Text: Luke 19:1-10
If you know it, sing it with me: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…
If you are of a certain age and grew up in the church, there is a good chance you know “Zacchaeus.” On the Sunday School hit parade, "Zacchaeus" was about as big as "Jesus Loves Me."
There is something about the image of this guy who climbed a tree to see Jesus that has stuck with me. I could imagine myself climbing a tree, rising above the crowd and seeing Jesus. And I could imagine the surprise and the excitement that Jesus picked me, that he wanted to come to my house and hang out with me.
This morning, I want you to imagine with me a bit more about Zacchaeus, about how he came to this point and about the way that this day changed his life.
To start with, Zacchaeus was short. Not just below average height, but exceptionally short. As far as I can tell, only three people in the whole Bible are noted for their height. There is a tall Egyptian whose name is not given who was killed by one of David’s warriors. There is Goliath, the Philistine giant. And then there is Zacchaeus. The word short is used only once in the Bible to describe a person--and that person is Zacchaeus. That doesn’t mean he was the shortest person in the Bible, but he is the only person whose short stature is mentioned.
Because of his height (or lack of it), things had always been hard. Growing up, other kids made fun of him. Phys Ed was especially bad. It didn’t matter if it was a relay race or Moabite Rules Football, he was always the last one picked.
Nobody thought much of Zacchaeus, and because of that, he didn’t think much of himself. He never thought he was worth much. He was actually fairly bright, but he didn’t do very well in school. He was never very popular. He never had many friends. But he tried to hide his feelings by putting on a tough front. He put down others to feel better about himself. Of course, all of this only insured that he wouldn’t have many friends.
Zacchaeus finished school and like everyone else was looking for a job. But jobs were hard to come by. This Roman invasion had messed up the economy, which wasn’t so great to start with. But then Zacchaeus saw the ad in the Jericho Gazette for the tax job. Now understand that working as a tax collector meant burning a lot of bridges. You were choosing to work for the enemy. You would be collecting money from your own people to give to the Romans. To say that tax collectors were unpopular was to understate the situation. They were despised, hated, social outcasts.
Let me tell you a story I heard the other day. There was a Hindu priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a TV evangelist all caught in a terrible thunderstorm. They all happened to seek shelter at the same farmhouse. “It’s gonna storm all night,” said the farmer. “You’ll have to stay here for the night. Only problem is, there is only room for two of you. One will have to sleep in barn.”
“I’ll be the one,” said the Hindu priest. “A little hardship is nothing to me.” A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry, but there is a cow in the barn. According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must not intrude into their space.”
“Don’t worry about it, come on in,” said the rabbi. “I’ll sleep in the barn.” But a few minutes later there was another knock and it was the rabbi. “I’m really sorry about this, but there is a pig in the bar. In my religion, pigs are unclean. I cannot share sleeping quarters with a pig.
“That’s all right, said the TV evangelist. I’ll sleep in the barn.” A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was the cow and the pig.
Now that’s an old joke, of course, and it could be told on anybody. In Zacchaeus’ day, it was told about tax collectors. Nobody liked a tax collector. Zacchaeus understood what he would be getting into. But what was there to lose? He already felt like a social outcast. And he knew that tax collectors made a lot of money. He would never make that kind of money anywhere else.
So he applied for the job. This was a bit risky in itself. Even if he didn’t get the job, if he applied for it and people found out, there would be a price to pay.
He was a nervous wreck waiting to hear from the Department of Revenue, but finally Zacchaeus was told that he had the job. And the amazing thing was, this man who didn’t think much of himself, who had never really been that good at anything, turned out to be great at collecting taxes. The thick skin he had developed over the years served him well. He looked down the tax rolls and saw guys who never chose him for the team and girls who would never think of going out with him. And he stuck it to them. He took delight in taking money from people who were popular or powerful or successful--people who wouldn’t have given him the time of day. For the first time in his life, he had a taste of power.
Tax collectors were almost universally known to be corrupt. They overcharged people, and with the Roman army there to make sure people paid up, it wasn’t too hard to get away with it. Zacchaeus had no problem overcharging. He fit right in. He was a great tax collector.
Zacchaeus’ success didn’t escape the notice of his superiors. When there was an opening for an assistant regional superintendent, Zacchaeus was chosen for the job. It meant more money. They higher up you went in the system, the more you became involved in the corruption, and the more money there was. Eventually Zacchaeus became Chief Tax Collector. (Or as he preferred to call it, “Chief Revenue Generation Specialist.”) It was as high as a Jewish boy could go in the system. His boss was a Roman. He was in charge of taxes for a wide area around the city of Jericho.
For a tax collector, this was a plum job. Jericho was one of the wealthiest areas in the country. There were palm forests and balsam groves surrounding the city. The area exported dates and balsam and other products. Jericho’s rose gardens were known far and wide. It was a trade center. There was a lot of money in Jericho. Being in charge of taxes for this area guaranteed that you would be quite rich.
