He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’ (NRSV).
Many who have grown up in either the church or Sunday School know the story of Zacchaeus. After all, it lends itself well to the childhood imagination: a vertically challenged man, tree climbing, Jesus’ personalised attention.
But this is a story that speaks to more than just childhood.
Zacchaeus was not popular. No tax-collector found themselves welcome among fellow Jews. After all they were turncoats – fellow Israelites contracting with Rome to collect money from the occupied and for the occupiers. Of course, they also took enough to cover their own expenses – and some. And it was an occupation that made Zacchaeus ‘rich’.
This helps us understand why these people were considered betrayers of their heritage and forfeiters of their birthright.
A tax-collector was no longer a ‘…son of Abraham’.
But this opportunistic, rich outcast has a determined desire to see Jesus. Blocked out by the crowd, Zacchaeus finds himself up a ‘sycomore tree’ seeking a glimpse of the famous teacher and healer.
Of course, we have credited this turn of events to Zacchaeus’ height. But both the Greek text – and the translation above – say ‘he was short in stature’. This ‘he’ could refer to either our tax-collector or to, of all people, Jesus.
Zacchaeus’ considered tree climbing episode may have been to peer down into a crowd and sight a short Messiah!
But no matter who it was that lacked in height we arrive at the same place. Zacchaeus, much to his surprise, was not the only one with plans that day. Jesus deliberately stopped beneath Zacchaeus’ tree, ‘looked up’, named it’s occupant, and invited himself to stay at his home.
Perhaps the crowd could forgive this misunderstanding if it did not seem so intentional. At the very least Zacchaeus and his occupation are known to ‘all who saw it’. Surrounded by an adoring, starstruck crowd, Jesus had his pick of places to rest.
And he chose Zacchaeus.
Once again, Jesus has left a gathering of grumblers in his wake: ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ It is becoming something of a habit.
But Jesus’ willingness to share hospitality with this thief seems well placed. We know nothing of the content of their dinner conversation, but we do know – and have celebrated for centuries – the outcome: ‘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.’
It is a miracle – after all, no one thought it possible.
And I think, even though he used different terms, Jesus would agree. Jesus called this turnaround ‘salvation’, Zacchaeus ‘a son of Abraham’, and his mission ‘to seek and save the lost’.
Jesus cared a great deal about our relationship with God. It would seem from this story that he cared at least as much about our relationships with each other. This is no pie-in-the-sky apology. It is grounded in action, restoration, and repentance.
After all, Zacchaeus met the same one who urged us to pray: ‘…may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.