For personal, devotional use in this season of COVID-19 public health protocols.
Luke 19:1-10 New International Version (NIV)
Zacchaeus the Tax Collector
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
October 18, 2002 Luke 19:1-10
Today, in our scripture reading, we meet some well-known faces: Jesus, a man named Zacchaeus, and a very grumpy crowd. For me, this is a well-loved bible story… perhaps it is for you too. In ten short verses we have action, drama, transformation…but most importantly a declaration of salvation. The presence of Jesus remodels a human heart and offers new life. Here is the reign of God on earth.
The story tells us that Jesus is intending to pass through the town of Jericho, travelling on his way to Jerusalem. In Luke’s gospel, this is Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem. Tensions are mounting around Jesus’ ministry and soon Jesus will face the most difficult steps in his journey of radical obedience and faithfulness to His Heavenly Father as he is led to a cross.
The story introduces us to a resident of Jericho, Zacchaeus. He is short in physical stature but large in wealth. We’re told he’s not just any tax collector, but a chief tax collector. Here is a man who builds his wealth at the expense of his fellow citizens. Here is a man who uses the foreign occupation of the Roman tax system for his own personal gain. As a chief tax collector, there is probability that Zacchaeus lines his own pockets at the expense of other tax collectors too. In short, in the time of Jesus, tax collectors are considered among the lowest of the low: they exploit their own, and they are complicit with the foreign occupation that puts burden after burden upon the people of Israel.
The story tells us Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus. Perhaps he has heard things about Jesus, and so is simply curious about him. Perhaps Zacchaeus is having a slow day, and the talk on the street of Jesus’ approach is a welcome diversion in the languid hours. Perhaps Zacchaeus has even heard that Jesus is known to be “a friend of sinners and tax collectors”. Wealth, by greed and graft, can be cold comfort indeed. Whatever the reason, Zacchaeus is persistent enough to make an extra effort to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes through Jericho.
The crowd squeezes Zacchaeus out. There are others who want to see Jesus too; to catch a glimpse of this controversial rabbi and miracle worker. Zacchaeus grabs a sightline along the road, and immediately somebody blocks his view. His shortness in stature works against him, both physically and socially. Surely, as a chief tax collector he would be instantly recognizable. Crowds have a way of voicing their displeasure in indirect ways. The jostling, the maneuvering, the pulsating energy of those around him, is more than just because he is short!
So, we’re told, Zacchaeus runs ahead of the crowd, and of Jesus and his disciples. He climbs up among the branches of a sycamore tree…a spot where he can see, but where he is distanced from the immediacy of the action unfolding below. This is something that children might do not grown men; not people of wealth; not tax collectors…and a chief one at that! Zacchaeus really must have had his reasons to want to see Jesus to risk the crowd’s potential laughter and scorn of him with his tree-branch perch.
It all may have unfolded very differently, except Jesus is “the fly in the ointment”. When Jesus reaches the sycamore tree, he stops. He calls out to Zacchaeus and invites him down from among the branches and leaves. Jesus publicly declares that he wants to stay at Zacchaeus’ house. Suddenly, Jesus has catapulted Zacchaeus from the safety of the margins to the middle of the action! In wanting to see Jesus, Zacchaeus discovers that Jesus sees him.
From the sidelines, the crowd mutters their disapproval. How dare Jesus and his disciples fraternize with “those people”….with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector that he is, at that! Jesus has no sense of doing the decent thing. How could Jesus go to a home like that? Doesn’t he know what kind of person Zacchaeus truly is? Doesn’t Jesus have any respect for being a rabbi and teacher of Israel?
The muttering and grumbling that swirls around Jesus and Zacchaeus cannot stop what happens next. Zacchaeus finds his heart and his voice in the presence of Jesus’ acceptance and graciousness towards him. Zacchaeus stands on his feet and declares a newness amid the dust and agitation of the moment. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Zacchaeus stands tall. He says to Jesus that he will offer half his wealth to the poor and that for those whom he has cheated, he will make restitution. Not just legal restitution at double what he has unjustly taken from others but four-fold restitution…a “more than enough” action in seeking to make right his wrong-doing.
The story tells us Jesus speaks to Zacchaeus, but certainly the crowd hears too. Jesus declares that salvation has come to this house…to Zacchaeus, surely, but also to the house of Israel. Zacchaeus’ pledge of sharing and generosity is a sign in the lives of others of God’s rule and realm: abundance to the poor and the lifting of oppression to those suffering injustices. In the presence of Jesus, Zacchaeus discovers divine love and acceptance. He has a change of heart…away from self-interest and greed towards repentance, and concern for his neighbour. Zacchaeus may have been the one at the feet of Jesus, but the lesson Jesus is teaching is for each one in the crowd, who has ears to hear. In his gracious and love-filled service to the world Jesus knows full well Zacchaeus is not the only one who is lost and who needs to hear the word of divine salvation and newness of life.
This story announces that where Jesus is, salvation is to be found. In leading up to Jesus’ arrival into Jericho, Zacchaeus is a cheat and an exploiter of others for his own gain. The crowd reaffirms again and again who Zacchaeus has come to be. They pay their necessary taxes, mutter against the exploitation, and relegate Zacchaeus and his like to a despised status, far from being worthy of the blessing and care of God. In Jericho that day, there is Zacchaeus and all other tax-collectors on one side and the crowd, those who consider themselves living a decent life, on the other. That’s the way it “is”, that’s the way it “has been” and that’s the way it “will be”.
But Jesus upsets the applecart. Jesus does not see Zacchaeus as the crowd is prepared to see Zacchaeus, nor is Jesus at peace with who Zacchaeus is as a “son of Abraham”, or expressed another way, as a child of God. In whatever reason Zacchaeus has for wanting to see Jesus, surely there is this thread of hope that somehow Jesus is important and significant for his life. In Jesus’ kindness and grace towards Zacchaeus the door is opened for something new and different. Jesus’ acceptance, compassion and care offers Zacchaeus the courage to glimpse himself as he is and to realize there is a different path that beckons to him. It is the path of repentance, of forgiveness, of receiving God’s blessings with an open and humble heart. Knowing that he is loved of God, Zacchaeus discovers the courage for a new way forward in a commitment of restoration and generosity that helps to bring healing and hope to others around him.
Sometimes it is a lot easier to murmur and grumble about others. It is more difficult to meet the likes of Zacchaeus on the street and receive the coins he graciously and generously presses into the palm of your hand. When you are used to having to pay your obligation, it is unsettling when at least part of that obligation is gladly lifted, with cheer and good will. When you have felt you have been hard done by, it is a challenge when someone comes to you, extending an olive branch of peace.
Where Jesus is, salvation is to be found. The very life of Jesus proclaims God’s love to the world, God’s realm and rule in earthly life and living. Jesus not only dines with sinners and is guest in their homes, but also dies for sinners. In his dying, there becomes for us hope for a new way forward for who we’ve become, as we realize we’ve grown far from God’s gracious intention for our lives.
Our faith affirms that Jesus, the Living Christ, is indeed present with us. The gospel stories are our stories too. Jesus does come calling. Jesus does pass by our way. Jesus does call out to us and wants to stay with us. Most importantly, Jesus offers us the greatest gift of all: newness of life that is found in God’s gracious love for us. In his living and in his dying, Jesus tells us this gift is vitally significant and essential for our healing and wholeness as children of God.
May what unfolds in the dust of a Jericho roadway so long-ago dwell well in our hearts and lives always.
To God be all glory, honour and praise forever. Amen
Rev. Marion Barclay MacKay