And he was. Zacchaeus was successful and he was rich. And yet, he wasn’t happy. Money by itself wasn’t all that great. He was lonely. His only friends were other tax collectors, but being the chief tax collector, they couldn’t really be friends - he was their boss. And deep inside himself, he still somehow felt like he was worthless. Here he was, taking money from Jews and giving it to the Romans. The Romans that he worked for thought no more of him, maybe even less of him, than the Jews did.
He had heard of this man named Jesus. Some of the people criticized Jesus, called him a “friend of sinner and tax collectors.” You better believe that caught Zacchaeus’ attention. He didn’t know if anybody, especially a religious person, could actually be a friend of tax collectors, but he was intrigued enough that he wanted to go see Jesus.
Jesus was at the height of his popularity and big crowds turned out. Folks wanted to see this man that everyone was talking about.
This was hard for Zacchaeus. Remember, he wasn’t just short, he was super short. He couldn’t see over the crowd. And more than that, people that knew who he was would push him or elbow him or step on his foot or accidentally spill their drink on him. This was one of the most hated men in town. Zacchaeus saw a tree and decided that if he was going to see Jesus, this was the only way. Besides, he wouldn’t have so many bruises tomorrow.
So he went ahead of the crowd, climbed the tree, sat on a limb, and waited for Jesus to pass by. He was able to see over the crowd. And then he saw Jesus. It seemed like Jesus was coming right towards him. It seemed like Jesus was looking right at him. And then, Zacchaeus realized that - he was. He could hardly believe it when Jesus said, “Hurry and get down from there, I’m going to stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus thought, “Why my house? Out of all these people, why me?” Something happened to Zacchaeus that day. Jesus had chosen him. Jesus had accepted him. To Jesus, he was not worthless. He was not hopeless. He was not contemptible. Whatever he had done did not matter. He was a child of God.
There are two main characters in the story. And the most important one is not Zacchaeus. The fact is, this story says more about God than it does Zacchaeus. “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Why would Jesus choose to visit Zacchaeus? If we were in Jesus’ sandals, would we have chosen Zacchaeus? Probably not. But God, thankfully, is not like us. God is in the seeking and saving business. God is about bringing salvation, bringing wholeness and healing and peace, right here and now. To people like Zacchaeus, whose lives seem hopeless and meaningless, and to people like us, when our lives need hope and meaning. Jesus wants to come home with us and stay with us and tell us that we are loved, we are accepted, we count, we are important to God.
Several years ago a school teacher who worked with children in a large city hospital received a routine call asking her to visit a particular boy. She took his name and room number and was told by the teacher on the phone, “We’re working on nouns and adverbs in class now. I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind.”
It wasn’t until the visiting teacher walked into the boy’s room that she realized she was in the burn unit. No one had prepared her to see a boy horribly burned and in great pain. He obviously was not in any condition to study, but she felt she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher--your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.” That was about it and she left.
The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” Before she could apologize, the nurse interrupted her and said, “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, he’s responding to treatment...it’s as though he’s decided to live.”
The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”
How important it is to know that someone believes in us. More than anyone, God believes in us. Zacchaeus made the effort to see Jesus, but the initiative in the relationship really is with God. God is about seeking and saving.
Despite who Zacchaeus was and what he had become, despite the grumbling of more respectable people about Jesus’ choice of companions, Jesus had chosen him. And that absolutely changed Zacchaeus’ life.
Thomas Merton wrote about truly encountering the living Christ. He said: “True encounter with Christ liberates something in us, a power we did not know we had, a hope; a capacity for life, a resilience; an ability to bounce back when we think we are completely defeated, a capacity to grow and change, a power of creative transformation.”
By the power of Christ, Zacchaeus was changed. He was transformed. Until now, he had lived for himself. He had lived for money. He had lived to accumulate. But this encounter with Jesus changed everything. He was transformed from a cold-hearted man who cared mainly about himself into a changed man with a generous heart.
He had acquired vast wealth by dishonest means. Now, half of all he had he would give to the poor. And to any he had cheated (and clearly this was a large group), he would repay them four times the amount. The law said that someone voluntarily admitting fraud must repay the amount plus 20%. But having experienced the grace of God, Zacchaeus went far beyond what the law required. Jesus believed in him and it absolutely changed his life.
It’s not just Zacchaeus. It’s you. It’s me. It’s all of us. What a difference it makes to know that someone believes in us. But to know that God believes in us--that can make all the difference. Knowing that God believes in us, we can believe in ourselves and we can experience a power that can absolutely change our lives.
And the change is from a smallness of spirit to a wide, expansive spirit. From fear to joyful living. From tightly clutching what we have to a spirit of open-handed generosity. When we understand what we have been given, we are glad to give for the sake of others.
The testimony of Zacchaeus was that Jesus had freed him – freed him from fear and shame and freed him for generous, open-hearted living. May that be so in our lives. Amen.