Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
I have a very vivid memory from when I was somewhere around 4 ½ and my family was visiting a museum. My mom had dressed my brother and me in identical outfits. My brother is sixteen months younger than me, but at that time we were the exact same height. I remember multiple people on that day making comments about us being twins, and I remember insisting that I was the “big brother.” Within a couple of years from that point though, all I could claim is that I was the older one because my brother had surpassed me in height. Despite my best efforts, I never caught back up. I objectively know it is silly, but to this day it really annoys me when someone assumes my brother is older just because he is taller. Growing up with a taller young brother always made me feel short, even though my height is more or less right at the average for an American man. I say all of this to point out that I can empathize a bit with Zacchaeus, because Zacchaeus has been enshrined and forever known as a wee little man, a wee little man was he.
This is a little unfair. It unfair to make height the primary attribute of Zacchaeus because it is the least important thing about him in the scripture. If we are going to remember Zacchaeus as a little man, then we should remember not that he was of little stature but that he displayed little pride and great humility. In that regard perhaps we could learn from Zacchaeus and we could all stand to shrink a bit.
It is probably fair to say that Zacchaeus was not a popular person around Jericho. This is because he was a tax collector. Even today that combination of words is one that has a tendency to instantly bristle us the wrong way. I imagine employees of the IRS go out of their way to describe their job as anything other than tax collector. Not only that, but Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector. This means that not only was he a tax collector but he administrated other tax collectors. In general, being a tax collector is not a profession goes into because they want to win popularity contests, but in first century Israel they were especially reviled.
Tax collectors were viewed as thieves and traitors. Remember during this time Israel was subjugated territory. They were, not by choice, under the rule of the Roman Empire. The tax collectors were locals, recruited by the Romans, to take money to the people and ship it off to Rome. The taxes could feel oppressive and it was made worse by the fact that it was one of your own doing the oppression. That is why tax collectors were viewed as traitors. They were viewed as thieves because tax collectors did not have a salary. They received their income from the taxes the collected. A certain amount had to be sent in, but beyond that the tax collectors had a lot of discretion on how much they collected. As you can imagine, most tax collectors brought in enough taxes so that they could live quite comfortably. This lifestyle happened completely at the literal expense of their neighbor. Imagine how you would feel if you are just barely getting by, and your neighborhood tax collector cruises by in a brand new Ferrari, a car that you know that he could only afford because he raised your taxes this year.
It makes me wonder if the real reason why Zacchaeus climbed the tree to see Jesus had less to do with his height, and more to do with the fact that the crowd was intentionally keeping him back so he could not see. In general this is a story that really inspires me to put myself there. It is a story that has me trying to understand the person of Zacchaeus and visualize how their interaction went.
Jesus meets Zacchaeus towards the end of his life. The scripture begins with “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.” Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for what would become holy week. Perhaps Zacchaeus sought Jesus out because he wanted to see the miracle worker in action. Of course by this point, stories would have traveled about what kind of teacher Jesus was. Zacchaeus would have heard how Jesus taught like one with authority. He would have heard stories of the cryptic but deep parables Jesus told, and he would have heard stories of lives changed. Based off the reaction of meeting Jesus, I think this is what drew Zacchaeus to Jesus. The possibility of a changed life is what led Zacchaeus to climb a tree so that he could get a glimpse of this life-changing rabbi.
When I read this scripture, I imagine Jesus stopping looking up at Zacchaeus and calling him out. I imagine Jesus looking at him and speaking in a commanding voice, Zacchaeus, come down immediately.” I imagine there being a pregnant pause, where Zacchaeus’ blood ran cold because he was fully seen. I imagine the crowd being full of anticipation because they were about to see this hated man get what was coming to him. But then Jesus continues, and does the unexpected, he invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house.
When Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house he bestowed honor upon him. He communicated that Zacchaeus is someone worthy of attention, time, and even blessing. We get the sense by the muttering of the crowds, that no one had ever really communicated that to Zacchaeus. They muttered and grumbled. They saw Zacchaeus as a sinner not worth redemption. But Jesus saw Zacchaeus in a different light. In doing so, Jesus touched a chord deep in Zacchaeus that caused him to do an instant 180. He pledges to immediately to course correct and begin making right his wrongdoings. Zacchaeus repented and backed up that repentance with his actions. This is why Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Zacchaeus knew Jesus was a man of God, by asking to come to Zacchaeus’ house Jesus was communicating that despite all that he had done, Zacchaeus was not outside of God’s grace and love. Not only did Jesus communicate to Zacchaeus that he was worthy of attention but Jesus also communicated that he is worthy of acceptance. The reason why the story of Zaccheus got immortalized into a children’s song is not because it is fun to say the phrase wee little man, it is because it is a story from the bible worth knowing. I think there are two aspects of the story that we really need to remember today.
