(Luke 19: 1-10, 28-40)
So I understand there’s an old children’s song that you church people sing about me. It starts off with the wonderful line, Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. Nice. I mean, let’s acknowledge the obvious, shall we: I’m not the tallest guy around “Vertically challenged,” is the politically correct term for it. I mean, for crying out loud, I’m standing on a box right now!
There’s no name, sarcastic expression or joke I haven’t heard. Shorty, shrimp, small fry. Hey Zacchaeus, stand up. No, really, STAND UP! Next time you see Snow White, tell her I said hi. You’re not short, you’re just more down-to-earth than most people. Hey, I saw someone pickpocket a short person yesterday – it’s beyond me how someone could stoop so low!
All my life. Of course I put on a brave face and tell people it doesn’t phase me. But if I’m honest, I hate it. I mean, I’d give anything to be 6’2” and chiseled like a professional camel herder. Instead I have to get a boost into the saddle.
I imagine your Dr. Phil or other pop psychologist might surmise that’s why I wound up becoming a tax collector. My own persona exudes little power; my stature is not at all a commanding presence. But let me cozy up to the Roman empire? Now there’s some power. Over the years I’ve gotten frighteningly good at my job. Some of those same people who harassed me when we were kids now cower when I come around. Because they know the power this little guy now has. They know I can take from them pretty much whatever I want, as much as I want, whenever I want. Money. Livestock. Even family members, if it comes to that. Is it fair? Absolutely not. I prefer to call it poetic justice.
And man, people hate me for it. Not surprisingly, I guess. They called me a traitor because I’m an agent for the hated Roman government. And they know I’m overtaxing them, taking more than I need to or should; but there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re jealous at my power, at all the money I make, my luxurious home. They’re jealous because they know I’m set for life!
What they don’t know is how utterly miserable and alone I am. I mean, I’m a tax collector. No one’s inviting me to their dinner parties. No one’s striking up a casual conversation in the marketplace. I can’t remember the last time I had a meaningful interaction with another human being, really.
And I guess that’s why I got excited when I heard that he was coming to town. I had this deep longing, something inside me that wanted more, that needed more. And maybe he was the ticket to that. I don’t know. But really, what did I have to lose? As set for life as I was, I had lost so much already.
So I had it all planned out. I arrived early the day he was coming through town. I staked out a prime spot on the road. I had a great view! That is, until the crowds came. Why did I not foresee this? As people started filling in – people much taller than me, because everyone was – my view got totally blocked. Some huge guy standing right in front of me. Six foot, I am sure. I reached way up to tap his shoulder and asked if he could move to the side a bit. He turned around, saw who I was, and laughed in my face. “No way, tax collector,” he sneered. “Maybe someone can give you a little boost!”
Ouch. I let it pass. My focus was on finding a good view, and it wasn’t going to be here. So I moved around, looking for a wall, an incline, anything to get me up. Nothing. I was about to give up and go home when I spotted, just a little bit ahead, a sycamore tree – pretty lush green leaves and thick branches. It looked right out over the road. It would give me a perfect view of him when he walked down this way.
Now, I knew the spectacle this would create. As if I needed to draw attention to my “shortcoming.” So I had to make a decision right there – go home or swallow what little pride I had and start climbing. It wasn’t that hard of a decision.
I fought through the ever-growing crowd and grabbed a hold of that tree trunk and pulled myself up. It was kind of fun, actually – sort of like revisiting my childhood years! I found a semi-comfortable spot between a couple of branches. I looked down at the crowd below – well, this is what the tops of people’s heads look like! And yeah, people were looking up at me, laughing, whispering to the person next to them in cupped hands. Whatever. I was where I needed to be; that’s all that mattered.
Right about then the crowd started murmuring a bit, and that’s when I saw him, just up the road. Walking this way, dressed in simple clothes, flanked by women and men who followed him wherever he went. Smiling at everyone, shaking their hands, getting closer and closer to where I was. He was practically right underneath me now!
And that’s when I realized my mistake. Jesus was totally consumed with the people right there with him at ground level. He wasn’t looking up – he had no reason to. He’d never see me up here. He was going to totally walk by me. The cruel irony of it all – for the first time in my life, I was too tall!
And that’s when suddenly he stopped, as if on some sort of cue. And he looked up, and he saw me, and his eyes met mine. I tell you this – as long as I live, I’ll never forget those eyes. His soul, every bit of it, embraced me through them.
