These are the lyrics of a song that I sang and pantomimed to each of my children every night as they lay in their cribs before they went to bed. It’s a familiar song in church circles, and Zacchaeus is consequently a familiar person from the gospels.
You might, therefore, remember that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. The position made him both very rich and very despised - rich because he helped the Romans collect their taxes and despised because he defrauded his own people (the Jews) while doing it. In short, he was a traitor and a thief.
When Jesus entered the home of Zacchaeus, he showed the chief tax collector remarkable grace. Few wanted anything to do with him. Zacchaeus didn't deserve kindness from Jesus; he deserved condemnation. In fact, he already stood condemned. He was a sinner - a short, rather obvious one. Everyone knew it, and many expected and wanted Jesus to treat the opportunistic little weasel as his sins deserved.
Sometimes, we might be tempted to think that the pardon of vertical sins means immunity to their horizontal consequences. It doesn’t.
But Jesus didn’t treat him as his sins deserved. Hardly! In fact, Jesus favored Zacchaeus. Scandalously, he fellowshipped with him, in his house! The response of Zacchaeus to this unmerited favor, this stunning mercy, was deep and profound repentance. He openly confessed his sins and received Jesus’ pardon. Jesus declared the verdict of grace before all who wanted judgment. “Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house" (Luke 19:9).
However, we do well to notice the nature of Zacchaeus’ repentance, something to which Jesus pointed as the clear evidence of his true salvation. Zacchaeus not only evidenced godly sorrow for his past sins as vertical offenses against God; simultaneously, he understood them horizontal injustices toward others. For this reason, Zacchaeus pledged in response to grace that, as much as it depended upon him, he would settle his accounts with others.
Clearly, this was not to earn God’s favor; he already had it. Empowered by God’s favor, it was good and necessary work in keeping with repentance.
Sometimes, we might be tempted to think that the pardon of vertical sins means immunity to their horizontal consequences. It doesn’t. What it does mean is that we have all the favor and divine resources we need, as much as it depends upon us, to make things right with those we’ve offended (Matthew 5:23; Romans 12:18). We can take our sins against them seriously because God took them seriously for us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
A great irony in this truncated view of repentance is that we not only rob others by minimizing our injustices toward them; we rob ourselves of the joy and peace that might come from hearing and enjoying their pardon. Of course, we can’t guarantee their merciful response. However, that’s between them and God. What we can know for certain is that, as much as it depended upon us, we sought one more expression of the reconciliation that our world so desperately needs, and Jesus Christ so freely offers.