‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’
‘Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.’
Found in Luke 19:1-10
When do we lose it? The childhood urge within to clamber up the nearest tree and drink in all that lovely life-breathing green, feeling the intoxicating exhilaration of being off the ground, alive in our senses and closer, higher, nearer to heaven somehow.
When do we lose our life-embracing child’s heart? The joyful, joy-filled, unselfconscious giggling glee of an all-in, wholehearted existence? The perspective of being small in our own eyes and free in our own responses, living life fully present in our own skin? Free not to hide, not to pretend, not to shield ourselves from the world, but live in it open and vulnerable and whole?
Free to climb higher and draw closer. Nearer to heaven somehow.
All I know is that it goes. Somewhere. This freedom. It starts corroding the day the corrosive looks and words of others register dissatisfaction on a heart.
We say ‘sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you’, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will break our hearts. Slowly. Eroding our God-breathed-Imago Dei with the slow drip of rejection and the corrosive power of false narratives labelling us less; names short on grace, names short on hope, names that fall short of the name God breathed into us from the genesis of our existence. Human: Imago Dei.
Our greatest failing, we humans is that we are constantly forgetting our name. We forget who we are. We forget each other’s names, and instead use labels and categories, assuming that our bumper sticker definitions of one another are all there is to see, all there is to know. We classify each other as ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘loser’ and ‘liar’, ‘beggar’ and ‘enemy’, using corroding words and summative categories so we don’t have to engage with the phenomenal mystery and depth enfolded within every human heart.
Tax collector. It was a label. It sounds like a descriptor, like a job title. But actually it had also become a label ladling out frustration and hate. A label soaked in a history of oppression and lifetime of disdain. Tax collectors were the frontline of oppression for the occupying forces of Rome. They took money from local people who struggled to make ends meet, and justice and truth frequently ‘fell off the scales’ when they balanced their books. After all, If they were going to be labeled as ‘the bad guys’, they may as well profit from the label. So they did, and they were hated for it. Understandably.
‘Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.’ Luke 19:1-2
Zacchaeus, that was his name, but as a tax collector his name was dirt. Mud. Filth beneath the feet of every self respecting Jew, ‘a thieving traitor’, at least that’s how they saw him, blamed him, renamed him… his community smarting-red with the burn of his betrayal.
And he wasn’t just a tax collector. He was the chief tax collector. He wasn’t just a thieving traitor, he was the chief of all the thieving traitors. Usually the wealthy were respected and honoured in a community, not least because others hoped to gain from association with them. Not Zacchaeus. Mud.
Zacchaeus, his name meant ‘pure’, but he wasn’t. He’d fallen far short of the meaning of his name. He was short in stature and short on friends, because he had sold himself short by short-changing others. Zacchaeus had aligned himself with the occupying forces and lined his pockets with takings taken from fellow Jews. Pure? Purely detestable. That’s the name Zacchaeus bore. Dirt.
This was the name Zacchaeus lived. This was the way his community viewed him. This was simply how things were. Was there another way to be?
‘Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through…’ Luke 19:1
Then this day this Rabbi comes ‘passing through’, and crowds follow in His wake. Everyone had heard His name, everyone wanted to see Him, this man wandering around Israel renaming the world; renaming the sick …well, the blind …seeing, the deaf …hearing, and the religious self-righteous… wrong.
Who was this man whose name means ‘the Lord saves’ and ‘God is salvation’, this man who was living His name like a mission from God. Who does that? His name was on everyone’s lips. He was on His way to Jerusalem, and He carried Himself like a King, though in unexpected ways. Was He the Messiah? The one to restore all Israel? The one to expel Rome and rule with justice and might? Prophecies were being fulfilled, the numbers of His followers were swelling daily, miracles were taking place. His name was everywhere. The name He lived like a mission from God. Who does that?
Zacchaeus heard His name in the thronging, swarming crowds. And something within him knew… something within him felt…something. He needed to see this man. To see… something. To draw closer…
But that was going to be a tall order for a man of Zacchaeus’s stature.
‘He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.’ Luke 19:3
Zacchaeus was short on a lot of things, things like integrity, honesty, trust, respect, friendship and… height. In short- he fell short in almost every way. But there was one area he didn’t fall short on: knowing that he’d fallen short. He knew he didn’t know, he knew he needed to know, this man. He knew he needed to see, this man. He needed to see… something. And like a child he was willing to do anything to see Him, running, climbing, clambering up a tree. So he could draw closer, see more, be nearer. Childish. Who does that?
‘So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.’ Luke 19:4
He ran to this tree like it was the Tree of Life, a tree to help him find life, see life, differently. Unnoticed he climbed and inconspicuously he hid, just hoping for the chance to see… something. Someone.
That’s all his beating heart needed, wanted, yearned for: to see. To see this man. To see… something. Something unreachable he couldn’t quite name, something so compelling he couldn’t resist. He had to see Jesus. He needed to draw closer.
