Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 5

Triumph Over Hindrances - Zaccheus

Preached October 21, 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And Zaccheus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” - Luke 19:8.

There are persons to whom a religious life seems smooth and easy. Gifted by God constitutionally with a freedom from those inclinations which in other men are tyrannous and irresistible, endued with those aspirations which other men seem to lack, it appears as if they were born saints.

There are others to whom it is all a trial - a whole world of passions keep up strife within. The name of the spirit which possesses them is Legion. It is a hard fight from the cradle to the grave - up-hill work - toil all the way; and at the last it seems as if they had only just kept their ground.

There are circumstances which seem as if intended as a very hot-bed for the culture of religious principle, in which the difficulty appears to be to escape being religious.

There are others in which religious life seems impossible. For the soul, tested by temptation, is like iron tried by weights. No iron bar is absolutely infrangible. Its strength is tested by the weight which it will bear without breaking. No soul is absolutely impeccable. It seems as if all we can dare to ask even of the holiest is how much temptation he can bear without giving way. There are societies amidst which some are forced to dwell daily, in which the very idea of Christian rest is negatived. There are occupations in which purity of heart can scarcely be conceived. There are temptations to which some are subjected in a long series, in which to have stood upright would have demanded not a man’s but an angel’s strength.

Here are two cases: one in which temperament and circumstances are favorable to religion; another in which both are adverse. If life were always the brighter side of these pictures, the need of Christian instruction and Christian casuistry - i. e., the direction for conduct under various supposable cases, would be superseded. The end of the institution of a Church would be gone; for the Church exists for the purposes of mutual sympathy and mutual support. But the fact is, life is for the most part a path of varied trial. How to lead the life divine, surrounded by temptations from within and from without - how to breathe freely the atmosphere of heaven, while the feet yet touch earth - how to lead the life of Christ, who shrunk from no scene of trying duty, and took the temptations of man’s life as they came - or how even to lead the ordinary saintly life, winning experience from fall, and permanent strength out of momentary weakness, and victory out of defeat, this is the problem.

The possibility of such a life is guaranteed by the history of Zaccheus. Zaccheus was tempted much, and yet Zaccheus contrived to be a servant of Christ. If we wanted a motto to prefix to this story, we should append this: The successful pursuit of religion under difficulties.

These, then, are the two branches of our thoughts to-day:


I. The hindrances to a religious life.

II. The Christian triumph over difficulties.


I. The hindrances of Zaccheus were twofold: partly circumstantial - partly personal. Partly circumstantial, arising from his riches and his profession of a publican.

Now the publican’s profession exposed him to temptations in these three ways. First of all, in the way of opportunity. A publican was a gatherer of the Roman public imposts. Not, however, as now, when all is fixed, and the Government pays the gatherer of the taxes. The Roman publican paid so much to the Government them, and then indemnified himself, and appropriated what overplus he could, from the taxes which he gathered. There was, therefore, evidently a temptation to overcharge, and a temptation to oppress. To overcharge, because the only redress the payer of the taxes had was a n appeal to law, in which his chance was small before a tribunal where the judge was a Roman, and the accuser an official of the Roman Government. A temptation to oppress, because the threat of law was nearly certain to extort a bribe. Besides this, most of us must have remarked that a certain harshness of manner is contracted by those who have the rule over the poor. They come in contact with human souls only in the way of business. They have to do with their ignorance, their stupidity, their attempts to deceive; and hence the tenderest-hearted men become impatient and apparently unfeeling. Hard men, knowing that redress is difficult, become harder still, and exercise their authority with the insolence of office; so that, when to the insolence of office and the likelihood of impunity there was superadded the pecuniary advantage annexed to a tyrannical extortion, any one may understand how great the publican’s temptation was.

