and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sucamore tree,
for the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Savior passed that way
he looked up in the tree.
And said, Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I'm going to your house today.
For I'm going to your house today!
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
but a happy man was he,
for he had seen the Lord that day,
and a happy man was he;
and a very happy man was he.
Does this catchy old Sunday School tune start singing in your ear when you read today's gospel passage? It seems like a simple story, but I have to confess that
I had a real problem preparing to preach on Zacchaeus' story. There have been at least 1 communion sermon, 2 stewardship sermons, and 3 titles dancing around in my mind: “Out on a Limb,” “Turning the Tables,” and “When a Little Goes a Long Way.” There's so much to be discovered in this story! So let's just go into the story and see what God has for us to read between the ines.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it.
Just passing through. This is Jesus' last trip. He's moving toward Jerusalem and what we know waits for him in his final days. He dosn't seem to intend to spend any time in Jericho, but on the way in he's already instructed the crowd to "let the children come to me" and to bring him the blind man they don't seem to think he should bother with.
A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.
Zacchaeus was a “big man” who was too short to see. His name means “pure, righteous,” but he wasn’t feeling it. He wasn’t living it. What got in his way? His job title, architelones, is only mentioned once in the bible, here. In fact, its the only time the term is used in all of Greek Literature. There's comething unique going on here.
He was a little big man. His way of earning a living had determined his social position. Supervising toll collectors as goods moved over the Jordan river and through Jericho on their way to the city meant he worked for the unpopular Romans. And because he was rich people then would have assumed, whether it was true or not, that he was skimming off the top. That was pretty standard practice. Come to think of it, its still practiced now. Just this week it came to light that Homeland Security workers are regularly padding their pay checks with overtime they feel entitled to.
It wasn’t all coming up roses for Zaccheaus. There was push back from the crowd, from his neighbors. His wealth was getting in the way of his happiness. His reputation was getting in the way of his belonging in the community. As a rsults, the crowd was now a barrier between him and this guy coming down the road.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
Zacchaeus saw where Jesus was headed and completely abandoned his dignity to get there in time to see him.
A sycamore fig is an interesting tree to climb. Its taller than your average fig tree, up to 60 feet, and the fruit grows through the bark in clusters that would have made foot holds for children climbing. The fruit’s not as good as regular figs, but in hard times, the poor would eat it to survive. There's probably another sermon in the way Zacchaeus literally climbs on the food of the poor. For today, let's notice he's becoming childlike in order to reach Jesus. (Awareness of what he's done to get where he is in life may dawn later.)
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."
The very idea that Jesus would go to this man’s house for table fellowship, even invite himself, is so outrageous in its time that some scholars have come to the conclusion it must be made up. It can’t be true. But others point out the unique details in this passage that make it obvious its not a parable, or a fable, or a sermon illustration. It’s a real life encounter between Jesus and a desperate man, with us looking on trying to figure out what to make of it.
At this point in the story the word "all" forces us to ask which character we identify with and why. The crowd? Zacchaues? Jesus? Why is grumbling such a great unifier? Have you ever noticed how it draws a crowd together? Wise managers will sometimes even give employees something harmless to grumble at. Are we in the grumbling corwd or are we ready and willing to risk indignity to see Jesus? Or are we modeling Christ, able to stop and notice someone like this strange little person up a tree?
Did you notice that Jesus spoke first?
Would Zacchaeus ever have spoken to Jesus? Why not?
He seems to be silenced by public opinion, enslaved by professional success, locked down in battle between the power of money and the power of communal identity and acceptance.
Some of us may be victims of success today. Its not just the tyranny of money. Who controls our time as we seek success at work, in sports, in our social lives? "Telones" (tax or toll collector) has the root "telos," used by philosophers to mean "purpose, or end." Zacchaeus turned from serving the purposes of the empire controling his people to serving the God who frees all people. Meeting Jesus shows him the way. Jesus will also become a victim of his success, literally, hung him on a cross at the request of the crowd. But you can't keep that good man down, can you?! The resurrection is God's declaration of freedom across all time and place.
I think about some of that saints we remember in this season of Saints. St Francis was known for being free of the love of money. Was he also free to use his time as God led him? What would it look like to today to be free of the tyranny of time and money? And who are saints we’ve known who embody Christ’s freedom from the tyrannical aspects of money, time, public opinion, and selling our own selves short?
Zacchaeus’ urgency, running, climbing, comes to a head in Jesus’ urgency, I must……
And then the mood shifts. As soon as Jesus speaks, Zachaeus responds with joyful abandon. (I like this guy more and more as the story goes on).
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."
He’s turning his own tables over, not waiting for Jesus to give him instructions. He knows what he needs to do, because he knows Torah, the law of his people. He wants to do even more than the law requires.
Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
Zacchaeus, who controlled our money as chief tax collector, is one of us, our family.
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."
Those of us who forget God is saving us in our lostness find ourselves grumbling instead of rejoicing, feels like our privileges are violated (remember the prodigal son). Does anger also become a privileged possession if we refuse to give it up?
Jesus looks at a rich man and instead of challenging him to give up his cash, invites himself to the man’s house, (which upsets everyone in the crowd), then witnesses and affirms the man's radical transformation. It’s another open ended story. We're left to imagine how we feel about the transformation of someone we've learned to love to hate.
We're left to ask if we can see the direction Jesus is headed.
Things get in the way.
We get weighed down with the things we have to take care of, house, barns, investments, and valuable objects….We get tied up in what people think about us, and in our opinions about other people.
Zacchaeus was the goose ready to fall from the sky when Jesus came along side and said I"m with you, try your wings. Then the story goes from being a story of urgency to a story of freedom. This is the vision of beloved community.
Opportunity overcomes pessimism.
Repentance replaces guilt.
Eagerness to do what's right pours out of the joy of being free.
Christian tradition says that Zacchaeus became the bishop of Caesarea, appointed by Peter, and a model of Christian hospitality in the time of house churches. The little man went a long way after humbling himself. Not becuase he was rich, but becuase he learned what to do with his riches. Not because he was important, but because he was ready to meet Jesus, and willing to become part of the people of God.
Because Jesus stopped for one man, and instead of giving him what his naighbors tought he deserved, gave him what God knew he needed.