I preached about Zachaeus (Luke 19:1-10) on the 30th of October at Wesley Church.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Zacchaeus. It’s possible that it is due to a song we used to sing at Sunday School:
Now the crowd was very tall
And Zacchaeus was very small
But the Lord loved Zacchaeus better than them all.
As a somewhat height challenged person, I identified with his lack of stature. And the idea of getting one over the crowd by climbing a tree appealed to my problem solving side. Perhaps there was less theological reflection in that than I might now hope for, but it stayed with me as a memorable story.
However, as an adult, it now strikes me that you can read the Zacchaeus story as the “gospel in miniature.” I will get to that in a moment, but first, let’s dive into the text.
As our story opens, we see Jesus heading towards Jerusalem. On the way he passes through Jericho, an important trading centre. By now Jesus is a celebrity, with a large following. He had just healed a blind man at the side of the road somewhere outside the city, which would only have added to the excitement of the crowds lining the streets, hoping for a glimpse of this miracle worker.
As the song says, Zacchaeus is very small. He is apparently desperate to see Jesus, so we can imagine him running along the road, looking slightly preposterous in his rich robes, trying to find a vantage point to at least get a sight of this Jesus person.
As well as being short, Zacchaeus was also a toll collector, and very rich. In the NRSV translation we just heard, he is described as a “tax collector” which, while accurate, makes him sound like an accountant tasked with organising income tax payments.
In fact the way it seems to have worked in the Roman Empire was that, rather than the imperials doing the tax collecting themselves, local entrepreneurs would bid for the business, and then pay the full amount themselves, and be rewarded with the opportunity to collect the taxes themselves, along with a little extra to make it worth their while. They would then repeat the process with those lower down the food chain, who would come up with smaller amounts, and, eventually, the hired muscle, presumably backed up by imperial troops, would extract the amount required from the locals – peasant farmers, traders, and all the rest.
As you can imagine, this was fraught with opportunities for corruption and very oppressive behaviour – especially because the tax had already been paid by the tax collectors themselves, so they had every incentive to extract the most money possible from the bottom of the pile.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the money was to go to support the hated Roman occupation. Tax collectors were traitors who were taking the opportunity presented by the foreign occupation to profit lavishly at the expense of their oppressors.
Not a popular section of the community.
So in a way Zacchaeus, although he is rich, is as much on the fringes of society as the blind beggar outside Jericho, imploring Jesus to heal him. And at least the blind beggar knew what he wanted – to be given his sight.
What did Zacchaeus hope for exactly?
This question must have occurred to him as he bustled down the street, sweat staining his robes, completely careless of the affront caused to his carefully maintained dignity. Important people in that world do not run – they behave with due dignity, gravity, and decorum.
And if they don’t run, they most certainly do not climb trees.
Picture his neighbours, blocking his view, “accidently on purpose,” jostling him, and then staring openly at him as he climbs his tree, carefully trying not to expose anything better left covered, trying not to fall out, trying not to imagine what might happen if some of the more mischievous boys of the neighbourhood were to happen along and notice him skulking among the leaves.
And, as he perched there, as out of place as a rabbit in a tree, he must have wondered to himself: what on earth am I doing here? What do I want from this man?
What do you give the tax collector who has everything? He has wealth and success and presumably people who call themselves his friends, and if his self-righteous neighbours don’t like him much, then there isn’t much they can do about it. Indeed perhaps one of the pleasures available in the sort of life he leads is that he can rub his snooty neighbours’ noses in their powerlessness pretty much as often as he pleases.
Yet this is not enough for him. We can see that, because there he is after all: up a tree in his life, both figuratively and literally.
And now he can’t even climb down without looking a fool. When the idea occurred to him, to get past all the problems in his way so directly, so innovatively, with such dash – it had been a good moment. It reminded him of life before it got so complicated and he had acted with energy and determination and a fairly loose relationship to ethics. Bold and fearless he had been – and now here he was, embarrassed to look foolish in front of the neighbours, worried about losing face. Hiding among the leaves and the second-rate figs.
Then Jesus arrives beneath his tree. He stops, looks up, and speaks.
“Zacchaeus! Come down quickly. Today I need to stay at your home.”
And Zacchaeus comes tumbling out of the tree, full of joy.
The NRSV translation is a bit too mild here – the word chairon (χαίρων) means “rejoicing.”
Having so anxiously gotten himself up there, so careful not to ruin his clothes or reveal anything not meant to be displayed, he comes tumbling rejoicing out of the tree like a delighted twelve year old presented with a new Xbox.
What do Jesus and he say to one another? The text is silent on this point, and so we don’t know. Evidently something transformative, because of what happens next.
However, we do know exactly what the crowd thinks about it: they were seriously unimpressed because, as was so often the case, Jesus had gone to the home of a notorious sinner. You can hear them ask: Was there really no-one more appropriate? Did he absolutely have to eat at the home of a quisling traitor to his country? It was both baffling and infuriating
One of the many interesting features of this passage is that in Luke’s gospel, the rich are not favoured by God. Jesus is keen on the poor, the crippled, the outcast. Remember the story of the rich young man? He cannot bring himself to renounce his wealth in order to follow Jesus and goes away sad. How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus remarks. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. However, for God, nothing is impossible.
And that is exactly what we see here: for God, nothing is impossible, and here is a rich man entering the Kingdom of God.
We see this when Zacchaeus stands up and says that he will give half his money to the poor, and repay anyone who he has defrauded four times as much. Unlike the rich young man, Zacchaeus is taking the opportunity to turn his life around, and to have right relationships with his community. It’s important to note that this is the result of his encounter with Jesus, not the pre-condition. He did not have to get his life sorted out before Jesus would come to his home: rather, it was because Jesus was already there that he became able to do this dramatic act.
