Ash Wednesday and the Story of Zacchaeus

By Mark D. Roberts

February 16, 2021

A Note from Mark

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. In this special season of the year, many Christians devote themselves to distinctive spiritual practices in order to prepare their hearts for a deeper experience of Holy Week and Easter. The purpose is to know God more deeply, especially his grace given through Jesus Christ. (If you’d like to know more about Ash Wednesday and Lent, check out the De Pree Center’s Lenten resources page.)

I’d like to do something a little different with Life for Leaders during Lent. As you know, I’ve been working my way slowly through the Gospel of Luke. I’m now in chapter 10, almost halfway through. But, instead of moving forward as usual, I’d like to jump ahead to Luke 19 so we can focus in-depth on the last days of Jesus’s life. On Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, we’ll finish Luke 23, which narrates the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. After Easter, I’ll continue on for a few days in Luke 24, which tells the Easter story from Luke’s point of view. Then I’ll circle back and pick up where we left off in Luke 10. There is so much in Luke 10-18 that we don’t want to miss, like the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

As we work our way through Jesus’s final days in Luke 19-23, I’ll be praying each morning for all Life for Leaders readers, that we come to know Jesus more truly, to love him more dearly, and to follow him more nearly.

Scripture – Luke 19:5-7 (NRSV)

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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”


Those who despised Zacchaeus labeled him as a “sinner.” He was unwelcome in their community. Our fellowship is so different, because it begins with our acknowledgment of being sinners. This opens us up to receive the saving grace of God through Christ. Then we are joined together as a community, not of perfect saints, but of forgiven sinners. We begin the season of Lent by acknowledging our sinfulness and need of a Savior.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.


The story of Zacchaeus is a favorite of mine for many reasons. Perhaps of yours, too. When I was a boy, I loved it that Zacchaeus was short, like I was, and that he climbed trees, which was one of my favorite pastimes. I wasn’t a tax collector and I wasn’t rich. But I could relate to Zacchaeus in a way because I was like him.

If you’re familiar with the account of Zacchaeus, you’ll remember that he lived in Jericho, where he collected taxes from folks who lived nearby. The fact that he was wealthy meant he had charged ample handling fees in addition to the basic taxes. This meant Zacchaeus was despised by his neighbors as a sell-out to the Roman government and someone who had taken advantage of them.

But, for some reason, Jesus was interested in Jesus. Because Zacchaeus was short he couldn’t see Jesus pass by because a crowd was in the way. So Zacchaeus climbed a tree to catch a peek of Jesus. When Jesus walked by, he spied Zacchaeus in the tree and called to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Zacchaeus was thrilled to welcome Jesus. But his neighbors did not share Zacchaeus’s enthusiasm. They started to grumble, saying, “[Jesus] has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).

We don’t know exactly the nature of Zacchaeus’s sins, though it’s likely that they included “defrauding” people from whom he was collecting taxes (see Luke 19:8). But the Jewish label “sinner” wasn’t used simply to identify people who did things contrary to the law. It was also a cultural slur, a way of saying that somebody was an outsider, someone who didn’t belong to the community of God’s holy people. Even though Zacchaeus was Jewish, his status as a sinner meant he was effectively cut off from his neighbors. Sinners like Zacchaeus didn’t belong. They weren’t welcome.

Though the rest of the story includes the good news of Zacchaeus’s repentance and Jesus’s announcement that “salvation” came to Zacchaeus’s house that day, I want to reflect a little longer on what it means to be a sinner. This reflection is particularly relevant on Ash Wednesday, since on this particular day of the year we focus in a special way on our sinfulness. We remember that, because of sin, human beings, having been created out of dust, will return to dust. On Ash Wednesday millions of Christians receive the imposition of ashes on their forehead, a stark visual reminder of their sinfulness and mortality . . . and therefore also their need for a Savior. Ashes are imposed in the form of a cross to signify that the curses of sin and death will be rectified through the crucifixion of Jesus. Thus, though we begin Lent with the bad news of our fallen human condition, even that news points ahead to the good news that is to come on Good Friday and Easter.

One of the things I love most about Ash Wednesday services is joining with other Christians to acknowledge publicly that we are sinful people worthy of death. After the ashes have been imposed, churches are full of people bearing visual witness to the fact that they are sinners. In this context, nobody accuses anyone else of being a sinner, as they once did to Zacchaeus. Why? Because we are all sinners.

Moreover, being a sinner doesn’t mean exclusion from the community of Christ. Rather, it’s a prerequisite to membership. As Jesus said after his encounter with Zacchaeus, “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). You can replace “lost” with “sinners,” if you wish. Jesus came for sinners. Jesus came to save folks like Zacchaeus, and me, and you.

We begin Lent with a recognition of our sinfulness and therefore our need of a Savior. And, with cross-shaped ashes to remind us, Jesus has come to save us from our sin, to bear our sin on the cross. Thus, as we take seriously the bad news of our sin and mortality, we anticipate the good news that is to come.


How would you feel if someone called you a sinner?

What reminds you of your sinful, mortal state?

In your experience, how free are Christians to admit their sinfulness, both to God and to each other?

How would you like to grow in your relationship with the Lord during Lent?


Ordinarily, I would encourage you to join an Ash Wednesday service. During the pandemic, however, that may not be a very good idea. But I expect you can find an Ash Wednesday service online. It’s not quite the same without the ashes, of course. But the truth of our mortality can be conveyed in other ways as well.


Lord Jesus, the people from Jericho labeled Zacchaeus as a sinner. He was an outcast from their society. But, Lord, I accept the label of a sinner. I am one, no doubt about that. You already know that, of course. In fact, you came to save sinners like me. Thank you, Lord. Thank you. I would indeed be lost without you.

I thank you also for the fact that the community of your people is not a place of perfection, but rather a fellowship of forgiven sinners. Because of what you did on the cross, Lord, we are united to you and to each other by your grace. Thank you! Thank you!

As we begin the season of Lent, I want to grow in my relationship with you, Lord. I want to know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly. I offer myself to you now. I am available. I am open. I’d love for you to “stay at my house” today, and in all the days of Lent. Amen.

P.S. from Mark

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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: My First Ash Wednesday

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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