The first aspect we need to keep in mind comes from how Zacchaeus responded to Jesus. I find the response of Zacchaeus to be fascinating. He states he will give away half of his wealth, and repay those he has cheated four times. I find it interesting because Zacchaeus knows exactly what he has done wrong, and he seeks to make it right. That sort of humble repentance is in short supply today. As a culture, we go out of our way to avoid admitting wrong doing. We see this whenever someone with power and influence gets caught in the act of something they should not do. They never actually apologize. Their apologies are at worst I am sorry I got caught and at best I am sorry people are upset I get caught. Instead of admitting there is wrong doing, we engage in “whatabout-ism” and say “what about those people doing something worse.” Instead of humbling repenting the default of our culture is to justify our wrong behavior, to excuse it. We do anything we can to not have to say we are sorry.
Then even if we do apologize, we expect that to be it. Apologizing and repenting though are two different things. Apologizing is acknowledging our wrongdoing, repenting is making it right. This is an area where as followers of Jesus we can and we should be counter cultural. Our culture seeks to apologize for nothing, but as Jesus followers we should go one step further than apologizing and be people of repentance. Because the hard truth is all of us do wrong from time to time, and like Zacchaeus if we are being honest we know exactly the wrong we have done, the way that we have fallen short, and the way we have failed to love God and others. Instead of doubling down on our pride and justifying our sin away, we should follow the example of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus let his pride fall down and he was willing to repent. Instead of getting defensive when confronted with the ways we fall short, we should be humble enough to apologize, and our pride should be little enough that we can course correct and begin to make things right. Repentance is not a one and done act, it is a new course that guides and directs our life. I imagine that Zacchaeus went from being a little man that people thought little of, to being a little man who was known by the size of his big heart. Meeting Jesus should lead us to repent too. We turn from a sinful behavior, and do the opposite. The story of Zacchaeus should cause us to reflect on how well we are doing at that, and if necessary this story should convict us to fall before Jesus and repent all over again.
In this morning’s scripture Zacchaeus gives an example to follow, but so does Jesus. Zacchaeus was pushed to the outside of his community. He was not a person others wanted to associate with, but Jesus still took the time to recognize him. There are a lot of people today who are like a modern day Zacchaeus. There are people who are not well liked and who find themselves on the outside more often than not. Like Zacchaeus, it is possible that these people may even deserve this reputation to some degree. However, the example that Jesus gives us is that even those people are still in need of God’s salvation. The people who we would rather pass silent judgement on are still people who are lost and need to be saved. The example Jesus gives us is a reminder that there are no outsiders to God’s love. Zacchaeus was a traitor and a thief, but Jesus was not willing to give up on him. In the same way may we not be willing to give up on the people around us.
In order to get to Jesus Zacchaeus had to climb a tree because others had shut him out. It is imperative that we make sure we are never ever standing in the way of someone getting to Jesus. People should not have to find trees to get around our way of doing things, our ideology, or our judgmental attitudes to get to Christ. Instead of being roadblocks to the people who are like Zacchaeus in our midst, we should instead reflect Christ to them. It is through us, not in spite of us, that those who are unloved, unwanted, and stuck in bad life circumstances find the forgiving, live changing love of Jesus.
This morning’s scripture is about how a little man became a man of big faith. Zacchaeus entered into a life of discipleship and seeking the kingdom of God. May his story be an inspiration to our own faith story and may our own level of discipleship grow from knowing it. May we not be so consumed by pride that we make excuses for our wrongdoing, but may we be willing to humbly repent. May we seek forgiveness but may we also do the hard work of making amends and making it right. Just as important, may we also ask God to show who are the people like Zacchaeus in our community. May we be willing to reach out to those people, invite them, and may we shine the love of Jesus Christ in to their lives. May we take this task seriously, because as this morning’s scripture reminds us, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” May we do our part to help the lost get found.