By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
November 3, 2019
Luke 19:1–10 (ESV)
1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. 5 And 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.” 6 So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. 7 And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
The story of Zacchaeus has been one of my favorites from a very early age. As a child, I remember our pastor calling the kids up to the front so we could all sing, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man a wee little man was he.” There is something about those early years in a little country church that continue to keep me going. In that little church we did so much, it was not about making the services more relevant or attracting the attention of the community, but they encouraged each of us to learn about God in a fun way. We sang old hymns, and a few choruses, we did Christmas plays, we participated in Easter sunrise plays, and we learned. I fell in love with Jesus in a little country church. Each person in that church encouraged me. My great uncle spoke out of silence every Sunday morning, like clockwork. And every Sunday he said, “I thank the Lord for what he has done for me.” It used to annoy me, until one day I bought a game that depicted World War II, and he looked at the map and pointed out the places he was and what he did in those areas. He told me that he thanked God every day for keeping him alive when so many did not make it home. When my great uncle passed away, I missed hearing him say, “I thank the Lord for what he has done for me.” And sometimes I find myself thinking those words and voicing them in my head at the time he would have said them.
A few weeks ago, at the funeral service of my Aunt Belita, we shared our several memories. My aunt played the organ for our church. I loved listening to her play, and I loved singing the hymns with people that loved to sing them. My aunt was one of those people that got excited about things. She got a camcorder once and decided that the best thing to do was to make a movie about the birth of Christ. So, for several weeks all the kids in our church would run around the church yard acting like shepherds, angels, and a bunch of wise guys. The movie itself was terrible, but I remember the excitement of my aunt as she inspired us to try something different.
And then there was Edith our pastor for several years. Edith inspired me to love the Friends Church. She was a saint because she would keep all us kids after worship, and she taught us about the history and the practices of Friends. And she encouraged us each to participate even more. To make it even better Edith would play the accordion at times. We laughed at her for that at the time, but oddly enough when I hear the accordion, I am again transported back to a little church out in the country.
I think we forget a great deal about what church really is at times. We go around trying to make it into something, we work hard to do what other people are doing, but we forget what is important. We are a community of friends. Each person in a church can inspire and encourage those around them. It is interesting to me that a little story about a little man can cause memories to flow. But I think that is part of the beauty of this story.
Zacchaeus is a government official that lived in the city of Jericho. He is not only an official stationed in this city to collect taxes, he is a chief tax collector, meaning that he is the manager over the other tax collectors. I often wonder if he might have been Matthew’s boss as I think about this story, it is not something that is important, but it is one of those things that goes through my head. As I studied this week, I wondered why a chief tax collector would be in Jericho and not Jerusalem. I found that some people would say that tax collector was not the best description of the job this man, but toll collector might have been the more accurate description. They say this because Jericho would have been one of the first cities caravans would have pass through as they made their way across the Jordan into Israel, before you made your way into Jerusalem. Since this was one of the first places you would come to as you made your way to Jerusalem it makes sense that they would collect the tolls there so that as traffic increase closer to the city the tax collection would not be causing greater trouble. And Jericho is also an important community in trade as well. Several times as I read about Jericho and Zacchaeus’s job the production of Balsam was mentioned. Balsam is a plant from which a resin is extracted that can be mixed with olive oil that can be used to make medicines and perfumes. As the use of essential oils becomes more common in our society, we can understand how this might have been an important crop to the Hebrew people. It is said that it was used in many medicines and balms and is really where the term balm comes from. Zacchaeus might have been a toll collector, but he might have also been the governmental overseer of the production of medicinal herbs as well.
We are not told what exactly he did for the government, but we know that he was not well liked in the Jewish community. As Jesus was passing through this town, Zacchaeus hear about it, but he, being a small individual, could not get into a position to see Jesus. So, we are told that he ran around the crowd, he made his way up ahead of the multitude and he found a tree to climb up.
This story has many descriptions that catch the attention of those that read it. Rarely do we know the size of any of the characters within the gospel, yet we know that Zacchaeus was small in stature. I find that very interesting. The size of this man was something important to the people. We often hear derogatory statements about those of small size, things like small man syndrome, or a Napoleon complex. The Napoleon complex one does not really make much sense because Napoleon was not actually that small, but for some reason history has made him the patron of people of small stature trying to do big things. Zacchaeus was a small man, but very important to the government, and he obviously worked his way up to be the most important official in the area. Because of his position and the way this story plays, I would venture to say that his size was probably a topic of discussion and disdain to this community. It was probably the punch line of jeers and jokes, and Zacchaeus probably faced his fair share of abuse because of this. Even two thousand years later we sing songs about his small stature.
This man faced ridicule from the community for his size, and for his profession. He was different from the others and his difference annoyed people. When the crowds gathered, he was there, and people knew he was there, they watched as he ran. We know they watched because we know that he ran. For an adult man to run was socially unacceptable in this culture, it lacks dignity and was unprofessional. Yet, here Zacchaeus a chief tax collector of this city was running to get ahead of the multitude. To make matters even worse, he still could not see, so he climbed up a tree, which again is something men did not do.
