperately need is found in being treasured by our Father. The significance our souls desperately need is found in being treasured by our Father. Friends, do you realize that you were loved into existence by a God who made you in order to share Himself with you forever, that in love Jesus came to redeem and rescue you, to offer up Himself for you so that you can come home to the Father, and live in this world, not as an orphan, fending for yourself, but as a child who belongs to a good Father.

Friends, from eternity past, God has seen you, and He knows you. He has chosen you, and called you by name. Have you ever had someone of note, of fame or whatever actually remember your name? Do you realize the God of the Universe knows you by name? He loves you and sent His Son for you. He calls you to Himself. He pursues you in love. He has valued you from all eternity past. He loves you more than you know. And to be treasured by your Father is better than all the treasures of this earth. Friends, that is the significance that is durable, and is strong. It’s a treasure beyond measure. It can never be shaken. It won’t ever be taken. All the wealth in all the world will never be able to give you the significance your soul desperately longs for, but it can keep you away from the One who can give you that significance.

Wealth is an awful rival to the treasure you have in relationship with God. Jesus said it this way in Matthew 16:26: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

It is possible to have everything, and actually have nothing. It is also possible to have nothing and actually have everything. That’s why Jesus says (Luke 6:20), “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

There is no greater treasure than to be treasured by our Heavenly Father. Amen? Amen.

Let’s pray.

Father, how marvelous it is that you would give up all that you gave up to love us, to give up peace (We only make things worse.), to give up innocence in the universe (We’ve only filled it with sin.), to give up your Son on the cross that He would lay down His life to bring us home. You laid down the treasures of heaven to treasure us. Father, forgive us for grabbing hold of all the treasures of this earth that were meant to be good gifts to point us back to you, for failing to treasure you as the ultimate value in our lives, and to realize that you have treasured us beyond our wildest imagination. What greater worth, what greater significance, what greater value could there ever be than that? And so, Father, we grab ahold of you as your beloved children, remembering who we are, finding our significance in your love, in your affirmation, surrendering to your watchful care in our lives, and treasuring you above all. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Tell us why you valued this sermon.

Other Sermons in this Series