Dr. Peter Marty: Climbing Down: What Zacchaeus Can Teach Us

With blessing of salvation, Zacchaeus completely refocuses his life

Read: Luke 19:1-10

Generations of Sunday school children have grown up singing the refrain: "Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he." Part of the fun is the smooth whirling sound that wee makes when rolled off one's lips. A young child can also get pretty excited by the idea of a grown-up as runtish as a kid, who is lucky enough to actually have Jesus come to his house.

Either way, Zacchaeus is a shorty to most of our minds. And he has become rich through means that scarcely do justice to the true meaning of his name: "the righteous one." Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner refers to him as the "sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job."

But was he really short? The Greek text is ambiguous and doesn't make clear whether the "he" of short stature is Jesus or Zacchaeus. All we know is that the crowd got in the way of Zacchaeus' sight lines. So he climbed a tree.

It's possible that Jesus was the short one. According to Isaiah's prophecy, the Messiah possessed no particular physical beauty or desirability. Time and again we see Jesus stooping to the least and worst of society. His capacity to get down to our level is one of the distinguishing marks of salvation - God bending low. Tall people don't stoop so easily.

Debates about height probably miss the point. The Greek word used here for stature, helikia, can also mean maturity or character. Zacchaeus certainly seemed short on maturity or small on character. One had to be, to be a chief tax collector. It meant working for the Roman occupation. Some of a chief tax collector's greatest wealth came by impoverishing others.

If one could plunder the house of someone suspected of withholding unreported goods, the toll mafia would enjoy a heyday. More goods meant more wealth. Mr. 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. Worse than ignoring the poor, some well-supplied, well-fed and well-educated folks actually punish people for their poverty. They regard them with contempt. Zacchaeus knew what it took to keep struggling people low.

Jesus ordered him down from both the tree and his "high horse." This is what Jesus does best. He goes after people and doesn't wait for their initiative. He bids us with an urgency to come and follow. Why? Because salvation is not a future thing: it begins right now in the daily run of our lives. The best way to be in on this salvation (or wholeness) is to heed the call of Jesus. "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." Notice the soft touch for inviting oneself over.

For his part, Zacchaeus has no time to put his house in order and get ready for his guest. The new granite countertops still have the unwiped crumbs of last night's food. Dishes are piled high in the stainless steel sink. No one at home knows the Lord is coming for dinner. But something about Jesus demanding a personal encounter with Zacchaeus awakens a special joy within him. It isn't a "wanton, selfish gladness," to quote the old hymn "God of Grace and God of Glory." Zacchaeus is "rich in things and poor in soul," and he knows it. 

The power of salvation is never dependent on our lives looking orderly and all put together. We don't have to tidy things up before the Lord will act on our behalf. This is the good news of the gospel. Jesus simply looks up at this climber, catches his eye, and beckons him to follow.

Once this self-invited house guest pronounces the blessing of salvation, Zacchaeus completely refocuses his life. To address institutional injustice, he elects to give half of his possessions to the poor. To remedy the personal injustice through which he wronged others, he moves to make fourfold reparations. Happy are the lost whom the Lord has found, for they will be very rich in soul.

[Taken with permission from the October issue of The Lutheran magazine.]