Yr C ~ Pentecost 21 ~ Luke 19:1-10
So, how exactly does this work? I’m Zacchaeus. I’m a rich guy. I’m not loved, perhaps even hated by some, but I have status, and power, and means. My family is well provided for. I’m living the good life, such as it was ca. 0032. Why on earth would I find myself running down a road and clamouring up a tree, humiliating myself and risking everything I had – just to get a better look at some wandering preacher who was making some waves? What would possess me to do such a thing? What would move me from lounging in my pipe and slippers to venture out on a limb such as this?
Perhaps it was because life as a despised tax collector was harder than it appeared? He was, after all, not just a run of the mill no-good-dirty-rotten-scoundrel-tax-collector but a ‘chief’ tax collector! – which probably made him seem even worse.
Maybe having people mutter insults and avert their eyes from you wears thin after a while and starts to poke at your soul.
Perhaps it was because despite having riches there was something missing from his life that he couldn’t quite put his finger on but he knew was amiss.
Maybe the good life isn’t all that good if all the music kinda sounds out of tune.
Perhaps having everyone know your name isn’t as meaningful and rewarding as actually being known by people for who you really are inside, not just the job you do, or your reputation.
Maybe having an overabundance of stuff can’t compensate for not having people to enjoy it with.
We all make our choices. And we all choose for our own reasons. And sometimes those reasons make all sorts of sense, and we make all sorts of compromises, and we find ourselves, well, kinda lost – even if we got what we thought we wanted, or thought we needed.
I have no idea what was actually going through Zacchaeus’ head and heart that day Jesus strolled into town. But I know this: something was stirring – and it was stirring long before Jesus and his entourage showed up. And it must have been stirring mightily. It must have!
You don’t do what he did unless your whole being is compelling you to do it.
You don’t just casually risk everything and so thoroughly humiliate yourself on a whim.
And you don’t just completely reorient your entire worldview because you catch a glimpse of a holy man – even if that holy man is Jesus.
No, something was stirring deep inside of Zacchaeus – maybe for a long, long time. (Maybe in you too!) Jesus’ arrival was the last chapter in the story of this tax man, not the first. And then a whole new book gets started.
It’s one of the more famous stories in the bible, so I imagine we’re all pretty familiar with it. Zacchaeus is a wee little man (probably meaning both in height and in what people thought of him) who when he hears Jesus has come to town tries to go and see him, but because of his being vertically challenged he can’t see over the crowd so he runs ahead of everyone and climbs a tree for a better view.
We have to stop here and take a breath – because we know the story so well that we probably just skim right over how incredibly provocative that part is. Men of Zacchaeus’ status and wealth simply do. not. run. It was utterly undignified to do so. And then to climb up a tree on top of that? It would be incomprehensible. It would be humiliating beyond description. He was already probably despised because of his work. To invite ridicule and humiliation on top of that is mind-boggling. I cannot overemphasize how bonkers it is that he’s out on a limb like that.
But you see, that’s kind of the point! It is inconceivable. And yet, there he was.
Was he so moved by just the idea that Jesus was coming to town that he was willing to risk so much? I doubt it.
I think he just knew that he wanted to connect what was stirring inside him with who Jesus was and what Jesus represented.
It’s clear that Jesus had a reputation by this point. It’s clear that word had spread that he was coming to town and that drew a crowd. Remember, they didn’t have social media to post on – if they knew he was coming it was because people were talking about him. And they must have been talking a lot! That’s clear. What’s not clear is why Zacchaeus would have cared.
I mean, he was a rich guy. Jesus didn’t exactly seem to think very highly of rich guys.
He said it was harder for them to see the light and understand his teaching than it would be to stick a camel through the eye of a needle! That’s pretty graphic!
And just a few verses before this story we had Jesus encounter a ‘rich young ruler’ who came to him bragging about how he lived a righteous life and kept all the commandments, but when he asked Jesus what else he might need to do to gain the kingdom (thinking he had already done everything possible) Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give the money to the poor. The rich young man went away sad.
And then there was the parable about the rich man who when he died was tormented while Lazarus the beggar was sitting on cloud nine.
No, if people were talking about Jesus, and they were, they’d know that rich men usually came out on the wrong end of things, so guys like Zacchaeus probably weren’t looking for front row tickets to Jesus’ gigs!
