October 30, 2022, Ordinary 31C (Luke 19:1-10)
by Rev. Dr. Bob Jon
It is a familiar story that many of us used to sing when we were in Sunday school.
“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.”
Just like the children’s song, the popular notion of Zacchaeus seems to belittle his height for being too short, as if he is a handicapped person. In her commentary, Alyce McKenzie, homiletic professor at Perkins STH, refers to an interpretation by Anselm Grun, a New Testament scholar, who argues that Zacchaeus was so small that he felt it necessary to “compensate for his feelings of inferiority by earning as much as possible” (McKenzie, Patheos). It is a plausible interpretation. However, such a notion sounds imaginative and over-psychologizing of Zacchaeus. I am not aware of other scriptural references to someone being ridiculed for being too short. In addition, Grun’s interpretation could dismiss all those who devote themselves to their works as someone who wish to overcome their inner complex.
Who knows if Zacchaeus was just someone who saw an opportunity to make a good living and seized it regardless of how he was seen by his own people? After all, life is short. We have to make the best of what we are given. If I cannot change society, why not go along with it and make a fortune out of the system, which could benefit my family and me? He decided to become a tax collector for the Roman Empire. He assessed each household and business of his community and sent the bills of how much they owed to the Roman government. In addition to the initial tax due to the Romans, whatever he added for his service was his compensation based on the sighs and tears of his own people. It is no wonder why he was labelled as a “sinner” in his town.
When he heard that Jesus was coming to his town, he decided to go and see him. But he could not see him because his view was blocked by the crowd that surrounded Jesus. He could have shaken his head and given up, “Let’s just go home. Maybe I will see him another time.” But that is not what he did. He saw a sycamore tree nearby and climbed it up, waiting for Jesus to pass by. When Jesus came and saw him, he said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” How did Jesus even know his name? Did someone tell Jesus that the name of this person sitting on the tree was Zacchaeus? In John 1, Nathanael praised Jesus and said, “You are the Son of God!” as he acknowledged who he was. How did Zacchaeus feel when Jesus knew him by his name?
Jesus even invites himself to the house of Zacchaeus. “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Whatever path Zacchaeus was going up to this point, he shows a change in his heart – repentance. “Look, Jesus, half of my possessions, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Repentance is not just a change in our hearts that many Christians proudly proclaim with their lips. It is followed by our actions that reflect the radical love and forgiveness of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines cheap grace as “preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.” So, Zacchaeus commits to a different way of living by amending his broken relationship with his neighbors.
However, the crowd that heard Jesus was not happy because Zacchaeus was a “sinner” who deserved to stay outside their circle. He deserved to be punished by God, cast out, and condemned. But Jesus, who says, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17), invites himself to the house of a “sinner” without even asking for his consent. Just as the risen Christ came through the locked door without even asking his disciples if he could come in, he finds us, comes to us, and even dwells in us. Yes, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus and made an extraordinary, even childish, effort to climb up the tree. But Jesus is the One who sees him even before he did so. He is the One who crosses societal and religious obstacles that shuts doors to a sinner. And he wants to go into his house and dine with his family. Therefore, the story about Zacchaeus clarifies Jesus’ parable about the pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, challenging us to answer “Who is the actual sinner today? Who is condemned as a sinner but more justified before God?”
Final thought. What if the crowd saw Zacchaeus and made way for him so that he could stand with them together and welcome Jesus to their town? When is it that we, good Christians, stand in the way of others in the name of our religion when they honestly and sincerely seek their relationship with God today?