Dismembering an Idol (The Story of Zacchaeus)

by Adam Maarschalk (December 7, 2010)

A few months ago I began receiving monthly ministry updates from Desiring God Ministries (DGM), a ministry under the oversight of Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church here in Minneapolis. I thought the write-up in November was especially good and valuable, and I’d like to share it here. It was written by Jon Bloom, the Executive Director of DGM. Bloom tells the story of Zacchaeus’ change of heart and fruit-bearing repentance in captivating form:

In Luke 19, Zacchaeus the tax collector was converted. He vowed to give back fourfold to anyone he had defrauded. Imagine a conversation he might have had when returning the money.

*          *          *

“Dad, there’s a man at the door. He said his name is Zacchaeus.”

“Zacchaeus!” Judah’s face flushed with sudden anger. “What does he want?” Under his breath he muttered, “The little vermin.” His young daughter didn’t need to hear that.

“I don’t know.”

Judah moved brusquely past his daughter, clenching his jaw. If the little weasel even hints at more money, I swear… a thunderstorm of violent thoughts broke in his mind.

When he saw Zacchaeus he exploded, “WHAT?” Zacchaeus reeled slightly from the verbal blow.

“I’m here to return something to you, Judah.”

“What do you mean?” The words sounded more like “Get out of my sight!”

Zacchaeus held out a small moneybag. Judah was suspiciously confused. This man had robbed half of Jericho collecting taxes for Tiberius. No one was more conniving and slippery with words. Fearing some kind of set-up, Judah didn’t move.

“What are you doing, Zacchaeus?” The cynicism hissed through Judah’s teeth.

“I’m dismembering my idol.”

Judah’s fiery glare turned to stony bewilderment. “What are you talking about?”

“Judah, I know how strange this must sound. And you have every reason not to trust me. I’m here because I’ve defrauded you. I’ve charged you more taxes than Rome required and kept them for my wicked little self. I know that you and everyone else knows that. But now I’ve come to ask your forgiveness for sinning against you like that, and to make restitution. That’s what’s in this bag.”

Zacchaeus held it out again. This time Judah tentatively took it. He looked inside. “There’s a lot in here. It’s got to be more than you overcharged me.”

“Yes. It’s four times what I overcharged you. I’ve got all the records, you know.” Zacchaeus smiled.

“Why are you giving me four times what you owe me?” Judah’s distrust was not dispelled.

“I’m keeping a vow. I promised Jesus that I would repay everyone I defrauded fourfold.”

“You mean the Rabbi Jesus? You know him?”

“I do now. He’s in town, as you know. And the other day I wanted to get a glimpse of him. But being, ah, short-legged, I figured the only way I’d see him was from a tree! Wouldn’t you know, as Jesus passes by he stops, looks up at silly me in the sycamore and says, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.'”

Judah gave him a puzzled look.

Zacchaeus said, “I know, I know! I was as shocked as anyone! How did he know my name, right? So Jesus and his disciples come to my house and in a matter of minutes my world falls apart and comes together.”

“Falls apart and comes together.”

“Judah, when I was a boy I was in awe of what I thought money did for people. It seemed to open all the doors to power and pleasure. So I vowed to myself that whatever it took I was going to be rich. And I kept that vow. Back then I had no idea how empty being rich would be. But up till two days ago, I figured it was still better than the alternative.

“But as I sat in my home with Jesus and his disciples, who have nothing, nothing but God—Judah, I’ve never seen happier people in my life! And as Jesus spoke, it was like his words were alive. My heart burned with a longing for God I had never felt before! And a deep shame that I traded him for money.

“Then it hit me like a cedar beam: I’m poor, not rich! They had God; I had a dead idol: money. They were rich; I was no more than a beggar. They were free. But the only doors money ever opened for me led to dungeons. My world, as I had known it, fell apart.

“And there sat Jesus, looking at me as if he could read me like a scroll. Everything in me just wanted to follow him. I wanted the forgiveness and salvation he’s been preaching about. For the first time in my life I wanted God more than… anything! Suddenly, it was like life never made more sense. Before I knew it I was on my feet vowing in front of everyone that, well, that I would dismember my idol.”

“Give away your money.”

“Right. Well, some of it is your money.”

This time Judah smiled.

Later, Judah’s wife found him staring at a small moneybag on the table.

“What’s that?”

“A tax refund.”

“A what?

“I think we need to go hear Rabbi Jesus.”

“Rabbi Jesus? Why?”

“I think we’re poor.”

*          *          *

Some of our idols need to be dismembered for us to be free of them. Jesus knows what they are and how to help us see them. It may feel like we are losing our world to lose them. That’s okay. Jesus said, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose” (Jim Elliot, October 28, 1949).

Source: http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/dismembering-an-idol

Reading this, I’m also reminded of Jesus’ sobering and hard-hitting words to the Church in Laodicea:

For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,’ not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:17-19).

[For some historical background on this passage, feel free to see our study of Revelation 3 here, and scroll down about halfway to the section on Laodicia.] To one degree or another, we are all in need of being able to spiritually see more clearly. May pride and self-righteousness not stand in the way and give us the distorted idea that we are in need of nothing. May we also recognize and welcome His discipline, for it’s a mark of His love toward us. Here you can watch and listen to a group of youth (from the Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Beaverton, Oregon) singing the classic song “The Blind Man”:

I also appreciate this version of the same song sung by an Indian brother living in the UK:

In the mail-out version of Jon Bloom’s letter, he appropriately closed with these words:

“Our featured sermon for November is titled, ‘The Radical Cost of Following Jesus.’ In it John Piper says, ‘Jesus knows everyone’s idol. Jesus knows perfectly what is competing in your heart with affection for Him.’ This is really good news. Because when Jesus asks us to dismember our idols, He’s really offering us fullness of joy and pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11).

2 thoughts on “Dismembering an Idol (The Story of Zacchaeus)

  1. Something I’ve always wondered when reading Luke 19:7-8 is if Zaccheus had defrauded people, and if so, how many?

    If Zaccheus had defrauded “everybody in town,” how could he afford paying everyone four times what he had stolen? Especially after first giving half of his wealth to the poor? The text says he was rich, so perhaps he was fabulously wealthy apart from stealing from everyone (if he did in fact steal from people).

    On a similar note, dealing with the exacting cost of discipleship, I’ve been wondering about Jesus’ command to “Allow the dead to bur their own dead…” in Luke 9:59-60. There are several interpretations out there, but I’m not convinced by any of them. Clearly, whatever it means, it was meant to be shocking.

    I’ll stop rambling now. =)


  2. Steve,

    Good thoughts. As you said, it’s quite possible that Zaccheus also obtained or inherited wealth aside from his work of collecting taxes. We know from verse 2 that he was a chief tax collector. I imagine that he had lower-level tax collectors working directly for him. Perhaps he oversaw the tax collection for his entire region, and received various commissions. The text doesn’t explicitly tell us how much defrauding he had engaged in, just that he made this vow: “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it to him fourfold” (verse 8). To me, that’s a clear enough admission that he had stolen from some people. The reaction of the people in verse 7 indicates that he was despised and deemed especially sinful.

    I would agree that Jesus’ response in Luke 9 was meant to be radical and jolting. I read one explanation which said that Jesus used an idiomatic expression to indicate that the person who asked the question had come up with a farcical excuse, since Jewish customs required a quick burial within 24 hours. The implication was that this person was simply not willing to pay the price for following Jesus. Does this explanation take away the shock-value of what Jesus said? I’m not sure. It’s a radical response on His part, in any case. Thank God for the indwelling of His Holy Spirit which enables us to genuinely follow Him.


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