Another temptation was presented: to live satisfied with a low morality. The standard of right and wrong is eternal in the heavens - unchangeably one and the same. But here on earth it is perpetually variable - it is one in one age or nation, another in another. Every profession has its conventional morality, current nowhere else. That which is permitted by the peculiar standard of truth acknowledged at the bar is falsehood among plain men; that which would be reckoned in the army purity and tenderness would be elsewhere licentiousness and cruelty. There is a parliamentary honor quite distinct from honor between man and man. Trade has its honesty, which rightly named is fraud. And in all these cases the temptation is to live content with the standard of a man’s own profession or society; and this is the real difference between the worldly man and the religious man. He is the worldling who lives below that standard, or no higher; he is the servant of God who lives above his age. But you will perceive that amongst publicans a very little would count much - that which would be laxity to a Jew and shame to a Pharisee, might be reckoned very strict morality among the Publicans.

Again, Zaccheus was tempted to that hardness in evil which comes from having no character to support. But the extent to which sin hardens depends partly on the estimate taken of it by society. The falsehood of Abraham, the guilt and violence of David, were very different in their effect on character in an age when truth and purity and gentleness were scarcely recognized, from what they would be now. Then Abraham and David had not so sinned against their consciences as a man would sin now in doing the same acts, because their consciences were less enlightened. A man might be a slave-trader in the Western hemisphere, and in other respects a humane, upright, honorable man. In the last century, the holy Newton of Olney trafficked in slaves after becoming religious. A man who had dealings in this way in this country could not remain upright and honorable, even if it were conceivable that he began as such; because be would either conceal from the world his share in the traffic, and so, doing it secretly, would become a hypocrite, or else he must cover his wickedness by effrontery, doing it in defiance of public shame, and so getting seared in conscience. Because in the one case, the sin remaining sin, yet countenanced by society, does not degrade the man nor injure his conscience even to the same extent to which it would ruin the other, whose conscience must become seared by defiance of public shame. It is scarcely possible to unite together the idea of an executioner of public justice and a humble, holy man. And yet assuredly, not from any thing that there is unlawful in the office; an executioners trade is as lawful as a soldier’s. A soldier is placed there by his country to slay his country’s enemies, and a doomster is placed there to slay the transgressors of his country’s laws. Wherein lies the difference which leaves the one a man of honor, and almost necessitates the other to be taken from the rank of reprobates, or else gradually to become such? Simply the difference of public opinion - public scorn. Once there was no shame in the office of the executioner, and the judge of Israel, with his own hands, hewed Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal. Phineas executed summary and sanguinary vengeance, and his name has been preserved in a hymn by his country’s gratitude. The whole congregation became executioners in the case of blasphemy, and no abandonment was the result. But the voice of public opinion pronouncing an office or a man scandalous, either finds or else makes them what it has pronounced them. The executioner is or becomes an outcast, because reckoned such.

More vile and more degraded than even the executioner’s office with us was the office of publican among the Jews. A penitent publican could not go to the house of God without the risk of hearing muttered near him the sanctimonious thanksgiving of Pharisaism: “God, I thank Thee that I am not as this publican.” A publican, even though in office, and rich besides, could not receive into his house a teacher of religion without being saluted by the murmurs, of the crowd, as in this case: “He is gone to eat with a man that is a sinner.” A sinner! The proof of that? The only proof was that he was a publican. There are men and women in this congregation who have committed sins that never have been published to the world; and therefore, though they be still untouched by the love of God, they have never sunk down to degradation; whereas the very same sins, branded with public shame, have sunk others not worse than them down to the lowest infamy. There is no principle in education and in life more sure than this - to stigmatize is to ruin; to take away character is to take away all. There is no power committed to man, capable of use and abuse, more certain and more awful than this: “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.”

This, then, was a temptation arising out of Zaccheus’s circumstances - to become quite hardened by having no character to support.

The personal hindrance to a religious life lay in the recollection of past guilt. Zaccheus bad done wrong, and no four-fold restitution will undo that where only remorse exists.

There is a difference between remorse and penitence. Remorse is the consciousness of wrong-doing with no sense of love. Penitence is that same consciousness, with the feeling of tenderness and gratefulness added.

