It will set you free: be more like the man you were made to be.
Which do you think has the greater power to transform a person for the better: the desire to earn love and acceptance from others, or receiving unconditional love and acceptance?
Jesus is determinedly making the long journey to Jerusalem. Ever-increasing crowds are turning out along the way in excitement and hope that he might be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for who will liberate Israel from the Romans. Jesus has repeatedly told his followers what will actually happen when they arrive: he will be abused and killed, in fulfilment of many predictions and promises in the Old Testament, and on the third day he will rise again. They don’t get it. In fact, as Jesus continues to teach about the character of God and what his ‘kingdom’ is really like, and as he demonstrates that in his own character and actions, the disciples and the crowds alike are repeatedly shocked and scandalised.
Here Jesus tells another of his subversive parables. We meet fictional versions of the real-life groups who were interacting with Jesus last time: the virtuous and esteemed Pharisees, and the corrupt and despised tax-collectors.
How would you describe this Pharisee, based on his prayer? What is good about him? What do you find difficult?
Why does he think he should be accepted by God?
How would you describe the tax collector? How does he contrast with the Pharisee? What strikes you about the difference between their prayers?
The historian and (then) sceptic A. N. Wilson once described this as a ‘shocking, morally anarchic story’. Why do you think he saw it this way? How, according to Jesus, can a person stand justified before God?
What do you think Jesus means by ‘exalt[ing] themselves’ in his challenge in verse 14? What kinds of attitudes that we see around us today and within ourselves does Jesus confront here? Taken as a whole, does verse 14 feel like good news to you? Why or why not?
Luke now narrates several more incidents on the road which explore and illustrate this dynamic. Most crucially of all he describes another occasion where Jesus predicts his death and resurrection (verses 31-33). Jesus will humble himself in a subtly different sense to the tax collector — offering himself up to undeserved humiliation, punishment, and death — and then be exalted and vindicated when he rises again on the third day.
Before long we come to an incident in which Jesus brings the principles of his parable dramatically to bear on real life.
Tax collectors, as we have seen before, were hated and ostracised because they were taking desperately needed money from their own people and giving it to the Romans occupiers, while getting wealthy by taking an extortionate cut themselves.
Both running and climbing a tree would have been humiliating things for a grown man to do in that culture. Why do you think Zacchaeus went to such lengths to see Jesus?
Imagine how the crowd, thronging around Jesus, might first have reacted when they turned the corner and saw Zacchaeus in the tree. What effect do you think Jesus’ response in verse 5 would have had on them? (We see some of this in verse 7.)
Imagine how Zacchaeus would have felt when Jesus looked up at him. How do you think Jesus’ words in verse 5 would have affected him? (We see some of this in verse 6.)
In what ways has this incident embodied what Jesus taught in his parable?
Why do you think Zacchaeus makes the decision he does in verse 8? What are the similarities and differences between his ‘prayer’ and that of the Pharisee in the parable, both in content and in attitude?
In verses 9 and 10 Jesus explains what has just happened to both Zacchaeus himself and the onlookers gathered around. What picture does this incident (and the explanation) paint of ‘salvation’ according to Jesus, of what it means to be ‘saved’? How does it come about? What does it feel like? What impact does it have?
Matthew Parris in his fascinating article ‘As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God’, writes the following:
From what you’ve seen of Jesus, does it make sense to you that he might have this kind of effect on people who humble themselves and welcome him? What do you think might hold some people today back from doing that?