I can’t seem to hear the story of Zacchaeus without calling to mind a song I learned in Vacation Bible School as a child:
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.
And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in that tree.
And he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down.
For I’m coming to your house today.
I’m coming to your house today.'
Zacchaeus’ main claim to fame, it seemed, was that he was short, a feature that was of course enormously appealing to those of us who were ourselves “wee little” people at the time.
My second major association with this story came years later, when in seminary we studied this passage in a preaching class. We were being taught to read biblical texts extremely carefully, so things like pronouns and the referents of those pronouns were becoming quite important to us in stories like this one. I wasn’t the only one who knew the Vacation Bible School song, so you can imagine the reactions in the classroom when the professor calmly pointed out to us a rather mind-blowing detail in Luke 19:3. The text says Zacchaeus “was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” Interestingly, the text does not actually tell us which of the two men was short in stature. Most readers assume the “he” in question was Zacchaeus. But you see Jesus also would have been hard to spot in the crowd if he himself, Jesus, was short in stature, and surrounded by people who were taller than he was. Wait, what? But Zacchaeus was a “wee little man;” I know this. I’ve sung about it for years! And Jesus, isn’t he supposed to be big and strong and tall? Hmm. Of course we’ll never know which of the two the narrator was referring to. Though a fascinating question, it’s an interpretive dead end, really, since we have no other evidence outside this story to clarify which of the two gentlemen was, like me, vertically challenged.
Fortunately there is plenty more in the Zacchaeus story for us to sink our teeth into as close readers of the text. First, before any mention of anyone’s height, we are told that Zacchaeus was “a chief tax collector and was rich.” (Luke 19:2) Tax collectors, as we heard a few weeks ago, were absolutely despised in that day for their cooperation with the oppressive Roman government. And Zacchaeus had apparently done well for himself in this line of work. He was a chief tax collector, which means he must have been promoted at some point for cooperating especially well with the Romans. “In a corrupt system, the loftier one’s position, the greater one’s complicity in that system.” (Craddock, Luke, p. 218) The text further points out that Zacchaeus was rich. Since tax collectors were generally known to be lining their pockets at the expense of their neighbors, it’s interesting the narrator feels a need to point this out. Again, it seems we’re being told Zacchaeus isn’t just any run of the mill tax collector. He has apparently excelled at taking advantage of people for his own gain.
And yet he is fascinated by what he has heard of Jesus. Fascinated enough to do something a wealthy official wouldn’t normally do, scampering his way up into a tree so that he could catch a glimpse of Jesus as he walked by with the crowd. Whichever of them was short enough to make this necessary, it’s the image of a grown man up a tree that really ought to make us pause and wonder. What had Zacchaeus heard about Jesus that made him curious enough to go to such measures to see him with his own eyes? At the very least, it seems “he has heard and believes that Jesus really is a ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Craddock, 219)
Whatever his reasons, notice that Jesus has a plan of his own. I wish we had a snapshot, incidentally, of the faces of those in the crowd as Jesus calls everyone to a halt under that sycamore tree. Zacchaeus had, after all, exposed himself to some ridicule in his rush to see Jesus. But Jesus seems to take it all in stride. “Oh, hi, Zach. Hurry and come down now; you’re hosting me for dinner tonight.” And if we’d wondered whether it was just idle curiosity about Jesus that got him up in that tree, Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus implies that there was more going on. For “he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.”
If you’ve been with us throughout our sermon series this fall, the reaction of the bystanders won’t surprise you a bit. Grumbling and complaining all around, as usual. There Jesus goes again, off to be the dinner guest of one who is a sinner. What on earth is he thinking, associating with such a person?
I imagine he’s thinking: here’s another opportunity for a life to be transformed.
Keep in mind, it’s easy for a rich man to isolate and insulate himself with his wealth, to feel that he has all he needs. I imagine this is why just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel Jesus notes “how hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Not impossible. For “what is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” (Luke 18:27) But terribly hard.
And Zacchaeus must over the years have justified to himself the means that he employed to become so very rich as a tax collector. It wouldn’t be at all unreasonable to suppose he was somewhat comfortable in the life he had built. But Jesus sees through all of the trappings of financial success and looks straight into the heart of someone longing for a change.
And it all comes pouring out. Zacchaeus isn’t happy with the life he’s built, as it turns out. He hasn’t fooled himself into believing the ends justified the means. “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.” (Luke 19:8) I don’t know how you read this conversation, but I read it as a cry for help. Help me, Lord, to change. Help me, Lord, to put behind me those old selfish patterns. Help me not only to be just and fair, but to be generous, extravagantly generous even. “After all… repentance is not solely a transaction of the heart. Repentance bears fruit.” (Craddock, 219) And in this transformation comes his salvation, Jesus says, “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)
There are all kinds of ways to get lost. It’s easy to call to mind the more dramatic ways, because we hear about them in the news every day. How truly lost must someone be, for instance, to pick up a gun and head out on a shooting spree at a local high school? But remember that we can become lost in other, far more subtle ways too. In fact, some vices can work their way into our hearts so gradually that we don’t even notice. Among those sneaky vices are selfishness and greed. We won’t all defraud others to get ahead, as Zacchaeus did, but it’s dangerously easy to convince ourselves we really do need just a little bit more. And then just enough more than that, that there’s not much left over to help anyone else. None of us are exempt from that danger.
Zacchaeus may or may not have been a wee little man, but his need for heart to heart conversation with Jesus was huge. The result of that conversation? A life transformed. Salvation, come to his house. And it took a very concrete form. Helping the poor. And practicing radical generosity.
The good news for every one of us is that Jesus did come “to seek … and … save the lost.” Which means he can reach us wherever it is that we’ve gotten mixed up and turned around. He can reach us, and help us, and transform our hearts and our lives. He can even do it around a dinner table. In fact, that was one of his favorite places for conversation with those longing for his help.
Whether your own desire for transformation is great or small, whether it involves the way you relate to your family or to your neighbors, to your job or to your bank account, remember that the table is set this morning, and we’re all invited.
What is the conversation you are longing to have with Jesus? “Hurry and come down.” (Luke 19:5) For Jesus is dining here today.