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He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
There is room in God’s kingdom for little people. As a child, that was my take away when I learned the song about the ‘wee little man’, Zacchaeus. It is not a bad lesson. Early in my pastoral training I visited a facility that served disabled children. The first thing you saw when you entered the building was ten foot cardboard cutout of an adult. It dominated the lobby. When asked what it was doing there, we were told: “We should never forget what the world looks like through the eyes of a child.” That was almost fifty years ago and it still sticks in my mind. It is hard not to feel more vulnerable and insignificant when you are small—in age or height.
The parable, however, is about a lot more than being short. We are told that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector and he was rich. Tax collectors have never been popular figures in any era but in the first century, they had a particularly bad reputation. The job itself required collaboration with the Roman occupiers and was lucrative because the tax collector could set the tax rate at whatever the market could bear. He could keep anything above what the state required. Imagine you owed 20% to the IRS but then received a letter requiring 40% and you could not contest it. The tax collector got rich on the backs of his neighbors. For some strange reason, tax collectors were not invited to many neighborhood barbecues. They were often wealthy but they were typically ostracized, if not despised.
We don’t know why this tax collector wanted to see Jesus but he certainly went out of his way to do so. He runs ahead, anticipates Jesus’ route, finds a perch and watches for Jesus. He sounds like any of us angling for place to see a celebrity or a parade. Zacchaeus had simply gone to see. Instead he was seen. The head of the parade stops, calls Zacchaeus by name, and tells him to “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Seeing someone, acknowledging them, knowing their name makes a difference in people’s lives. Most of us can feel lonely in a crowd. And most of us welcome being acknowledged and engaged. We have no reason to believe that Jesus knew anything about this little man in a tree. I don’t believe Jesus was concerned about Zaccheaus’ history. He saw someone on the fringe and acknowledged him. Jesus does this over and over again in the gospels. He shows a hospitality that does not discriminate.
Jesus treated social outcasts of all descriptions with respect and regard. Their histories or secular status in no way altered their status as God’s children. Jesus’ way of engaging demonstrated God’s promise in Isaiah 43:1…”Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Each of us matters. God knows each of us and each of us is known by name. Calling someone’s name and sharing a meal are just some of the specific ways the promise of love becomes the activity of love. God’s promises are not general concepts, they are specific and individual. That is the life Jesus lived. It is how the Word is made flesh and it is the life to which we are called.
Zacchaeus’ work history was important as part of his story but not as a basis for acceptance. It only really mattered to the crowd watching. “All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” In the minds of the crowd, not only should Jesus have chosen someone more deserving, he became tainted by the company he kept. The whole point of being ‘clean’ and ‘chosen’ was to have confidence that they belonged. We may not use that language but there isn’t one of us who hasn’t acted and felt this way. Who hasn’t been jealous when the teacher recognizes someone else or who hasn’t been put out because the pastor did not visit. It is literally ‘only human’ to crave recognition and it is equally human to create the categories that deserve such recognition. It is troubling and disturbing to realize that God doesn’t abide by the social stratifications that we live by. What the crowd did not realize was that they were falsely elevating themselves by denigrating the tax collector. Whenever we discriminate and think someone is less than, we enhance ourselves at the expense of others. It is every bit as exploitive as the tax collector. But fortunately, Jesus makes it a habit of being “a guest of one who is a sinner.”
In the next verses, we learn that the encounter with Jesus changed Zacchaeus. We discover that he has reoriented his life. He turned from exploitation to regard. In traditional language, he repents. He changes the direction of his life and promises to make amends. He realized it was no longer ok to enhance his life at the expense of others.
Finally, it is tempting to read the last two verses—“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” — as the result of Zacchaeus’ promise to make amends. But we have no idea if Zacchaeus followed through on his promises any more than we know why Zacchaeus sought to see Jesus in the first place. Jesus’ regard for Zacchaeus was not contingent on Zacchaeus’ past history or future behavior. The same is true for us. We want to make conditions for God’s care.
In real life we often make promises we don’t keep. It is harder to nurture our spouses when both are working and the kids need to be at three different places. It is harder to tithe when the air conditioner breaks. And worse, our best efforts may be misdirected. In any particular situation, we may fail. But we are asked to struggle again and again with what it means to love others. I am frequently asked what is the right or loving thing to do. I don’t know but it is important to be willing to be troubled by the question.
Salvation came to Zacchaeus because Jesus saw and loved him. Zacchaeus belonged to God as much as anyone. And salvation comes to us the same way. Jesus sees us—even the dark, exploitative and inconsistent parts of us—and he invites us to sit at table with him. It is a gift beyond price.
The Word became flesh and dwells among us. Let it be so.