And pernicious as have been the consequences of self-righteousness, more destructive still have been the consequences of remorse. If self-righteousness has slain its thousands, remorse has slain its tens of thousand; for, indisputably, self-righteousness secures a man from degradation. Have you never wondered at the sure walk of those persons who, to trust to their own estimate of themselves, are always right? They never sin, their children are better brought up than any other children, their conduct is irreproachable. Pride saves them from a fall. That element of self-respect, healthful always, is their safeguard. Yes, the Pharisee was right. He is not an extortioner, nor unjust, and he is regular in his payments and his duties. That was self-righteousness: it kepi him from saintliness, but it saved him from degradation too. Remorse, on the contrary, crushes. If a man lose the world’s respect, he can retreat back upon the consciousness of the God within. But if a man lose his own respect, he sinks down and down, and deeper yet, until he can get it back again by feeling that he is sublimely loved, and he dares at last to respect that which God vouchsafes to care for. Remorse is like the clog of an insoluble debt. The debtor is proverbially extravagant - one more, and one more expense. What can it matter when the great bankruptcy is near? And so, in the same way one sin, and one more. Why not? why should he pause when all is hopeless? what is one added to that which is already infinite?

Past guilt becomes a hindrance too in another way - it makes fresh sin easier. Let any one, out of a series of transgressions, compare the character of the first and the last. The first time there was the shudder and the horror, and the violent struggle, and the feeling of impossibility. I can not - can not do that. The second time there was faint reluctance, made more faint by the recollection of the facility and the pleasantness of the first transgression, and the last time there is neither shudder nor reluctance, but the eager plunge down the precipice on the brink of which he trembled once. All this was against Zaccheus. A publican had lost self-respect, and sin was therefore easy.


II. Pass we on to the triumph over difficulties. In this there is man’s part, and God’s part.

Man’s part in Zaccheus’s case was exhibited in the discovery of expedients. The Redeemer came to Jericho, and Zaccheus desired to see that blessed countenance, whose very looks, he was told, shed peace upon restless spirits and fevered hearts. But Zaccheus was small of stature, and a crowd surrounded him. Therefore he ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore-tree. You must not look on this as a mere act of curiosity. They who thronged the steps of Jesus were a crowd formed of different materials from the crowd which would have been found in the amphitheatre. He was there as a religious teacher or prophet; and they who took pains to see him, at least were the men who looked for salvation in Israel. This, therefore, was a religious act.

We have heard of the “pursuit of knowledge under difficulties.” The shepherd, with no apparatus besides his thread and beads, has lain on his back, on the starry night, mapped the heavens, and unconsciously become a distinguished astronomer. The peasant-boy, with no tools but his rude knife, and a visit now and then to the neighboring town, has begun his scientific education by producing a watch that would mark the time. The blind man, trampling upon impossibilities, has explored the economy of the bee-hive, and, more wondrous still, lectured on the laws of light. The timid stammerer, with pebbles in his mouth, and the roar of the sea-surge in his ear, has attained correctest elocution, and swayed as one man the changeful tides of the mighty masses of the Athenian democracy. All these were expedients. It is thus in the life religious. No man ever trod exactly the path that others trod before him. There is no exact chart, laid down for the voyage. The rocks and quicksands are shifting. He who enters upon the ocean of existence arches his sails to an untried breeze. He is “the first that ever burst into that lonely sea.” Every life is a new life. Every day is a new day - like nothing that ever went before, or can ever follow after. No books - no systems - no forecast - set of rules, can provide for all cases; every ease is a new case. And, just as in any earthly enterprize, the conduct of a campaign, or the building of a bridge, unforeseen difficulties and unexpected disasters must be met by that inexhaustible fertility of invention which belongs to those who do not live to God second-hand. We must live to God first-hand. If we are in earnest, as Zaccheus was, we must invent peculiar means of getting over peculiar difficulties.