Hiding high in the shady branches, he watched. Unseen. Invisible.
But Jesus, He always had this way of seeing that was different, strange even. He saw more, noticed more. He saw the unseen. He saw the un-noticed. He saw past the appearances, past the past mistakes, to the beating heart of every human being. He saw the invisible.
He saw Zacchaeus.
‘When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Luke 19:5
Jesus saw. He saw the forest for the trees. He saw the lost sheep in the wood. He saw the sold-out soul, He saw the pain-fuelled prejudice, He saw Zacchaeus’s lonely empty life, a life rich with nothing but wealth. He saw Zacchaeus. Just Zacchaeus. Up a tree. Alone. In the crowd.
Jesus knew the name Zacchaeus’s community had given him, the names they spat on him as he walked by, ‘traitor’ liar’ ‘thief’, names Zacchaeus had earned well and lived out with a vengeance, hardening his broken heart with every retaliation. But Jesus saw past the labels, past the loathing, past the long history of betrayal and hate. Jesus saw Zacchaeus. He also saw…something; something in Zacchaeus that no-one else had seen, no-one else had remembered, no-one else had known. Including Zacchaeus.
Jesus saw, Jesus knew, the name he’d been given at his birth: Zacchaeus. A name meaning ‘pure’.
Jesus also saw the name He’d given Zacchaeus when He’d given him his breath; human. Imago Dei. A name meaning loved.
Zacchaeus had forgotten both his names. Just as we forget ours. He needed reminding. Just as we do.
So Jesus decided to do just that… over dinner.
‘“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.’ Luke 19:5-6
Where others were repelled and withdrew in hate, Jesus was compelled (“I must stay at your house”) to reach out in love. He was living His name ‘God is salvation’ like a mission from God more deeply, more fully than all the disgusted onlookers understood. Who does that?
‘All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Luke 19:7
Jesus didn’t care about ‘keeping up appearances’, His public image or personal branding, He repeatedly mingled with the ‘wrong sort’ of people from the ‘wrong part’ of town, ‘them’ who are not ‘us’, ‘Those people’. Those short on grace. Those most in need of it.
Jesus saw Zacchaeus. Where his community only saw a sinner, saw a label, a category, a traitor beyond redemption, Jesus saw a child of God.
And in taking the time to see Zacchaeus, Jesus helped Zacchaeus see himself…
Jesus helped Zacchaeus see himself through God’s eyes, eyes shaped like justice, truth and love. And all this seeing, all this opening of eyes to truly see and know and understand, produced in Zacchaeus, a complete repentance and a dramatic restoration.
‘But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”’ Luke 19:8
Just as he had scrambled up the sycamore tree with childlike zeal, Zacchaeus now responds to God with eager wholeheartedness. Just one meal spent with Jesus and God’s heart for the poor has rubbed off on him with dramatic affect. In Jewish Law, ten percent was the required gift to God (Leviticus 27:30) and to give away twenty percent of one’s wealth was thought to be exceedingly generous1. Giving away half of his wealth to the poor, well that was unheard of! Extravagant!
This posture of exuberant child-like generosity in response to Jesus’ presence stands in stark contrast to the story of the rich young ruler in the chapter preceding this one. This rich young ruler was a far ‘better’ Jewish citizen than Zacchaeus. His name was respected. He had kept all the rules all his life, done all the righteous things all his days. Respectable. Sophisticated. Good. But for one thing. He wouldn’t give God his whole heart. His possessions possessed him.
Zacchaeus however had fallen short on every front. He was a disdained citizen, breaking many Jewish rules. His name was already mud, he had nothing left to loose. And once he found Jesus he was ready to lose everything for the new life he’d found. Childish. Wholehearted. Purely child-like.
This second dramatic declaration of Zacchaeus, “and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8), this quadruple recompense he commits to, is the restitution designated in the Torah for cattle thieves (Exodus 22:1). This is a humble acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a wholehearted commitment to make things right.
And in declaring this commitment to restitution publicly Zacchaeus is freely choosing to hold himself accountable once more to the law of Moses, the law of his people, as a once lost, now restored son of Abraham. A child of God.
This story of Zacchaeus comes at the beginning of chapter 19 after a string of parables and interactions in Chapter 18 all about the human heart: the kind of heart that discovers the Kingdom of God, and the kind that doesn’t; the kind of heart that sets all decorum aside and reaches unabashed for God (Luke 18:1-8); the kind of heart that humbly recognises their desperate need for God (Luke 18:9-14); The kind of heart that receives God with the artless wholeheartedness of a child (Luke 18: 15-17) drawing closer, reaching higher, being nearer and the kind of heart that lets wealth become a barrier to wholeheartedly following God (Luke 18:18-30).
