Proper 26 Year C 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
How many of you know the children’s Sunday school song about Zacchaeus? I admit that growing up in an Evangelical tradition which focused heavily on praise music and youth songs, I don’t actually know if this is something in the Episcopal world. If you don’t know it, the first verse states, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” Before we talk at all about what theology we hear in today’s story or what those possible take aways are, I really think we need to stop and acknowledge something. There aren’t a lot of folks listed by name in the Gospels. Sure, there’s a few, but out of all the people that Jesus encounters, not all of them are named. But Zacchaeus is. We know his name. And two thousand years later, one of the most well known things about him, the thing that immediately comes to mind is that he’s really really really short. Imagine getting your name in the greatest story ever told, and then people’s take away is ‘oh right, the super short guy.’ Well, a little biblical study fun for you. In the original Greek, because of the way Greek was written, it’s actually impossible to know if the author meant that Zacchaeus was too short to see over the crowd or if Jesus was too short to be seen from where Zacchaeus was in the crowd.
What else do we know about Zacchaeus? He is referred to as the chief tax collector. So he’s at the top of the tax collector food chain, which means he is even more despised by everyone else than your average low level tax collector. We also know that he’s ridiculously wealthy because he is the chief tax collector. You might recall we touched on it a little last week that tax collectors were despised in the community because they collected taxes from their neighbors for the Romans who occupied their country. Tax collectors were also notorious for overcharging and keeping the extra for themselves. So they serve these hostile, foreign occupiers against their own people, and they use this position of authority often dishonestly to their benefit. I think that regardless of the truth of the situation, there is an assumption that Zacchaeus had become rich by his ruthlessness, taking extra from his community. Some biblical commentators wonder if Zacchaeus really was short physically or if it was his standing with the community that was so little, and the crowds kept him from getting close enough to see Jesus. That in itself is worth pondering. Are there those in our lives we look down on who might be seeking Jesus, and are we standing in their way?
So here is this very wealthy, very powerful (even if he isn’t well liked) guy who finds it so important to see Jesus that he does something I would imagine was very unexpected. Zacchaeus humbles himself by doing something so childlike and undignified as climbing a tree, just so he can see Jesus. It means so much to him to catch a glimpse of this Jesus of Nazareth he’s heard of that he’s willing to scramble up a tree. This action in itself is already an indicator to us that there’s something different about this Zacchaeus.
Then Jesus stops, he calls out to this man he presumably had never met before, someone that the rest of the crowd really doesn’t like. Jesus singles out Zacchaeus and basically invites himself to stay at this guy’s house. Zacchaeus is overjoyed and of course the crowd is not happy. The crowds grumble, they point out what Zacchaeus is, they point to how dishonorable it is to be friendly with such a person, let alone break bread with them. Sitting down to eat a meal with someone basically communicates your approval of who they are. That’s exactly why Jesus is going to Zacchaeus’ house. Not because he is approving of the way in which he does business, but rather to show that Zacchaeus is as welcome to salvation and invited into the Kingdom of God as anyone else is.
What’s more, Zacchaeus himself makes a statement regarding how people perceive him. Now again, it’s one of those funny translation issues. Either Zacchaeus is stating that he already deals honestly with people and repays anyone he finds to have overcharged, OR he’s saying that he’s going to be turning his life around, giving back way more than even Jewish law would require of him, and practically destituting himself for the sake of others’ well being. Either way, Zacchaeus stands outside the normal expected practice for tax collectors, especially high ranking ones.
Maybe that’s Jesus’ point here. You can’t judge people based on what their title tells you. You can’t assume the worst without actually knowing the facts. When you do know the facts, even if they are terrible people, God still loves them no matter who they are. Forgiveness and repentance is still offered to everyone, regardless of what they’ve done. Zacchaeus is offered Christ’s presence and blessing, whether he was a more honest dealer than people expected, or whether he was turning his life around right then and there, that night Jesus broke bread with him. That doesn’t mean you have to keep giving grace to bad people who keep doing bad things. God can take care of that portion. But I challenge you to think about the people you encounter on a daily basis. Who have you assumed is less desirable because of their job or their social status or their financial well being? Who have you tried to keep at the back of the crowd, away from Jesus because they are less desirable? Or are you the one who has been pushed to the back and given dirty looks when offered grace?
Stories like the one of Zacchaeus offer us mirrors to see where we can fit and where we need to reflect on our own values. Jesus turns the expectations and assumption of society on its head over and over again. Jesus shows us the path to forgiveness and grace, demonstrating what God is bringing to a world that needs that love. Remember that no one falls outside of God’s grace and forgiveness. That is the good news that Jesus proclaimed and it is the good news that is now our task to shout from the rooftops. We should always keep before us those final words of Jesus from today’s reading: ‘For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”