Text: Luke 19:1-10
I want to begin by asking you to do something this morning. I want you to think about someone that you really don’t like. Maybe this person cheated you or lied to you. Maybe they hold different beliefs or stand on the opposite side of the great political divide from you. Maybe they preach fire and brimstone; or maybe they preach social humanism based in the social gospel. Maybe they have bullied you at school, laughing and pointing at you as you walk down the hall. In your mind’s eye, see them—their face. Hear their voice—imagine them speaking to you. Now hold on to the image of that person. And we will come back to them in a moment.
Zacchaeus was a despised man. Standing barely five feet tall with his shoes on, he was the least popular man in Jericho. He was the head tax-collector for Rome in the district and he was also the richest man in Jericho. Most would tell you that he became the richest man in Jericho by cheating and lying and stealing from others. And possibly they would be right. We know from other stories in the Bible that tax collectors were not very well liked people because of their deceitfulness.
When word got out that Jesus, the holy man, would soon be passing through the city, Zacchaeus—this wee little man—shimmied up a “sycamore tree so he could see more than just the backs of other people’s heads, and that’s where he was when Jesus spotted him.” (Buechner) You know the story. When Jesus came to the place where Zacchaeus was, he looked up into the tree and said to him, “Zacchaues, hurry and come on down; for I need to stay at your house today. And, as the story goes, “Zacchaeus hurried down and was, we are told, happy to welcome Jesus into his home.”
Now it is at this point in the narrative that things really begin to heat up and tempers begin to flare. What happened next would kind of be like Jesus rolling into present day and joining Art Pope for lunch at Raleigh’s exclusive Cardinal Club instead of attending Moral Monday taking place just blocks away. The writer of Luke says, “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” I imagine that I would have been one of those grumblers.
What we know about Jesus from other parables and gospel teachings is that Jesus preferred to be with the outcasts. He is often found eating with sinners and talking to those whom no one else hardly even seems to see, like lepers and women. Just last Sunday we heard the story of the Pharisee and another tax-collector; how Jesus showed mercy to the tax-collector—a self-described sinner—instead of to the Pharisee, a self-affirming righteous man. There are so many stories of Jesus eating with sinners, communing with adulterers, blessing the unworthy, healing the possessed, and touching the unclean. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to us at all that it was Zacchaeus who he sees and chooses to spend time with.
Frederick Buechner writes of Zacchaues: “Zaccheus makes a good one to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds [us] of all the others too. There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn’t stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even. Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zaccheus, they’re all of them somehow treasured too.”
And that, I would say along with Buechner, is the point of this story. Verse 9 says it all, “…because he too is a son of Abraham and Sarah.” He, too, is a child of God. Zacchaeus is both sinner and saint. He is God’s beloved as surely and as truly as the beloved disciple named John. And there is a part of him that is broken and hurting as surely and as truly as Saul was when that bright light struck him on the road to Damascus. Zacchaeus, this wee little man, is the one who reminds us that none of us are outside of God’s redeeming love. He helps us see that even though we are all broken, flawed, hurting; we are all also worthy, loved and honored guests at God’s table. We are both sinner and saint.
This story of the “wee little man” named Zacchaeus is not about a theological formula of repentance followed by salvation as Christian teaching and theology has tended to make it. No, it’s about something much larger than a theological doctrine. It is about God’s nature. It is about God’s justice-love—a love that includes the sinner and the saint, the liberal and the conservative, the poor and the rich, the peacemakers and the power driven. It is about God’s nature; the part of God that sees the potential of goodness in every single human being. And it is that part of God that the human Jesus embodied so fully; and that made him so divine. And it is that part of us, when we are able to see as God sees, that makes us divine, too.
I want us to come back now to the beginning exercise I had you do—to that person that you really don’t like for whatever reason. And this is where, as Brian Crisp said in lectionary group this week, I really don’t like what this book teaches. It’s too disturbing and disruptive to our lives. And yet, part of what we are called to understand as followers of Jesus is that that person we really don’t like—the one or ones who make us grumble, the one that Jesus calls out and goes home with—they, too, are God’s beloved. We may not understand it. We may not like it. But they, too, are included in God’s kin-dom.
I’m not going to ask you to visualize your person and to magically forgive them, or to start loving them this morning. What I am going to do is ask you to see them as God sees them—with compassion, with empathy, and with love, as members of our family, as children of God, as seekers of God. For we must remember the lines from that little song we learned in Sunday school as a child,
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
All of us, regardless of our status as sinner or saint—all of us longs to see, to catch a glimpse of God and to know God’s goodness within us.