Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
My family is and has always been extended. I have cousins that are just as close to me as my own brother and sisters, and an uncle who is eleven years older than me. The thing about my uncle is he is ten years younger than my mom, so in many cases he was like an older brother to me, and the fact that my grandparents live only a couple of miles away just intensified the closeness of my extended family because we were always together. I mention this because I remember when my uncle went to college. It was probably the first time I ever thought about what I would do when I got older. My uncle would come home in shiny purple jackets, he was in a band, he drove a Camaro, and he would always spend time with us. He made a tradition in our family, one that I miss since I now live in Kansas City and cannot make it home nearly enough. Every Thanksgiving evening he would load up the car and take all of the kids to see a movie. For those of you that grew up in an urban setting this may not seem like a big deal but I grew up a mile from the middle of nowhere, and it took an hour to get to the nearest movie theater. Every Thanksgiving evening, after we spent the afternoon gorging ourselves with turkey and pie, we would then drive for an hour hearing stories of the great and wondrous city of Manhattan and the amazing Kansas State University.
I loved K-State, because my uncle went to school there. I loved the football, the basketball, and the idea of one day attending that university someday myself. My passion grew as I grew older when my uncle took over the family farm and I began to work for him. As we worked I continued to hear the stories of college life. Then one day my uncle, who would often times leave for a weekend to revisit K-State, invited me to go with him to a Kansas State football game. I was filled with anticipation, I was actually going to go to this place that might as well have been heaven for my young mind, I dressed in my most prized garment, a t-shirt my uncle imported from one of the many store in Aggie Ville, and I was about to get a glimpse of the college life. The game, the stadium, the marching band, the team, and the campus were everything I imagined it could be, and I was hooked. I would forever be a fan of Kansas State University.
To me that was the greatest goal of my life, to one day be a student of that school. It was my only option, and I would not even listen to other opinions I was a K-Stater and that was it. Sure I had heard of other schools, places like Yale, Harvard, or Kansas University but those were not equal to K-State in my mind. There was only one place for me.
I mention this because the enthusiasm of my uncle for the school he chose to attend inspired me to strive for something. I never entertained the possibility of not attending college; it never crossed my mind to just get a job without furthering my education. Going to go to college was set in my mind in Junior High, and from that moment on everything that I did was focused on that singular goal.
If you know me at all you know that the dream of attending Kansas State University did not become a reality in my life. I had to make compromises at first because financially I could not afford a university, and then tragedy struck my family sixteen years ago. When my little sister and brother were in a car accident, which took my sister away. That one event changed everything in my life, for a while I was lost. I questioned everything and I began making choices that were not the best, and life began to change. My dream of going to K-State was just a dream; it urged me to do the best I could. It directed my path to a point. But that dream also distracted me from something. I have often wondered when I first began hearing the call to become a pastor? Through various spiritual exercises that I have participated in I have found that I first began to hear the calls of Christ around the same time the dream of K-State was taking form. But I did not listen. I had such a desire to attend Kansas State University that in all of my striving to make the dream come true I missed the calling of God. I say that the death of my sister caused me to lose direction but in all honesty I would now have to admit that I was running from God.
The good news is that in those mistakes God worked them out for the good. I can hardly see them as mistakes now, because the responsibility of a son at the age of 20 caused me to attend a school closer to home so I could be as good of a dad as possible. Because I attended Fort Hays State University instead of Kansas State, I become involved with a campus ministry, which took me across the ocean and Europe to Ukraine. Because of that trip I began to listen again to the call that had been silenced in the purple haze, which led me to Kansas City with the hopes of attending a seminary here.
Enough about me, but I tell you this because it is the story of my life that has brought me to this place. And in many ways that is what Luke is speaking of when he wrote this passage about Zacchaeus.
For those of us that attended vacation bible school every summer for most of our childhood we cannot read this story without singing the song that goes along with it. And because of that song I have had trouble focusing this week. Every week I read the passage of scripture several times, I spend time praying with the scripture and meditating on it, I read commentaries and various web pages. I get distracted thinking about how great it is to live in a time where we have more access to knowledge than ever before, and then I repeat the cycle again. I go to bed thinking about the passage and dreaming about the passage, but this week I had a little child’s song running through my head and I was not really able to get around it.
I waited, prayed, waited some more, read, and hummed. I realized all of my focus was on the amazing work that Jesus did in the life of Zacchaeus. Do not get me wrong that is a wonderful place to get stuck in study, but that was not what was to be spoken of today. I began to think of Zacchaeus instead. Imagining what was going through his mind that day, imagining what was driving this man. All at once I realized that this is not just a story of Jesus but it is the testimony of this wee little man whose greatest claim to fame was that he got caught climbing a tree as an adult.