So again, what must have been stirring in Zacchaeus’ heart that Jesus’ presence was something a rich tax collector wanted to experience so badly that he was willing to subject himself to the humiliation of that tree?
The humiliation of that tree.
And while he’s on that tree what happens?
Jesus sees him, acknowledges him, calls him by name, and invites himself to dinner – which probably seems weird to us but in that culture providing hospitality for a dignitary was a great honour; so Jesus was actually honouring and lifting up Zacchaeus with his self-invite.
Again, let’s take a breath. There’s a whole lot of really deep theology in this seemingly innocuous encounter.
Jesus sees him. He notices him. Zacchaeus is not invisible. There’s no averting the eyes. He’s seen, and seen graciously. Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. That’s personal. That’s respectful. That’s being caring and compassionate toward a man who has likely not received any of those things in a very long time. Jesus calls him off the tree and gives him a new start in what amounts to a new life. And Jesus sits with him at table, breaking bread with him, including him, calling him a friend.
The crowd starts to grumble.
It was probably comprised of both followers of Jesus and a bunch of curious onlookers, but nonetheless the text says that ALL of the crowd began to grumble at this turn of events.
It’s because grace is really hard for us to understand, because grace is something that we don’t deserve and can never earn, and yet God pours it over us by the bucketful.
All the crowd sees is a dirty-rotten-no-good-scoundrel-tax-collector.
They can’t see a transformed heart.
But Jesus can.
It’s a very subtle, but I think very important nuance, that Jesus doesn’t really do anything to accomplish Zacchaeus’ transformation. Jesus simply sees it and acknowledges it. There’s no laying on of hands, no smack on the forehead with a “you are healed”, not even any words of teaching or persuasion or call.
Maybe it’s because Jesus didn’t see a dirty-rotten-no-good-scoundrel-tax-collector because he didn’t exist anymore.
That guy was getting left behind when Zacchaeus started running toward that tree.
You might say that that guy ‘died’ on that tree.
Died on a tree of humiliation.
And when he came down, he was reborn.
And the first thing this reborn guy did to mark his new life was to enthusiastically change the way he lived it.
“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)
Nobody asked him to. Jesus certainly didn’t make such generosity a condition of Zacchaeus’ membership in the kingdom of God. And it was generous – far more generous a restitution than was required by Jewish law. Zacchaeus was going above and beyond the rules – because his heart was so transformed.
He was a new man.
And Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9)
Jesus saw the transformation, acknowledged it, and affirmed that Zacchaeus was saved – saved from the life that was, and saved for a life as a child of God.
And once again we see a great spiritual truth – that salvation comes through the cross – the cross – a tree – a tree where one dies to the life that was, and is reborn into a new life.
That profound spiritual rhythm of dying and rising – of letting go of the past and embracing the future – of releasing what was and grasping what will be – of endings and beginnings – that rhythm of life, of new life, of abundant life, of spiritual life, is what salvation really means.
And while you may not literally need a tree to experience this rhythm you definitely need to go out on a limb.
You have to take that great risk of letting go.
You have to take that leap of faith.
And you have to take it over and over and over again.
I hope you noticed that this is not a call story, at all. Jesus never calls Zacchaeus. And there’s no indication whatsoever that Zacchaeus ended up being a follower of Jesus in the sense that he became part of Jesus’ group.
But I think it’s safe to say that Zacchaeus became a ‘person of the Way’ that day.
It was the new life that had been stirring in him all that time, and Jesus ushered him into it.
No, it’s not a call story – it’s a leap story!
It’s a story of risk and daring and wonder.
It’s a story of a man who risked life and limb, for new life, on a limb.
What’s stirring in you this morning?
Have you heard something about Jesus that might be shifting your heart and mind?
Are you feeling inspired to take a risk, to imagine a renewed life?
Is there something you need to let go of to embrace that new life?
Jesus and his Way represent that new life – he embodied it, he incarnated it, and he invites us to walk with him in that new life.
Even if we’ve been walking with him for quite some time, there are always things that we need to acknowledge, and let go of, and leave behind – things we need to die to. Sometimes everyday.
Even the greatest of saints needs to find their way onto one of those tree limbs from time to time – because that’s the way to renewed life – that’s the way we go ever deeper.
That’s how it works.
May God bless us all as we make our undignified and humiliating runs to the nearest tree and clamour on up!