There are times when the truest courage is shown in retreating from a temptation. There are times when, not being on a level with other men in qualifications of temper, mind, character, we must compensate by inventions and Christian expedients. You must climb over the crowd of difficulties which stand between your soul and Christ - you must “ run before “ and forecast trials, and get into the sycamore solitude. Without a living life like this, you will never get a glimpse of the King in his beauty; you will never see Him. You will be just on the point of seeing Him, and yet be shut out by some unexpected hindrance.

Observe again, an illustration of this: Zaccheus’s habit of restoration. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation I restore him fourfold.” There are two ways of interpreting this; it may have reference to the future. It commonly is so interpreted. It is supposed that, touched by the love of Christ, Zaccheus proclaimed this as his resolve - I hereby promise to give the half of my goods to the poor. But it is likely that this interpretation has been put upon it in order to make it square with the evangelical order of emotions - grace first, liberality after, The interpretation seems rather put on the passage than found there. The word is not future, but singular: Behold, Lord, I give. And it seems more natural to take it as a statement of the habit of Zaccheus’s previous life. If so, then all is plain. This man, so maligned, had been leading a righteous life after all, according to the Mosaic standard. On the day of defense he stands forward and vindicates himself from the aspersion. “These are my habits.” And the Son of Man vindicates him before all. Yes, publican as be is, he too is a “son of Abraham.”

Here, then, were expedients by which he overcame the hindrances of his position. The tendency to the hardness and selfishness of riches he checked by a rule of giving half away. The tendency to extortion he met by fastening on himself the recollection, that when the hot moment of temptation had passed away, he would be severely dealt with before the tribunal of his own conscience, and unrelentingly sentenced to restore fourfold.

God’s part in this triumph over difficulties is exhibited in the address of Jesus: “Zaccheus, make haste and come down; for to-day I must abide at thy house.”

Two things we note here: Invitation and Sympathy. Invitation - “come down.” Say what we will of Zaccheus seeking Jesus, the truth is, Jesus was seeking Zaccheus. For what other reason but the will of God had Jesus come to Jericho but to seek Zaccheus and such as he? Long years Zaccheus had been living in only a dim consciousness of being a servant of God and goodness. At last the Saviour is born into the world - appears in Judea - comes to Jericho, Zaccheus’s town - passes down Zaccheus’s street, and by Zaccheus’s house, and up to Zaccheus’s person. What is all this but seeking - what the Bible calls election? Now there is a specimen in this of the ways of God with men in this world. We do not seek God - God seeks us. There is a Spirit pervading time and space who seeks the souls of men. At last the seeking becomes reciprocal - the Divine Presence is felt afar, and the soul begins to turn towards it. Then when we begin to seek God, we become conscious that God is seeking us. It is at that period that we distinguish the voice of personal invitation - “Zaccheus!” It is then that the Eternal Presence makes its abode with us, and the hour of unutterable joy begins, when the banquet of Divine Love is spread within the soul, and the Son of God abides there as at a feast. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: If any man hear my voice, I will come in and sup with him, and be with me.”

This is Divine Grace. We are saved by grace, not will. “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” In the matter of man’s salvation God is first. He comes to us self-invited - He names us by name - He isolates us from the crowd, and sheds upon us the sense of personal recognition - He pronounces the benediction, till we feel that there is a mysterious blessing on our house, and on our meal, and on our heart. “This day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.”

Lastly, the Divine part was done in Sympathy. By sympathy we commonly mean little more than condolence. If the tear start readily at the voice of grief, and the pursestrings open at the accents of distress, we talk of a man’s having great sympathy. To weep with those who weep: common sympathy does not mean much more.

The sympathy of Christ was something different from this. Sympathy to this extent, no doubt, Zaccheus could already command. If Zaccheus were sick, even a Pharisee would have given him medicine. If Zaccheus had been in need, a Jew would not have scrupled to bestow an alms. If Zaccheus bad been bereaved, many even of that crowd that murmured when they saw him treated by Christ like a son of Abraham would have given to his sorrow the tribute of a sigh.