Jesus, earlier in His ministry, on a breezy mountainside, had spoken into the air the future shape of Zacchaeus’s name, the name he hadn’t yet learned to live…
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’ Matthew 5:8
Zacchaeus, this day, saw God. Not because he was anything anyone from that time to this would ever describe as pure. But because God in leather sandals, Jesus, saw Zacchaeus, and enabled him to begin the journey of becoming so; enabled him to remember his true name and begin to live it: like a mission from God.
The name ‘Zacchaeus’ derives from the Hebrew verb for ‘pure’, (‘zakak’ זכך) but then also folded into this name is part of God’s own personal name, YHWH, (‘Yah’ יה). This deepens the meaning of Zacchaeus’s name more fully to mean ‘Pure Of The Lord’ or ‘YHWH Is Pure’2.
God is the source of purity. Not human effort. Without God in leather sandals, Zacchaeus didn’t have a hope of living his name. It is God who creates purity in us so we can see Him. He searches us out, seeking and saving us when we have wandered and lost our way.
In the psalms King David wrote…
‘Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.’ Psalm 51:10
…recognising that a pure human heart is the result of the creative and redemptive work of God. Purity is created and renewed by God Himself, it is not a product of our devout religiosity, or theological adherence. It is a product of Christ’s ongoing redeeming work in us. We cannot be ‘pure’, we cannot be ‘whole’, we cannot even fully be our name: human-Image of God, without the healing, releasing, work of Jesus in our lives. Christ’s life inside of us empowers and compels us to live our own… purely, wholly, unabashed, indecorously living our names like a mission from God. Free to draw closer, climb higher and be nearer.
The parable about the Pharisee and the Tax collector Jesus tells in chapter 18 for the benefit of ‘some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else’ frames Zacchaeus story, naming the very real battle ground of the human heart…
‘To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
The Pharisee in this parable uses four personal pronouns in his self congratulatory ‘prayer’ and uses four labels labelling others less. In all his self righteousness there was no empathy for other human beings… and no room for God to get a word in edgewise. This man was far from understanding God’s heart and even farther from seeing God.
When we lose sight of God’s face, all we have left is ourselves. When we make ourselves big in our own eyes, living the Babel lie that it’s all about ‘us’ and our effort and our righteousness, and leave no room for God or other human beings in our hearts, that’s when we’ll find in the long run that we have come up short.
But when we know we’ve run aground and fallen short, when we know we don’t know, and we feel we’re small and short of perfection and short on hope. That’s when we’ll finally be in a place to wake up and realise we can’t do it alone. We can’t be pure we can’t be whole we can’t truly live tall because we know we’ve fallen short of the only thing that matters: God’s glory. In us. It’s when we feel small that we humbly reach for the help we need. We reach branch by branch to see Jesus.
It wasn’t that Zacchaeus had lived the Law to perfection, or arranged his spiritual and religious ducks in row, it’s that he wholeheartedly reached unabashed for Jesus, God in leather sandals. Zacchaeus’s heart just knew he needed to see Jesus… and It was when Zacchaeus saw Jesus, that he remembered his true name: Pure of the Lord.
But Jesus had one more name for Zacchaeus: a son of the people of promise.
‘Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’ Luke 19:9
Not a Jew, a tax collector, traitor, or thief. But a son of the people of Promise. Family. The family God Himself called family.
In renaming Zacchaeus with the name he had lost, He was reinstating his calling as a son of God’s promise, an heir of God’s Kingdom, a child made in God’s image. Human. Imago Dei.
Jesus called Zacchaeus to live his true names; ‘Zacchaeus’ and ‘Son of Abraham’- the family of God called to to bless this whole world by participating with God in His own mission, this mission of reminding all people everywhere of their true name: Human, Imago Dei.
The mission God has been on from the dawn of creation until now, YHWH in leather sandals, whose name means ‘the Lord saves’ and ‘God is salvation’, living His name like a mission from God.
‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”’ Luke 19:10
This Jesus who doesn’t deal in surface labels and assumptions, but cuts straight to the heart of the matter, renaming human hearts with the names they were given when they were first given breathe. The names we forget.
And Jesus today whose name means ‘the Lord saves’ and ‘God is salvation’, is still living His name like a mission from God, wandering around renaming the world…
…renaming the wandering lost: found,
…renaming the broken hearted: whole,
and renaming the unpopular-fallen-short: pure.
Because this God, the One who made the heavens and the earth, the one who set a Universe of spinning stars in motion and a world-full of beating hearts in breath, this God, He names us who we truly are.
He names us loved.
He names us His children.
He names us Human. Image of God.
He names us free to draw closer, reach higher and be nearer.
‘Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.’
What does it mean for you to reach, wholehearted and child-like for God today?
References, Notes and Credits
1 Darrel, L Bock ‘NIV Application Commentary: Luke’ page 479
2 Biblical Names, Abarim Publications, Abarimpublications.com
Tom Wright ‘Luke for Everyone’,SPCK Publishing, London, 2001
All Biblical quotations are from the NIV Bible UK version (NIVUK) unless otherwise stated. Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.