And he said, Zacchaeus! He knew my name. How did he know my name? He said it again: Zacchaeus, there you are. I’ve been looking for you. Come down; I must go to your house today. I just sat there in stunned silence. What was going on here? My house – why “must” he go to my house? And how did he know my name again? I had all of this running through my head, and then it was like my body did on its own what my brain wasn’t able to do – I started climbing down that sycamore tree. And now I was on the ground and looking at him face-to-face – well, technically more face-to-chest, looking up at his face. You know what I mean.
And, you know, the crowd was still all around us. But in that moment, it was really just me and him. Me and Jesus. Although I could feel the utter shock of everyone there. I mean, you could see it in their faces: what in the world is Jesus doing talking to him?? And he wants to go to his home? Granted this would’ve been the perfect chance to gloat a bit. But I didn’t even think about that. All I could think about was Jesus there with me.
And so next thing I know, there we are, walking side by side as we made our way down the road to my home. Now my home was lavish, a monument to all the money I’d scammed off my people over the years. And I’m sure if he knew my name, he knew my transgressions as well. But you know, he never made mention of that – not once. I think that’s the thing that most surprised me about the whole affair. I fully expected some lecture or chastisement at some point. But it never came.
So what did we talk about, you ask? Well, see, that’s the thing. I don’t really remember what we talked about. I mean, we talked; but not about anything specific. You know what I mean, right? You know how it is with friends and neighbors and the casual conversations that just kind of happen during your day? You remember talking to them, but not necessarily what about. It’s just conversation; the manifestation of relationship.
That’s the way it was with Jesus and me. I mean, I’m sure we talked about my life, growing up in Jericho. I’m sure we talked about my family; talked about his family. I imagine he shared a little bit of his journeys over the past couple of years; I bet I talked a bit about the life of a lonely tax collector. Probably the weather somewhere in there…. Like I said, nothing specific.
And yet, it was transformational. It changed me. Because someone took the time to be with me – not a tax collector, but ME. Someone came to my home and gave me nothing more and nothing less than himself. And it changed me – deeply. So much so that, without any prompting, without a single critical word on his part, I described how from that day on things would be different. I shared it with him like one excitedly shares a gift they cannot wait for the other to open: half of my possessions, given to the poor. Those defrauded, repaid four times over. That’s what I said I’d do that day. And that’s exactly what I did.
I once heard someone say that every person you come into contact with in life, no matter for how long or how short a time, every person becomes a part of who you are. Stays with you long after the encounter is over. Never did that idea make more sense to me than the time I encountered Jesus. The same Jesus who, days later, would make his grand entrance into Jerusalem, with an even larger crowd waving palm branches and singing hosannas. It wasn’t by chance he did that. It wasn’t some spontaneous thing. He knew what was happening on the opposite side of that city that same day, that same time: the fancy parade that the Roman empire threw every year at the beginning of Passover, complete with every amount of infantry, cavalry and weaponry to remind God’s people who was really in charge.
See, I see Jesus’ parade that day as the same sort of thing as our time together – the whole idea that real power comes not from who has the most guns or the largest bank account or the biggest mouth. Jesus power comes from the power of our encounter with God – conversation between the human and the divine. Because that conversation goes straight to the heart of the matter; to our very soul, where true transformation takes place.
I count myself as one of those who’s been transformed by Jesus. Well, transformed in the important ways. I’m still no taller than I was before. I may be shrinking, in fact. I still get the jokes every now and then. And I’m still a tax collector. The difference? I’m a transformed tax collector! I don’t take more than I should. I treat people with the respect, the way Jesus treated me. I live in peace with the people I once harassed.
And every day, at some point in the day, even if I have to go a little out of my way, every day I find my way over to that sycamore tree. It’s still there, big and strong as ever. I don’t climb it anymore; my tree-climbing days have long left me. No, I just stand underneath it and remember. And without fail as I stand there, I hear within the voice of Jesus speaking to me new words; like an echo coming around again, touching the deepest part of my soul. And it says, You know, Zacchaeus, when you sat up there in that tree all those years ago, you thought you were looking for me. But the truth of the matter is that I was the one looking for you.
And maybe that’s the question that we all need to ask: not “have we found Jesus” but “has Jesus found us?” Hmm. Maybe tree-climbing isn’t such a bad thing after all – no matter how “vertically challenged” one might be.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.