1He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When 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.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who say it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus 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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
I’ve been reading a bunch of children’s books lately. That’s part of William’s bedtime routine: bathtime, then Leah and I each read him a bedtime story. Some stories are destined to stay in our childhood. They’re books that we read as children, but haven’t picked up again until it was time to relive them through the eyes of our own child. At some point, William will start watching disney movies too, and we’ll watch our way through those stories too.
The story of Zacchaeus tends to be one of those stories that stays in our childhood. We hear it again and again in Children's Sunday School classes, maybe we even learn the song. You know the one, Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he... But when we become adults, that story stays in our childhood. We look on it with fondness, but never really pick it up and read it again.
And if we never read it again, all this text will offer us is some physical comedy about a short guy climbing a tree. We'll miss the ways that Jesus upends the social expectation. We'll miss the ways that Zacchaeus is restored to the community. We'll miss the ways that our unworthiness is reformed into a gracious invitation to share the Lord's Table.
The next stop for Jesus is Jerusalem, and we know that the last supper and the cross are waiting for him there. But for now, we meeting him as “He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.” Zacchaeus is not the accountant or IRS agent we might picture today. Zacchaeus was Jewish, but was working for the occupying empire. He was benefitting from the oppression of his people. As a chief tax collector, he had proven himself good at his job.
The Roman empire, to whom the United States is so often compared, probably saw Zacchaeus as “one of the good ones.” Not only was he working for the occupying empire, he had grown wealthy doing so. Even if all of Zacchaeus’s business dealings were totally legal and above board, he had still enriched himself from the oppression of his fellow Jews.
And that’s not a great way to make friends.
Scripture tells us “He was trying to see who Jesus was.” Perhaps he just saw a crowd and wanted to see who was leading it. I don’t think he desire to see “who he was” is a statement of faith, I think it’s curiosity, and maybe a healthy dose of self-preservation. After all, if this radical, crowd-drawing preacher is going to cleanse Israel, that may mean that Zacchaeus going to end up on the wrong side of the torches and pitchforks. So maybe he climbs the tree to wait and see this “Jesus” and stay hidden behind some branches.
Whatever combination of curiosity and self-preservation got him up the tree, Jesus is not about to let him stay up there.
My Uncle Charlie is a Baptist preacher. He is wise, energetic, and has a Doctorate of Ministry in Evangelism and Missions from the Billy Graham school. And he is really Baptist. He's as much a Baptist as I am a Presbyterian.
Which means we sometimes get into it. Much to the chagrin of my mother-in-law, Charlie's sister, who would rather everyone just got along and not talk about things about which we disagree.
For Charlie and me, though, arguing about theology is playful. We're as competitive about it as we would be a backyard football game, and as eager to share a meal together after.
Last time we got into it, Charlie had the last word. We were talking about salvation and how much people's actions effect it. As we got up from the table, he smiled and left with a great line. "I believe Jesus is a gentleman," he said. "He doesn't come in without an invitation."
Ooh what a great line. I was so impressed by his turn of phrase that I didn't even think about the story of Zacchaeus. "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Jesus doesn’t wait for an invitation. He picks a man who has grown wealthy on the suffering of his neighbors and invites himself over to that same man’s house. There’s not even the politeness of “I would like to..” When Jesus calls you, he doesn’t say “please,” he says “hurry and come down.”
In that moment, when Zacchaeus has heard his name, he sees who Jesus is. When Jesus says “I must stay at your house today,” I wonder if Zacchaeus heard the voice that freed his people from bondage in Egypt. I wonder if he heard the voice that sent his people into exile for 70 years, while promising a future filled with hope.
Zacchaeus wanted to see who he was. He saw that Jesus is more than a rabble-rouser, more even than a prophet. He is salvation, even for those who are lost. Even for those who have enriched themselves while their people were ground down by the empire. “So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.”
How else could he respond? Jesus is inviting you to meet him at your house. It’s not an imposition, it’s an intervention by the Holy One of Israel “to seek out and to save the lost.”
But that free gift is not without consequences, and the crowd begins to grumble about Jesus. Suddenly Zacchaeus is face-to-face with the same crowd that forced him into a sycamore tree.
Sometimes Jesus pulls us out of the dust and heals us. But he also reaches up and pulls us down out of a sycamore tree so that we have to face the crowd, faces we may have wronged. But also so that crowd can see our face as Jesus restores us to the community. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”