Preached at Prince of Peace, Wasaga Beach, and St. Luke’s, Creemore, Diocese of Toronto, 30 October, 2022.
Readings for this Sunday: Readings – Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “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.”
I don’t know if Zacchaeus was, as the old song says, “a wee little man, and a wee little man was he”, but scripture tells us that he was short in stature. We do know that he was small enough that he had to climb a tree to see Jesus, and if you go to Jericho in Israel you can, so they say, see the tree itself, by the side of a busy road.
Whether it’s the actual tree is up for debate, but it doesn’t look like an easy tree to climb. It has a very thick, round, smooth trunk, so you’d have to reach up high to grab a branch. I can imagine a pack of eight year old children swarming up it, but not a rich man of stature like Zacchaeus.
Maybe Zacchaeus was short, rmaybe he was rotund, but I can’t imagine him climbing that tree with any dignity. The idea of a funny little man scrambling up a tree, his rich clothes getting torn and mussed, must have been enormously amusing to the crowds gathered there, who, as it turns out, knew who he was and didn’t like him. Zacchaeus didn’t care. He just wanted to see Jesus.
Once we think about how badly Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, I think our expectations get a little scrambled, because by this point in Luke’s gospel, I think we’re conditioned to know how things work. We know from last Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 18:9-14) that the tax collector in that reading saw himself as a sinner, and couldn’t even look up at heaven as he beat his breast, but here’s Zacchaeus, a tax collector, actively looking to see Jesus.
You may also remember the last Sunday of September, when we heard the parable of the poor man, Lazarus, who goes to heaven while the rich man who ignored him in life goes to hell (Luke 16:19-31). Plus, we all remember the teachings about the rich having a harder time being saved than camels going through needles (Luke 18:18-30), but here’s a rich man, climbing up a tree and tearing his nice clothes to see Jesus.
So just when we think we know how the gospel works, just when we think we’ve figured out who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy, Jesus as I said scrambles our expectations. Here’s a tax collector who wants to see Jesus, and a rich man who Jesus chooses to visit. Here’s a guy who we might easily include was a bad sinner, a dirty rotten sinner, and here’s Jesus putting his arm around him and saying, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19:9). This wasn’t what we were led to expect, and maybe, just maybe if we were looking askance at Zacchaeus up there in his tree and thinking he was a big fat presumptuous sinner, then maybe we were in bad company. Maybe we’ve found ourselves being more like the crowd, clucking our tongues and being nasty and judgemental, when we should have been like Zacchaeus all along, just looking to Jesus.
How easy it is to find ourselves part of the crowd. Social media creates flash mobs, crowds suddenly gathering to condemn this or that person for their perceived sins. There have been a few examples this week. The new Prime Minister of Great Britain, we are told, is richer than King Charles because he married an heiress. People are outraged. Is he a good man? Very few people can answer that, and maybe God alone knows for sure, but tens of thousands have condemned him online. One can easily think of other examples from politics or entertainment of people being condemned and shunned as modern day sinners when social media mobs form.
What the mob doesn’t know is that Zaccheus isn’t a villain. Yes, he’s a tax collector, but even John the Baptist was willing to baptize tax collectors. John simply told them to “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” (Lk 3:13). Zacchaeus does this and more, and goes to the farthest extreme of the law of Moses in sharing his wealth with the poor, even paying back four times what he might have defrauded. The ambiguity in the Greek verbs could suggest that Zaccheus promises to start giving money to the poor, or it could just as easily man that he has ben doing this all along (“I am giving to the poor”). Given that his name, Zacchaeus, is a Greek form of a Hebrew word meaning “clean” or “innocent”, I think “am giving” is a plausible reading. None of these details supports the idea that Zacchaeus is a sinner.
Jesus isn’t swayed by the mob. He looks directly up at Zacchaeus, who might have thought that he was hidden by the foliage, and Jesus calls him by name. How does Jesus know his name? It’s one of those mysterious moments in the gospels when Jesus seems to know everything about people. Did Jesus smile as he watched Zacchaeus scramble down the tree, no doubt looking even more ridiculous and undignified than he did on the way up? Perhaps, but if he did it must have been a smile of affection, for Zacchaeus was “happy to welcome [Jesus]” (Lk 19.6).
“Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19.9). Does Jesus reward Zacchaeus because he’s essentially a good man? As we’ve seen, Zaccheus is hardly a villain. He seems like a just, pious man, even though he’s rich and even though he’s a tax collector. But Jesus also says that “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk 19.10). We always need to remember that Luke’s gospel is about grace, about the love of God feely given. Right at the start of his ministry, Jesus said in the synagogue that he has ben sent “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Lk 4:19). As religious people, we are prone to forget that grace is God’s to give. We can easily cluck our tongues at sinners, and thus forget how much God loves them.
If today’s gospel teaches us to not be part of the self-righteous crowd, what can we also learn from Zacchaeus? He teaches us how to be a good and fair person, how to be a devout man who keeps God’s law. More importantly, Zacchaeus also teaches us to fix our eyes on Jesus. Zaccheus sacrifices his dignity to climb up the tree to see Jesus, and he forfeits what’s left of his dignity to come down and welcome Jesus. Zacchaeus teaches us to watch for Jesus with longing, and he shows us how welcome him with a glad heart. May we be like Zaccheus, full of love for Jesus, ready to seek our Lord who wants to come into our homes and into our hearts. May we always welcome and love this guest who brings us salvation.