It is his testimony written from Jesus’ perspective. I say this because Luke wrote his Gospel not as a witness to the events personally but as a man who listened to the stories of those that were there. He penned these words to give an account to a man named Theophilus who we can only assume wanted to know the truth about who Jesus was. Luke interviewed, investigated, and wrote his account carefully. This story of Zacchaeus was one of those accounts carefully investigated by Luke. Luke very well could have spoken with Zacchaeus and asked him about his tree hugging day. And that interview started by Zacchaeus telling about his past.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. He was very good at his job and the government made him the chief tax collector, allowing him to amass great wealth. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector on one of the greatest trade routes of the ancient world. Everything from the east going to Rome came through Jericho. Zacchaeus and those he supervised collected the trade tariffs on all of those goods. You see Palestine in the ancient days was the frontier of the Roman Empire, it was on the eastern edge of western civilization, and to the east was the remnant of the fallen Persian Empire, which was buffered by smaller puppet nations much like Eastern Europe was to the Soviet Union. So Jericho was where the customs office was located. Zacchaeus managed all the trade from east to west.
He also was ridiculed for his size, which is probably what drove him to seek powerful offices outside of the Hebrew culture. He was overlooked, he might have had dreams of being a Pharisee but he did not look the part. So he pursued other options. These two facts about this man were highlighted early in the conversation. But I want to highlight that Zacchaeus was a Jewish man. His name is a Hebrew name meaning pure. Which in their culture was a slap because he chose a profession as a representative of a foreign overlord. He was marginalized, and made the best life for himself that he could, and he was successful at it.
Through all of his success there was something missing. Something drove Zacchaeus to that tree. All the wealth of the world pass before his eyes every day, yet there was something that he still lacked. No one really knew him. He was a great success; he supervised an entire government office, yet not one person really knew him as a Jewish human being. He heard that the rabbi Jesus was passing through the town, and Zacchaeus wanted to see this guy. Why we do not really know, but maybe Zacchaeus like me had some deep call in his life that he had silenced by pursuing his personal dreams and perverted ideas of success. He just wanted to see, He had to see. So he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed into a fig tree.
Let us stop right there. This man was marginalized and ridiculed in his culture. No one liked him and no one even cared to get to know him. His name means pure but everyone considered him as filthy as a man could be. Yet he had a desire to see Jesus. We live in a culture not all that different from the one in the first century. We have religious institutions that are wonderful, but often people fall through the cracks. We live in a time of great spiritual seeking, so much so that there is an entire professional organization devoted to the practice of Spiritual Direction. Books are written constantly about religions, and spirituality. These books are sold in pretty much every retail outlet in our nation. People want to see a reason to believe. They spend vast amounts of money on advisors and literature to help them make sense of the longing they feel but do not understand. Like Zacchaeus our culture is climbing trees to get a glimpse at something that just might help.
Jesus walks right up to the tree and stops. He sees Zacchaeus who has cleverly hidden himself in the foliage. Jesus sees him. And Jesus calls out come down so we can go eat. The rabbi wants to eat with him; Jesus wants to share a meal with this marginalized sinful man. Jesus wants to know Zacchaeus; He wants to take the time to really know what drives him, and what his dreams truly are.
Look at response of Zacchaeus. He jumps from the tree and immediately starts giving away his wealth. By Jesus taking the time to just say, “let’s talk,” the life of this man changes. There was no judgment, no theology, and no list of doctrine, just a simple invitation from one faithful man to a hurting man to grab a bite to eat together.
I began today speaking of my story. My story is not all that different from the story of Zacchaeus’. I am a man that had dreams, had broken dream, and had compromised dreams. I was a man that had a calling but ran from that call with the hopes of gaining something I thought might fulfill my life in a greater way. All my running ended in a place far from where I thought I was going to be. I stand here today because faithful people in my life took time to actually get to know me. It began with my mom who accepted me even when I failed, it continued with a Sunday school teacher that continued to encourage me down a different path knowing full well that my past was not where it should have been. It took me across the world where, and to a little church in Kansas City where a community said, “Just listen to your call.” There are several people that have taken the time to know a formerly broken man; those people pointed me to Jesus who has transformed the brokenness into something better. I never went to Kansas State, but I obtained a dream far better, filled with more color than purple. I still have a special place in my heart for that school but it is no longer they mythical dreamland, but only a stone in the road of my life toward God.
Today I want us to really consider Zacchaeus, let us not laugh at his story but let us instead listen. This small man that climbed a tree some say became a great man of God, one that followed in the footsteps of the Apostles, some have even said that he became an Apostle himself. One ancient tradition dating back to the 3rd century says that Zacchaeus’ last name is one that Luke wrote about in his second book as Matthias the one that replaced Judas among the twelve. This man who was once unknown by all, just might have become one of those men that went out to change the world and shared the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
As we enter our time of holy expectancy and open worship, I ask how will we treat the Zacchaeuses in our lives? Will we walk up to them in their spiritual seeking and ask them to eat and talk? Will we share with them our story? Or will we push them off to the side and hide them behind the leaves? These are important questions that have great ramifications, because what if that Zacchaeus we meet today will become the Matthias tomorrow? Or what if that Zacchaeus today may not be able to listen tomorrow?