November 3, 2013 – 24th Sunday after Pentecost
The first thing we learn about Zacchaeus is that he was a chief tax collector. That means he was a friend of nobody and nobody was his friend.
A tax collector like Zacchaeus was hated because while he was Jewish, he was also part of the Roman establishment of oppression. He collected taxes for the hated Roman government and then added on whatever he could get out of people to pay his own salary.
10 We learn from the gospel writer that Zacchaeus was not only a chief tax collector but he was a wealthy one which means he was very good at extortion. He was gouging people left and right to support the Roman rulers and to make his own life comfortable while the people around him suffered.
The words of Habakkuk would certainly have been on the lips of the Jewish community oppressed by Rome and betrayed by their own kinsmen who had sold themselves out to the Romans.
“How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”
The second thing we learn is that Zacchaeus was interested in Jesus.
Perhaps he’d heard about Levi―a tax collector who Jesus had invited to be one of his followers. Maybe he heard about the party Levi gave for his fellow tax collectors and how Jesus was right in the middle of it all―eating and laughing and telling stories and listening to them as if he really wanted to be with them. (Even though the religious leaders laid into Jesus something fierce for going to the party.)
For all Zacchaeus’s wealth, he was isolated and rejected in his own community. His money and government connections couldn’t buy him the kind of relationships he really wanted. Maybe he thought Jesus would look at him with kindness in the same way Jesus had welcomed Levi the tax collector.
The third thing we learn about Zacchaeus is that he was short. The gospel writer tells us there was a crowd and you know what happens when you’re not very tall and trying to see in a crowd―you can’t see over people’s heads and many times you can’t push your way to the front either. So Zacchaeus did the undignified thing for a Middle Eastern man and he ran ahead and climbed a tree for a better vantage point.
And then Jesus comes by and looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Now whether Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree or whether the crowd was pointing to him or whether Zacchaeus yelled “Yoo hoo! Jesus” we don’t know. What we know is that Jesus called his name and said, “I’m going to your house today.”
Jesus didn’t say, “Hey, you chief tax collector.” “Hey, you scoundrel.” “Hey, you low-life thief and oppressor of my people―I’ve got something you need to hear and you had better listen up.”
Jesus looks at Zacchaeus for who he is―not with all his labels and shortcomings and smarmy government connections―just Zacchaeus.
Author Frederick Buechner says, “It’s not recorded how Zacchaeus got out of the sycamore but the chances are good that he fell out in pure astonishment”1 and he welcomed Jesus with joy.
Zacchaeus rejoices and the crowds grumble. They grumbled because Jesus was going to eat at the house of someone who was unclean―someone who was outside the community of the faithful―someone who hurt them. And if Jesus had any dignity, he would not be going to Zacchaeus’s house.
And then Zacchaeus stood still and said to Jesus, “I am going to give half of my possessions to the poor and anyone I have stolen from I will repay four times over.”
Being recognized as a child of God by Jesus is enough to change Zacchaeus’s life.
Isn’t that amazing? They haven’t even gotten to Zacchaeus’s house. Jesus hasn’t said another word. No prayer has been uttered. No bible passage read. No sermon preached about repentance. No altar call. And Zacchaeus’s life is transformed.
Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to change his financial status before he decided if he’d eat at his house. Jesus didn’t wait for Zacchaeus to say, “I’m through with this wicked life of tax collecting” before he said “I’d like to visit you.”
Instead, Jesus sees Zacchaeus for who he is―Zacchaeus―a child of Abraham―a member of God’s family―a beloved child of God. He doesn’t look at Zacchaeus as “the tax collector” or a traitor or the arm of the Roman oppressors. Jesus looks at Zacchaeus with eyes of love and sees him as God’s beloved.
It’s like one of my favorite authors, Nancy Mairs, who says, “God feeds first. She asks questions later.”2
And the effect of Jesus’ acceptance of Zacchaeus doesn’t find Zacchaeus saying, “I’ll be a nicer person.” “I’ll pray more often and go to synagogue three times a week.” Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “I’ll think only positive thoughts and I won’t curse any more.”
