Text: Luke 18:31-19:10
Zacchaeus. Just hearing the name can put a smile on your face. To hear the name conjures up images of childhood Sunday School classes, of singing about a wee little man, of a grown-up climbing a tree to see Jesus passing by, which was an awesome thought for a six or seven year old. Or, let’s be honest, for a 60 or 70 year old. When was the last time you saw a grown-up, and a public official at that, climb a tree?
This is one of those stories that is a kid’s story but it is actually a lot more than a kid’s story. Now, we have been in the gospel of Luke since the first of the year. Since Christmas Day, really. And one of the recurring themes is that people are not always what we might judge them to be. Jesus sees people differently than most of us do, and both his interactions with others and the stories he tells tend to have an unexpected twist.
Last week we looked at the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus. The unnamed rich man dies and winds up in the place of the dead while the poor beggar, Lazarus, is not only known by name but finds himself in the embrace of Father Abraham. Nobody saw that one coming.
We are a couple of chapters farther along in Luke this morning. In the intervening chapters, we read about Jesus, in his mercy and compassion, healing ten lepers. Only one of the ten returned to say thanks. And that one was – guess what – a Samaritan. It’s like we have heard that record before. There is a Pharisee and a tax collector who offer prayers to God. The Pharisee with flowery, self-congratulatory public prayer and the tax collector confessing his sin and pleading for God’s mercy quietly, off to the side by himself. God accepted the prayers of the tax collector.
Then there were people bringing infants to Jesus. His disciples wanted to shoo these people away, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto me.”
And a rich man comes to Jesus, asking about the road to eternal life. Jesus asks him to give away his wealth and follow him, but we read that the man was saddened because he was very rich, and walked away. And Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
In our first reading today, we have Jesus telling his disciples that he must suffer and die, and they do not have a clue what he is talking about. And then he heals a blind beggar, a man who may have had more vision than his neighbors who wanted to stop him from crying out to Jesus.
Today we are at the end of what is sometimes called the travel narrative in Luke. He has been touring the countryside, preaching and teaching and healing. From this point, Jesus heads to Jerusalem, and the rest of the gospel will mostly play out there. Reading Luke as a continuing story, it strikes me how nearly everything Jesus says and does is not what people expect – this goes all the way back to his inaugural sermon in his hometown synagogue where he speaks highly of foreigners while being critical of religious leaders. Folks were so mad that Jesus nearly got himself killed before his ministry could even get started.
Now Jesus comes to Jericho. And true to form, Jesus is predictably unpredictable, still ruffling feathers, still shaking the foundations.
Jesus has come to Jericho and is passing through the town. Jericho in the first century was described as “a veritable Eden – an oasis of date palms and balsam groves, it exported its products all over the known world.” Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector for the Jericho District. If you are top dog of tax collection in a rich area, you are doing very well. Of course, Israel was an occupied territory. Taxes did not go to Jerusalem; they went to Rome. Zacchaeus was working for the enemy.
The way it worked was that tax collectors had a set amount that they were to collect. Anything beyond that, you could keep for yourself. With Roman soldiers around to enforce collection of taxes, it wasn’t too hard to overcharge and to make yourself rich. Tax collectors were pretty well universally despised both as being cheating bloodsuckers and as traitors who collaborated with the enemy.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector. He presumably had others working under him. He may have been the most hated man in town. His only possible friends were other tax collectors, but remember, he was the boss. The gig paid well, but friends and self-respect were hard to come by.
The other nugget we have about Zacchaeus is what we all know from that song we sang as children: he was a “wee little man.” Interestingly, Zacchaeus is the only person in the entire Bible describes as being short. That doesn’t make him the shortest person in the Bible, but he is the only one of whom the writer felt it was important to point out how height-challenged he was.
Interestingly, the Greek text says that he was short in stature, and the word for stature can also mean maturity or character. So he may have been 5 feet tall, but it may have been that he was short on maturity, that he was lacking in character. To be the chief tax collector, a person pretty well had to be. Corruption was rampant, and a tax collector became wealthy by impoverishing others.
So maybe it was height, maybe it was character, maybe it was both. You can imagine Danny DeVito playing Zacchaeus in a movie. Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus. Apart from the issue of height, he did not fare so well in crowds. Imagine him trying to make his way through the crowd so that he could see. When folks realized that it was Zacchaeus, they might “accidentally” swing an elbow or step on his foot or spill something on his back. Zacchaeus said “No, thanks,” and he headed for the sycamore tree.
I suspect that Zacchaeus was a climber of more than trees. In all likelihood, he was a social climber who knew every political and economic ladder in town. Zacchaeus knew how to get where he wanted to go.
But I’m wondering this morning what it was that led Zacchaeus to want to fight the crowds, that led him to climb a tree to see Jesus. Maybe it was the stories that had circulated. Maybe it was the rumors about Jesus – that he was a friend of sinners and tax collectors. That would seem to be just a crazy rumor – how could a religious leader actually be a friend of tax collectors? – but for Zacchaeus, perhaps it was worth finding out.
So Jesus passes by and sees Zacchaeus up in the tree. Zacchaeus was hoping to see Jesus, but out of all the people in the crowd that day, Jesus definitely saw him. He says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Jesus wasn’t shy about inviting himself over.)
For Zacchaeus, this was almost unimaginable. People did not want to be seen with him. He was not exactly a social magnet. Yet here was Jesus, whom anybody in the crowd would be glad to have over to their house, choosing Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was thrilled, but the crowd was definitely not. They may have snickered at it at first – Jesus didn’t know any better than to invite himself to the home of a man that nobody in town would be caught dead with. But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and people started grumbling, saying that he was going to the home of a known sinner. This was not at all what people wanted or expected – but if they had been paying attention to Jesus all along, this was exactly the kind of thing he made a habit of doing.
And something about Jesus requesting, insisting upon, really, spending time with Zacchaeus awakens something in him. As the hymn says, Zacchaeus is “rich in things and poor in soul,” and he knows it. For some reason, he had been drawn to Jesus, and this encounter with Jesus completely transforms his life.
Zacchaeus promised not only to turn over half of his money to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the money he had extorted and defrauded from people. And Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Something happened to Zacchaeus that day. Jesus had chosen him. Jesus had accepted him. To Jesus, he was not contemptible. He was not a short, sleazy tax collector. 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? The answer is because Jesus, 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 small and meaningless, and to people like us, when our lives need hope and meaning. Jesus wants to come home with us and tell us that we are loved, we are accepted, we count, we are important to God. And that realization is salvation. It can save our lives.
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 changed his life. Jesus had said that it easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but through the love of Jesus and the grace of God, Zacchaeus had apparently threaded the needle.
It was Jesus’ acceptance that enabled Zacchaeus to change. This morning, we need to know that it is 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 in the world. Whatever you have done, wherever you have come from, wherever you may find yourself, God loves you and accepts you and welcomes you. And through God’s welcome, we can experience a power that can absolutely change our lives. Amen.