The sympathy of Jesus was fellow-feeling for all that is human. He did not condole with Zaccheus upon his trials - He did not talk to him “about his soul” - He did not preach to him about his sins - He did not force his way into his house to lecture him - He simply said, “I will abide at thy house:” thereby identifying himself with a publican: thereby acknowledging a publican for a brother. Zaccheus a publican? Zaccheus a sinner? Yes; but Zaccheus is a man. His heart throbs at cutting words. He has a sense of human honor. He feels the burning shame of the world’s disgrace. Lost? Yes: - but the Son of Man, with the blood of the human race in His veins, is a Brother to the lost.

It is in this entire and perfect sympathy with all Humanity that the heart of Jesus differs from every other heart that is found among the sons of men. And it is this - oh, it is this, which is the chief blessedness of having such a Saviour. If you are poor you can only get a miserable sympathy from the rich; with the best intentions they can not understand you. Their sympathy is awkward. If you are in pain, it is only a factitious and constrained sympathy you act from those in health - feelings forced, adopted kindly, but imperfect still. They sit beside you, when the regular condolence is done, conversing on topics with each other that jar upon the ear. They sympathize? Miserable comforters are they all. If you are miserable, and tell out your grief, you have the shame of feeling that you were not understood; and that you have bared your inner self to a rude gaze. If you are in doubt, you can not tell your doubts to religious people; no, not even to the ministers of Christ - for they have no place for doubts in their largest system. They ask, What right have you to doubt? They suspect your character. They shake the head; and whisper it about gravely, that you read strange books - that you are verging on infidelity. If you are depressed with guilt, to whom shall you tell out your tale of shame? The confessional, with its innumerable evils, and yet indisputably soothing is passed away; and there is nothing to supply its place. You can not speak to brother man, for you injure him by doing so, or else weaken yourself You can not tell it to society, for society judges in the gross, by general rules, and can not take into account the delicate differences of transgression. It banishes the frail penitent, and does homage to the daring hard transgressor.

Then it is that, repulsed on all sides and lonely, we turn to Him whose mighty Heart understands and feels all. “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” And then it is that, exactly like Zaccheus, misunderstood, suspected by the world, suspected by our own hearts - the very voice of God apparently against us - isolated and apart, we speak to Him from the loneliness of the sycamore-tree, heart to heart, and pulse to pulse. “Lord, Thou knowest all things:” Thou knowest my secret charities, and my untold self-denials. “Thou knowest that I love thee.”

Remark, in conclusion, the power of this sympathy on Zaccheus’s character. Salvation that day came to Zaccheus’s house. What brought it? What touched him? Of course, “the gospel.” Yes; but what is the gospel? What was his gospel? Speculations or revelations concerning the Divine Nature? - the scheme of the atonement? - or of the incarnation? - or baptismal regeneration? Nay, but the Divine sympathy of the Divinest Man. The personal love of God, manifested in the face of Jesus Christ. The floodgates of his soul were opened, and the whole force that was in the man flowed forth. Whichever way you take that expression “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor:” If it referred to the future, then, touched by unexpected sympathy, finding himself no longer an outcast, he made that resolve in gratefulness. If to the past, then, still touched by sympathy, he who had never tried to vindicate himself before the world, was softened to tell out the tale of his secret munificence. This is what I have been doing all the time they slandered me, and none but God knew it.

It required something to make a man like that talk of things which he had not suffered his own left hand to know, before a scorning world. But, anyhow, it was the manifested Fellowship of the Son of Man which brought salvation to that house.

Learn this: When we live the gospel so, and preach the gospel so, sinners will be brought to God. We know not yet the gospel power; for who trusts, as Jesus did, all to that? Who ventures, as He did, upon the power of Love, in sanguine hopefulness of the most irreclaimable? who makes that, the divine humility of Christ, “the gospel?” More than by eloquence, more than by accurate doctrine, more than by ecclesiastical order, more than by any doctrine trusted to by the most earnest and holy man, shall we and others, sinful rebels, outcasts, be won to Christ by that central truth of all the Gospel - the entireness of the Redeemer’s sympathy. In other words, the Love of Jesus.