When you mention the biblical name Zacchaeus, three descriptors of the character in Luke’s Gospel usually spring to mind:
First, Zacchaeus is short – “a wee little man was he.”
Second, he’s good at climbing trees – sycamores in particular.
And third, nobody likes him.
Most people neither welcome Zacchaeus nor want anything to do with him. A man of financial means by ill-gotten gain, Zacchaeus perpetuates and profits from a political and economic system that robs and defrauds those on the bottom to benefit those on the top.
Yet, this peculiar little crook of a guy manages to catch the attentive hospitality of the Lord.
So, let’s meet our brother in Christ, Zacchaeus, whose life unravels when he encounters Jesus:
Jesus 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 sycamore 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.” (Luke 19:1-10)
What is it that literally chases Zacchaeus clean up a tree?
What’s a man of such power and status doing in such a silly spot?
A treetop surely is no place for a top-dog, mover-and-shaker like Zacchaeus. It would be like President Trump or a member of his family watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade from a perch atop a light pole along New York’s Fifth Avenue!
Nevertheless, hunkered down high up in a sycamore tree is where Zacchaeus is at: His expensive Armani tunic stained by leaves he smushed against on his way up there, his designer sandals scuffed up by rough bark, his nicely manicured fingernails dirty and chipped, his hundred-dollar haircut messed up and matted down by the sweat of his brow.
Curious about Jesus though he is, Zacchaeus wants to keep his interest in the Lord a secret from the townsfolk.
My hunch is that he’s hiding up in that tree.
He’s not sitting there waving a hand-lettered “WELCOME JESUS!” sign.
No, Zacchaeus is well camouflaged in thick foliage, peering out from behind the leaves and branches, and hoping that, as the parade passes by, the crowds – and Jesus himself – will be so knee-deep in the street-level hoopla to notice Zacchaeus roosting on high.
So, when the parade stops – when Jesus looks right up at him, and calls him by name, and the crowd starts pointing and snickering at silly little Zacchaeus, I have to think that he gulps hard and his freshly shaven appearance suddenly turns red-faced with embarrassment – like the seventh-grade schoolboy caught trying to sneak a peek into the girls locker room!
The whole thing’s pretty ridiculous, really, and I think that’s Luke’s point.
Even before Jesus parades by, Zacchaeus on some level looks at the ridiculousness of where he’s at in life and wonders how it’s come to this. Unless you’re a lumberjack or tree-trimmer, climbing up in a tree is something that only a desperate adult does –
Someone who knows deep down that he’s gained the whole world but forfeited his soul somewhere along the way.
Someone who feels in his heart of hearts a yearning hunger that all the embezzled shekels of the Roman Empire are never going to satisfy.
Someone who looks long and hard into his threadbare soul and sees the fabric of his designer-label life looking mighty torn and tattered.
That kind of brutally honest, cut-to-the-quick self-assessment isn’t the stuff of self-hated and negative thinking.
It’s the stuff of the Holy Spirit!
Among her many duties and responsibilities, the Holy Spirit is the one who’s always trying to focus our awareness on our sins, always trying to call our attention to our brokenness, always pulling and tugging at our loose strings of flaws and faults. Eventually, the Spirit yanks with sufficiently blunt force to unravel our lives.And that, my friends, believe it or not, is a good thing!
For in his unraveling, Zacchaeus has been saved.
Jesus himself even says as much: “Today, salvation has come to this house!”And here’s what unraveled salvation looks like for Zacchaeus:The Spirit unravels his vocation as a tax collector and his identity as a power player.The Spirit unravels his participation in a system that robs from the poor to give to the rich.The Spirit unravels the greed choking his heart and transforms Zacchaeus into something of a philanthropist.By being saved, Zacchaeus’s whole world comes undone!
Jesus invites Zacchaeus into community.
Jesus invites Zacchaeus to belonging in something bigger than himself.
Jesus invites Zacchaeus to celebrate resurrection through repentance.
And Zacchaeus answers the Lord’s invitation with generosity – settling debts, making amends, and vowing to share his resources for the good of all.
Making those Spirit-led alterations to his attitude and adjustments to his behavior become Zacchaeus’s holy and joyful unraveling – part and parcel of his salvation!Instead of doubling-down on his identity of wealth and corruption, Zacchaeus takes up the honest work of doing justice and loving kindness. (Deuteronomy 10:12, Hosea 12:6, Micah 6:8) Zacchaeus takes concrete steps to right the wrongs of injustice that he himself had a hand in perpetrating!
