Zacchaeus. Just his name is enough to elicit a grin. We remember him as a kind of cartoon character. As children, we sang a little ditty about him; we drew pictures of him in Sunday School and made him to be a sort of "mini-Me" caricature.
The story of Zacchaeus' encounter with Jesus is one of the best-known Biblical texts from the New Testament. It is such a human story…a short man scrambling up a tree to see Jesus. All of us have known the burden of being too short to see over others at some point in our life, and so we identify with those words in verse 3: "He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd". We think of Zacchaeus and we smile.
And yet…let me challenge that notion today and suggest that this is one of the most powerful and provocative stories in all of scripture. It introduces the very radical notion that God will stop at nothing less than the total transformation of who we are.
Let's take a careful look at Zacchaeus and the world he lived in. Jericho was a veritable Eden. An oasis of date palms and balsam groves, it exported its products all over the known world. There was a day when Mark Anthony had presented Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra, with Arabia thrown in. It lay along the great caravan routes, and was a beehive of commercial and human activity.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector for the Roman government in this prospering city. He probably had a staff of collectors, and he was, very possibly, the most hated man in Jericho. He worked for the occupying forces, and he was regarded as a traitor to his own people. He and his cohorts could stop a person in Jericho and assess duties on nearly everything in his or her possession. A cart, for instance, could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, and for the merchandise that it carried.
He would send in a portion of his collections, and anything over that amount he was free to keep. The system was ripe for abuse, and this passage tersely states: "he was wealthy" in v. 2, as if that were some kind of indictment…and it was.
He had accumulated his wealth in service to the invaders and at the expense of his countrymen, and he was regarded as human filth. Zacchaeus, whose name meant "the pure one" and "the righteous," had turned his name into a sneer on the lips of his fellow Jews. He was a standing joke. The mention of his name evoked not a grin but disgust.
The money was nice, to be sure. But to live as an outcast among your own people, with no one to call a friend…no social life…no involvement with others except those who wanted to use you for their own ends. Why, it had to be a lonely and depressing existence.
Along comes Jesus. The word is out that this Messiah is different. Why, in the stories he tells, it's the tax collector who's the hero and the Pharisee who is the foil! You can see that in the story told in Luke 18. This Jesus comes into town with a reputation for being comfortable with those on the fringes of society…children, women, and those rejected by the trends of culture found in him a listening ear and a warm reception. He was worth checking out.
Now, that was easier said than done. Zacchaeus was short, and seeing over or through a crowd was a real chore. Trying to squeeze through a crowd to the front was no sure thing, either. In the confusion of the moment, sharp elbows would fly when the townspeople saw the hated Zacchaeus vulnerable in the crowd. His only hope was to skirt ahead of the crowd and find a sycamore tree, with its low, spreading branches that afforded a ringside view of the way Jesus was to come. And that's what he did. He waited there in that tree, probably not quite knowing what to expect, as Jesus came into view.
And then, the most amazing thing happened…Jesus stopped and looked up at him. (v. 5) We know Jesus had eyes that saw what others missed. This uncanny vision allowed him to see into people and into situations that anyone else would have missed. But he didn't miss Zacchaeus. Luke says he saw him and said simply in verse 5, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."
Well, Zacchaeus wasted no time scrambling down from that tree, and he "welcomed him gladly." I'm sure he did. No one came calling for Zacchaeus unless it was to complain…and houseguests-they had to be a rare exception to his lonely life.
I suppose Zacchaeus could have stayed up in that tree and rebuffed Jesus' invitation. Plenty of people do. It is certainly much easier to go on with our life and to continue with our preoccupation with our agenda than to allow a Messiah to invite himself over for lunch and delve into our inner core. That is risky business to allow such a person into that part of us where our true self resides. Most of us can resist. But Zacchaeus takes the chance and invites Jesus into his inner room. It was a lunch to remember.
This was all a bitter pill for the townsfolk to swallow. What kind of so-called Messiah would even acknowledge, much less eat with the most notorious sinner in town? Luke says they began to "murmur," to "mutter"…you can count on that, and plenty more.
We really don't know what happened at Zacchaeus' house. All we see are the results, and those results tell us a great deal. Zacchaeus makes a two-pronged pledge: to give half his yearly income to the poor and to return any stolen funds four times over. Jewish law only required restitution of the money plus twenty percent…but Zacchaeus thought four hundred percent interest was more appropriate.
Something in that encounter with Jesus changed the way Zacchaeus saw the world. He could now see people in need where before he only saw people he needed to fleece. Is that not one of the most dangerous things Jesus does to our eyes? He changes how we see other people. No longer do labels work…poor, rich, Democrat, Republican, white, black, Hispanic…now we see people who are as needy as we. Now we see real people with real needs. We see glimpses of this when a disasters occurs. Let a hurricane blow through or a twister touch down or a plane fall from the sky, and people rally to the support of neighbors and strangers without concern for their social status or skin color. It is to see with the eyes of Jesus.
Salvation comes to Zacchaeus' house, and he is forever changed from a taker to a giver. This man had made his living taking from others, and suddenly, after one meal with Jesus, he is giving money away like he's the United Way of Jericho. As a pastor, I've observed it time and again. When Christ takes up residence in a life, we become generous. Somehow he loosens our grip on our wallet, our pocketbook, our credit card. Giving becomes an opportunity, not just a requirement.
I would even suggest that no person has had an authentic encounter with the living Christ unless a generous heart is the result. Please don't tell me how much you love Jesus, instead, let me see your 1040 tax return that details your charitable donations. Tell me how you spend your free time. Fill me in on your plans for retirement. If all that is about you and yours, if it's all self-serving, then you need to invite Jesus over for lunch. As a result of that encounter with Jesus, for Zacchaeus, a 50% tithe seemed an appropriate response. You and I are invited to decide for ourselves what our response will be.
Paul Scherer, in describing this story, says that this meeting with Jesus "redeemed Zacchaeus' past, it transformed his present, and it re-directed his future." Isn't that what God wants to do with all of us? This is the story of the power of the grace of God to genuinely change a human being. It is a rare thing. His change, no doubt, cost Zacchaeus job, and there is a somewhat dubious tradition that Zacchaeus later became bishop at Caesarea…it makes for a nice ending, regardless.
This is more than a nursery room story. The story of Zacchaeus is a powerful story of change. Found only in Luke, it turns out to be a reproduction in miniature of the mission of Jesus: received by the outcast, condemned by the authorities…and that murmuring, well, it follows him all the way to Jerusalem.
It starts with a little man in a tree. And it ends with the biggest heart Jesus encounters in all of Israel.
Jesus is coming to town. He has an agenda: to seek and to save and to change the world one person at a time. Let me invite you to climb a tree and watch to see what he is up to. But beware! He may stop beneath the tree where you sit…no matter how comfortable or complacent or secure or even immobile you may be. He may look at you and invite you down…down to fellowship with him, down to the opportunity be transformed. It takes courage to get out of that tree, but the gift of new vision and the reordering of priorities are more than worth it.
In the end, Jesus declares that salvation has come to the house of Zacchaeus…that he, too, is a son of Abraham. He was just lost. He had gotten confused about why he was here, and whom he was to serve. Like you and me…thank God Jesus comes looking for us and invites us all to a better life.
O God, we too need you to redeem our past, to transform our present, and to redirect our future. Call us out of the places we sit today and show us how to be the people you would have us be. In the name of Jesus Christ our Savior, we pray. Amen.