This is why I described this passage as the Gospel in miniature. Because it shows the pattern of Jesus’ gracious invitation of the unworthy before they change anything about their lives. Zacchaeus changes his life as a response to this new relationship with Jesus.
“This very day,” Jesus says, “salvation has come to this house.” This mirrors “today I will stay with you” earlier in the passage. It is definite, abrupt, surprising. Jesus affirms what Zacchaeus is proposing to do. To be right with Jesus is going to have implications in other areas of our life. Zacchaeus is now a “son of Abraham” in spirit as well as descent – he has returned to the family, which is our family as well, by adoption.
Finally, Jesus declares his purpose in all this: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” He is placing himself squarely in God’s redemptive purposes, and as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jewish Scriptures. Not just an itinerant preacher, miracle worker and healer, he is the one spoken of in Ezekiel 34:16, in which the Lord declares “I will seek out the lost and I will bring back the strayed.” This is God’s redemptive purposes in action: the in-breaking of the reign of God.
One of my favourite books is Patience With God – The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing Within Us, by Czech priest, therapist, spiritual director, and theologian Tomáš Halík. Among his many insights is that he thinks society is full of Zacchaeuses, peering out from behind the leaves of their own personal sycamore trees. They are characterised, he says, by a certain reticence.
Those Zacchaeuses were curious seekers, but at the same time wanted to maintain a certain distance. That odd combination of inquisitiveness and expectation, interest and shyness, and sometimes, maybe even a feeling of guilt and inadequacy kept them hidden in the fig trees.
I’m going to draw out four aspects of Zacchaeus from Halik’s book.
Firstly, Zacchaeus sees that there is something important missing in his life. Something he needs, something more important than his dignity – and that something has something to do with Jesus. We don’t know what it was – in that respect, he is a cypher, a mystery. He can stand for all of us who know, deep in the depths of our grief-stricken, messed-up, doubting souls that there is something missing.
You might be as rich as Zacchaeus – a lawyer, doctor, businessman – with all the success and money in the world. But yet you are haunted by the suspicion that, although it’s nice to have money – the Mercedes is a good drive and last night’s degustation menu at Estelle’s was really excellent – and it’s good to have interesting and rewarding work with agreeable people and a nice view of Albert Park Lake from the office window. But you are haunted by the suspicion that there is something missing. Life just seems like a long, boring trek towards – well, who knows what?
Or else you might be on the fringes of Australian society – you might identify more with the beggar at the gates of the city, crying out “son of David, have mercy upon me!” Unemployed, a recent migrant or international student, living five to a room in a share house, washing pots or collecting for charity on the street for a living, and trying to figure out how to be part of this world where everyone seems to be so rich and have their lives all sorted out.
In this room, I suspect a lot of us are Zacchaeuses. We all know that we need something that the world does not – cannot – provide.
The second characteristic of Zacchaeus, according to Halik, is that he is not part of the crowd. The sight of a huge parade of people waving banners, jumping onto the latest bandwagon is itself problematic. He doesn’t want to – can’t – fully identify with the crowd. But he can see there is something important here. He is simultaneously wary, but drawn.
Both the strident atheists and their counterparts in dogmatic religion are equally unappealing to him. He feels that truth can’t be adequately expressed in a slogan on a banner, or a bumper sticker. He has a sense of the paradoxical, complex nature of reality, and hence that any spiritual perspective has to be able to embrace that. That you have to lose your life to really find your life, that you can be the biggest success in the world and have lost your soul – these resonate for a Zacchaeus.
For Christians, the truth is not a set of statements about the world which you affirm. Creeds and doctrines have their important place, but ultimate truth about the mystery of life is not capable of being summed up in a straight forward way.
We say that life itself is a mystery, that whatever we say of that ultimate centre of all things that we call God, we have to acknowledge its fundamental un-knowableness. Whatever we say of God is inadequate.
But, simultaneously, we affirm that Jesus is the image of the invisible God – that he fully reveals what God is like. That, in fact, Jesus himself is the way, the truth and the life.
Jesus himself is the truth.
Not statements about Jesus, not our beliefs or our rituals and spiritual practices. None of these things are the proper repository for our faith, but only Jesus, who shows us the way to the Father.
The third point is that Jesus addresses Zacchaeus by name. He enters into relationship with him. He didn’t stand around issuing generic statements.
To speak adequately to the Zacchaeuses in our world, to invite them to get down out of their trees, we need to know their names. That is, to really know who they are and what their concerns are. To walk along the Way of Jesus in relationship with them. To move beyond the formulaic and easy answers. Zacchaeuses have a healthy suspicion of answers that seem too pat, that fall too easily off the tongue. Of being sold a bill of goods.
Fourthly, and finally, it is all about grace. Jesus calls Zacchaeus down and Zacchaeus responds, tumbling out of the tree with great rejoicing. Jesus accepts him first – and only afterwards does Zacchaeus change anything.
We don’t have to get our act together before Jesus can call our name. As Paul says, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8.) And once you are in right relationship with God, through Jesus, once you join in the Mission of God and begin to move outside yourself, then all sorts of remarkable things become possible for you. For God, all things are possible. Such as a notorious tax collector like Zacchaeus giving half his wealth away, and changing from someone who exploits his power to oppress the poor to becoming someone who acts justly.
Jesus stands in front of us. We are peering through the leaves, trying to figure out what to do. Do we trust, and leap enthusiastically out of the tree and get the party started?
Or do we remain, hesitating, unsure of what to do, how to respond?
In either case, Jesus calls us by name. He wants to come home with us, to be in real relationship with us, and for us to join in the joy and work of being a collaborator with God in God’s mission in this broken world.