I don’t know about you, but every time I hear the story of Zaccheus I get his Sunday School song stuck in my head for about a week. So just to make sure we’re all on the same page, and in an effort to win you over with cuteness, allow me to start with my 2-year-old doing his own rendition of the song:
Play Audio (Audio available above)
Oh, Zacchaeus. Thank goodness for people like Zacchaeus. Wee little man is he indeed. I’ll spare you a full sermon on the concept of the short man syndrome and jump right into the story. Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector, which we are led to believe has made him rich.
As long as we have rich tax collectors around, or dare I say rich tax evaders, we can shake our heads, click our tongues and feel morally superior. My job? I work at a church. With teenagers. You can almost hear the angels singing my praise. Having Zacchaeus types around allows me to blame them for our troubles, the melting ice caps, the incarceration rates, corruption in capitalism and the like. I can skip taking a close look at my own smallness and shame. I don’t have to change. I’m not a tax collector. I’m okay.
Until that is, Jesus picks him out of a crowd and offers him salvation. Jesus heads straight for that guy- the guy up in the tree. The guy who traded integrity for political power, who stole from people in a governmentally approved way. We hate that guy.
God and Jesus are always picking the wrong person and blessing them. The super old guy, the guy with a stutter, the poor girl, the uncomfortably loud blind guy… They do it over and over again, but we never seem to catch on.
It’s annoying. It’s unnerving. It grates because the pecking order we have so carefully created with us ever so strategically on top gets turned upside down. It exposes all the ways I fall short and choose to be petty, greedy, scared and selfish. And yet, even after all my smallness has been brought out into the light, I have Jesus’ love and salvation too, even though I know I don’t deserve it. If I accept the gift, then I’m free to work to make the world right again. There’s no time to judge Zacchaeus anymore. There’s too much reconciliation to do in my heart, my home and my community with the freedom Jesus grants me. Moral superiority was just a helpful distraction.
If I stop judging Zacchaeus, he immediately starts teaching me. Sure, he’s short and corrupt, but he shows up. He hears Jesus is coming and wants to see what he’s about. He wants to see for himself with his own eyes. That’s commendable. I probably would’ve stayed home in sweatpants and checked out the day-old footage on YouTube. There are so many excuses: “I’m a mom of young kids. I’m needed at home. There will be traffic, parking will be expensive, it’s so cold out, and the crowds…” my smallness.
Then, after showing up, Zacchaeus makes an extra effort to beat the crowds to actually literally see Jesus. He works for it. Breaks a sweat. He climbs a tree. It’s like he knows he needs some salvation and is willing to scrape a knee to get it. Would I have risked causing a scene, tearing my clothes, or looking like a fool? Nope. At the first sign of inconvenience, I give up. The back of people’s heads is enough for me. I’m not sure if I deserve to see him, and I’m not willing to cause a scene to get what I want. I would’ve played it small.
Ok so he shows up and climbs a tree, but that doesn’t let him off the hook. He’s still that rich tax collector in need of salvation. Jesus points him out and invites himself over. Instead of avoiding that guy and judging from a distance, Jesus gets curious and makes himself even closer. Gosh, what if we tried that now and again.
If Jesus said to me, “I’m coming over right now,” I would panic, “Are the toilets clean? Is my house too big? Will he approve of my Netflix queue? He eats kosher right?” Houseguests get all up in your business. They see you in your pajamas, first thing in the morning before coffee. They see you in all your messy humanity. My tidy house is my vanity, a superficial veneer to hide my fears, insecurities, and shortcomings. I like it to appear that I’m in control. I am almost frantic about keeping my house picked up. If my house is picked up, my life is picked up. I don’t want people to see my dust and my toothpaste residue in the sink or to associate a mess with not being good enough. More of my smallness. But Jesus, of course, sees right through all of that.
I had a vegan houseguest once, and she wasn’t expecting me to be vegan or even make her vegan food, but just her very presence in my house made me realize how much cheese I eat. I eat a lot of cheese. This is how I picture Jesus at the house of Zacchaeus– just calmly being present to him as a gracious guest, his saving presence holding a mirror up to the small parts of Zacchaeus.
Before Jesus comes over, though, just the idea of Jesus coming to his house inspired Zacchaeus to repent, to make it right. He gave half his possessions to the poor and paid those he defrauded fourfold. This move is so drastic I struggle to know what the modern day equivalent of this is for my life. He finally gets that his wealth is holing him back from his freedom, his best self. His wealth is tied to other people’s poverty. It creates distance between himself and his God, between himself and his neighbor. We are only free when we are all free.
He is brimming with his newly found freedom, this fresh start, this new life, yet the crowd grumbles because it all happened to the wrong guy. The guy who forces us to reassess what salvation is about- who it is for, and how we answer the gift with our lives.
The freedom Zacchaeus feels after he is forgiven sheds light on my smallness. How many trees have I left unclimbed? How much salvation have I missed out on by staying home hiding in comfort, closed off to the opportunity to be intruded on with forgiveness and love? By skipping marches, city council meetings, birthday parties, fundraisers, and funerals, have I missed a chance to see Jesus, claim salvation, and make things right?
It’s happening here all around us. Jesus is choosing to love the wrong person into healing– Zacchaeus, me, and you. We can claim Christ’s love with joy and relief. Everything that keeps us from God and each other is dissolving away. Jesus is choosing us in all our glorious smallness. Jesus says, “I’m coming to your house to see your un-vacuumed carpet and dirty laundry, to see how you treat your family and your neighbors and yourself. I will hold up a mirror to your smallness and your shortcomings. I’ll witness you at your worst and I will love you fiercely. I see you how God sees you. You are saved, my dear. Today. Now, what will you do with that joy?”