This story is filled with humor, not politically correct humor, but humor all the same. Zacchaeus is climbing up the tree, but not just any tree, a sycamore tree. Even the variety of tree is mentioned in the story. But I do need to mention that the sycamore tree in Israel is not the same that we see here. Our tree was called a sycamore, because the leaf was similarly shaped to the one Zacchaeus climbed. And that is about extent of the similarities. The tree in this story is a sycamore fig tree, or the poor man’s fig tree. It is a fig tree, but the fruit it produces is not commercial grade, it is smaller, and poorer quality. It is a tree that is basically wild, and anyone can come and get the fruit from it.
The image of a government official running and climbing a sycamore tree is filled with symbolism. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, and he made a fool of himself to do it. He, being small, could not participate so he ran around the crowd, and he, being rich, climbed the poor man’s tree. You can almost hear the people laughing at him as they approach the tree. You can almost hear the people make derogatory comments each step of the way.
There is always more to the story than meets the eye. Zacchaeus means clean or innocent. It was a strong name during this era, because it was a name of one of the officers of Judas Maccabees and the name of a famous rabbi. It is a name that was given to patriots and the faithful, so a tax collector by this name is offensive. Tax collectors were often regarded as thieves and unclean. They were sinners in the eyes of the religious. This man represented everything wrong in the world, according to the religious elite. Yet Jesus comes to the tree Zacchaeus has climbed and he looks up and calls directly to him. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
Imagine the scandal. This little man with a big title, this tax collector, this chief tax collector is being addressed by Jesus. There is grumbling among the crowd, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Imagine yourself in the story, consider the perspective of the crowd and that of Zacchaeus. Imagine living your life constantly being belittled for your features and your job, never being accepted and facing constant rejection everywhere you turn. Your one desire at that moment is to simply get one glimpse at this famous teacher but being reduced to running and climbing a tree just to do that. Then in a moment you are seen and called to. You are sought instead of avoided. And in that moment of joy you hear grumbling.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt as if nothing in your life seems to go as you expected, and then in one moment you get a glimpse of joy only to have those around you grumble, attempting to take the joy from you?
There is much that this story can teach us. One of the greatest things our faith tradition promotes is the concept of “that of God in all people.” This simple phrase should remind us that everyone around us is created in the image of God, and because they bear that image they should be treated with a certain amount of respect. This manner of thinking leads into our testimony of equality. If all people bear the image of God, then all people are equal in the eyes of God, all are loved, and all should have the same opportunity. That is one of those things my pastor, Edith, taught me as a child. I never realized that there were faith traditions that did not view equality in this way until I was older. I had no problem with a female pastor, and I never considered it odd. But then I got older and heard grumblings. I loved the church, yet I listened to grumblings around me causing me to question and some of those grumblings even said I was wrong. How could a woman teach men they said, yet I learned to love God’s church through the teaching of a woman. I found joy in the very place they said I could not.
Those grumblings try to limit God. The grumblings are humanity’s attempt to control what God can and cannot do. Those grumblings often divide and exclude, they accept and reject, and ration the grace of God. Those grumblings say that some people are and are not acceptable. They say some people have value and others do not. Those grumblings deny God’s love.
Zacchaeus listened to the grumblings, and he looked at the face of Jesus. He heard the people all around him call him a sinner, and Jesus looked him straight in the eye and said, “I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus listened to the crowd as they cried out that he was a sinner, and he looked back at Jesus and he speaks. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
We do not often see beneath the surface of this statement. Most translations give the impression that this is something that Zacchaeus will do in the future, but the English standard version and some of the newer translations indicate that the verbs used are present tense and not future tense. Meaning that it is something Zacchaeus is already doing. He already gives half of his goods to the poor and he already restores any injustice. We often see this as a sign of Zacchaeus’ repentance, but it could actually be Zacchaeus telling Jesus, they call me a sinner but what they are judging me for has no basis in reality that is not who I am. Zacchaeus in that statement is crying out to Jesus to accept him to love him not for the man others see, but for who he really is.
Who is Zacchaeus really? He is a man that would run and climb a tree just to see Jesus. He is a man that would take the teacher to his house even if it would cause people to grumble. He is a man willing to live the life he is in, to the glory of God.
I grew up in a little country church. While I attended that church, I saw the same faces for over eighteen years. I heard the same testimonies and sang old songs. I am a pastor today because some of those people did something that amazed me. They told me what God had done for them. They got excited about how they could use a new camcorder to encourage people to remember the gospel story. They encouraged me to sing and to read in front of them. They saw me sin, and they did not grumble but instead they shared their stories again. They saw me fail and they did not let me identify as that failure but accepted me as a child of God.
That little church showed the love of God, but they were not the only one. This little church was just as instrumental in my journey of faith. Both saw beyond the surface and encouraged something greater. Both did not care what others would say but promoted what God could do. We only have this one little story about the man named Zacchaeus in scripture, but tradition says that this wee little man would go on to be bigger. Some historians have said that Zacchaeus became the Bishop of Caesarea appointed by Peter. Some even say that he was Matthias the apostle the disciples chose to replace Judas. All we know is he wanted to see Jesus, and Jesus sought him too. And from this wee little man we can learn that we only see part of the story playing out in the lives of those around us. Even though we only see part there is much more than we know. Listen and encourage, give space to learn more, and share our lives with others. Because we might not realize that sinner, we see today might become a champion of faith tomorrow, if we were to show them how to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and to live the love of Christ with others.