Those aren’t bad things to do, but Zacchaeus’s life is transformed by Jesus’ regard for him and his heart that was two sizes too small opens up. (Okay, Luke doesn’t say Zacchaeus’s heart was too small. That’s poetic license from Dr. Seuss. But don’t you think your heart has to get tiny and dry in order to do the kind of soul-sucking, hate-inducing, selling-out-your-family-and-friends kind of work Zacchaeus did?) And he offers his heart to God and to his neighbors.
The transformation of Zacchaeus’s heart moves to his eyes as he sees the world and himself in a new way. And then the transformation moves to his money and his possessions as he reaches out with compassion toward the poor and to those whom he has wronged.
In AA, one of the steps toward recovery and healing is to admit where you have wronged others and to make amends wherever possible. Zacchaeus’s transformation recognizes that his salvation (remember the word salvation means, at its root, healing and wholeness) salvation has to do with letting go of grudges and letting old wounds heal, opening your heart to God and others.
Zacchaeus’s life is transformed because Jesus regarded him as a whole human being―a beloved child of God. And in that transformation his relationship with others starts to heal in very tangible ways.
And I wonder if some in Zacchaeus’s community were also transformed. They had prayed for so long that God would notice their suffering and would bring them relief. We heard the words in Habakkuk, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?…The wicked surround the righteous” and there is no justice.3 I suspect what many of them wanted was their oppressors to be vanquished and smote (that is, done away with). Instead, the guy they hated was saved. Not in some cheesy way. In a life transforming, heart redeeming, compassion invoking, poverty eliminating, community restoring kind of way.
Thomas Moore, the author of Care of the Soul, writes, “As I see it, you listen to the words of Jesus and are jolted into an entirely new imagination of how the world works. [Jesus’s] actions and teachings spell out this new imagination…If being a [follower of Jesus] doesn’t transform your imagination, then religion is getting in the way”4 of God’s vision for the world.
Zacchaeus has lived in a world—as we do too—a world that “functions largely from the imagination of power and money.”5 Which gets you to places like “people who have power and money are the most important people.” And “The most important thing in life is to get more power and more money.” That way of life has some perks but ultimately, it’s a dead-end road.
Thomas Moore goes on to say that a “change of mind is not about [a] change of belief, but a shift in the deep emotional and intellectual imagination from which you live.”6
Zacchaeus experienced himself through Jesus’s eyes as a beloved child of God and everything shifted. His heart opened and his life was transformed. In Thomas Moore’s words, the deep emotional and intellectual imagination from which he lived was transformed. Zacchaeus experienced the life-changing power of being a human being who was part of God’s beloved family. And as he experienced compassion and love from Jesus, he could open his heart to God and to his neighbors.
Maybe you have experienced a similar kind of thing―as someone saw in you a cherished and loved person in whom God delights. And in being seen in a new way by another, you were able to open your heart and live into being that wonderful child of God that God has created you to be.
If that has not yet been your experience, consider what would be different in your life if you lived out of the deep emotional and intellectual imagination of being a cherished and loved child of God―and saw everyone else in that way as well.
This morning we are making our pledge of financial support for God’s work through the ministry of this congregation―a ministry of life transforming welcome and hospitality. So I wonder how does welcoming Jesus joyfully in your life, offering your heart to God and opening it to your neighbors, how does that transform your life and inform the way you use your money?
One of my favorite stanzas from all the hymns I know the last stanza of “For the Fruit of all Creation.” It seems a fitting stanza for Zacchaeus and for us:
For the harvests of the Spirit,
Thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
Thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
For the truths that still confound us
Most of all that love has found us,
Thanks be to God.7
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1 A friend shared this quote with me years ago but without any citation.
2 Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time – Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 89.
3 Habakkuk, 1.3a, 4b
4 Thomas Moore, “A Mind-altering Message,” Spirituality and Health, Nov/Dev 2004, 11.
7 Text by Fred Pratt Green.