For Zacchaeus, salvation is tied intimately to conversion, but not just in the private sense of having a “personal relationship with Jesus.”
Not only is Zacchaeus’s entire household included in this divine moment of rescue and redemption, but also swept up in the winds of change are the poor who become beneficiaries of his conversion along with those many people whom Zacchaeus has defrauded by the overreach of his taxing arm.
Zacchaeus’s salvation thus enters dimensions that extend far beyond the personal to include domestic, social and economic spheres.Remember that, in biblical terms, “being saved” means more than securing your place in heaven when the roll is called up yonder.In the Bible, the blessing of “being saved” also means being healed, being made well, being made whole. More often than not, “being saved” means being saved from yourself, being freed from sin’s grip, being transformed by the renewing of your mind and the redirection of your time, talent and treasure.
And there’s yet a few others whose mindsets also are rewired by the events that day when Jesus spied Zacchaeus crouching in that tree.
Among the babbling crowd of parade-watchers, the Lord’s extension of generous hospitality to Zacchaeus changes long-held expectations about who’s worthy and deserving of God’s grace.
In the estimation of the locals, Zacchaeus is a social disaster – a sawed-off little runt with a big bank account and a crooked job. But the Lord welcomes Zacchaeus aboard in spite of himself.
Zacchaeus is like so many other actors in the Bible whose lives fall short of God’s grace:
Like Aaron, who whoops it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned. (Exodus 32:19)
Like Jacob, who cons everyone, including his own father. (Genesis 27:17-19)
Like Jael, who grabs a hammer and drives a tent stake into the head of an overnight guest. (Judges 4:21)
Then, there’s the studly David and his bubble-bath encounter with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 11:1-4)
There’s Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. (Joshua 2:1)
There’s Nebuchadnezzar and his taste for roasting the opposition. (Daniel 3:19-20)
And don’t forget about Saul, who holds the lynch mob’s coats as they stone Stephen (Acts 7:58), or those mealy-mouthed friends of Job who probably would have bored Job to death if God hadn’t intervened in the nick of time (Job chapters 4-23).
And, of course, there’s Judas the paid-off betrayer (Mark 14:10 and John 13:2) and Peter the three-time denier (Luke 22:54-62).
Like Zacchaeus, they’re all odd, quirky and twitchy – fickle, disloyal and unfaithful.
Yet you can’t help believing that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all somehow precious in the eyes of Jesus near to the heart of God.
Who knows why? God works in mysterious ways!
Maybe it’s simply because each of them – broken in soul and spirit as each might be – is loved and treasured less so for who he or she is and what the world has made him or her to be and more so for what each carries within and what each is created to be.
Because, after all, it’s not the world that makes each of them – or any of us.
“All the earth is mine,” says the Lord through the psalms. “All the earth is mine, and all that dwell therein are mine.” (Psalm 24:1)
At the end of the day, that presumably goes for you and me, too.
Let that Good News calm your fears and unravel your doubts about how God is abiding and working in your life and in our world these days.
When the Holy Spirit reaches deep into the thick weeds of your hiding place, and taps hard on your shoulder with an invitation to change – and you accept her invitation with courageous humility, that’s the moment when, like Zacchaeus, you on some level look at the ridiculousness of where life’s at and wonder how it’s come to this.
That’s the moment, as I suggested in a radio message in early June, when you look hard in the mirror and ask yourself “What role did I play in creating our current national conflict?” and “What role am I playing in escalating our current national conflict?”
And, by grace, that’s the moment when the Lord God in Christ Jesus starts working unto some good in midst of your failures and trespasses – maybe even in the midst of our unrest, discord, and whatever else on the evening news make it feel like life has come loose from the hinges.
Lead us not into temptation!
Deliver us from evil, and save us from the time of trial!
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message from the story of Zacchaeus during worship on Sunday, August 16, 2020. It is the fourth sermon of his series “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary and reflection by Fred B. Craddock, Hannah Garrity, Scott Hoezee, and Justin Tse inform the message. (Artwork: Hannah Garrity, Jesus Looked Up, SanctifiedArt.org)