First Mennonite Church
July 23, 2017
Jesus Meets With Zacchaeus
Last week’s story took place as Jesus approached Jericho. Today’s story took place while Jesus was passing through Jericho. Zacchaeus is better-known as the rich, short man. At least those are the most obvious characteristics about Zacchaeus. He is a very rich and short man. Yet, Luke’s reason to write this story is to show that Zacchaeus is a “son of Abraham, too, whom the Son of Man came to seek and to save.”
It is really annoying when you want to see something and you have obstacles that prevent you from doing so. Last month I attended Madeleine’s graduation at Flamson Middle School and while I was standing in the back of the auditorium, a taller gentleman came and stood in front of me, blocking my vision to the speaker. I guess he realized the situation and moved to another spot.
Zacchaeus hears Jesus is going through town, but the crowd beats him to the street. When he gets there, both sides of the street are filled with people wanting to have a look at Jesus. You would think the people would be sympathetic to Zacchaeus due to his stature and would allow him to sneak through the crowd to get a good look. No. The town’s people hate Zacchaeus because of his profession. He is a chief tax collector, thus considered a traitor to his nation. And although Zacchaeus is above his people when it comes to authority and economic power, he is physically shorter than the shortest of them. He is hated and most likely he also reciprocates in that. Nonetheless, he is determined to do one thing: he wants to see Jesus. He finds a way to overcome his physical disadvantage. He might have cursed his situation and the indifference of the crowds instead, he clenches his teeth, and pushes his way up a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus sets aside any remaining dignity he has. In ancient Jewish culture, adult people do not run in public. And climbing up trees in the public was even more humiliating for any man of reasonable social stature. Zacchaeus dashes out every sense of dignity for the sake of seeing Jesus. He perches on his branch overhanging the street and peeks through his leafy perch hoping for at least a glimpse of Jesus.
When Jesus arrives where Zacchaeus is perched, Jesus stops by the tree. To the surprise of everyone, Jesus comes to where Zacchaeus is perched and commands him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus reveal what is called “divine imperative.” Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today.” Every other time Jesus uses the phrase “I must” or “it must” as when he described his death to the fleeing disciples on the road to Damascus (Luke 24:7), or when “he must” go to Jerusalem (Matthew 16:21), or when “he must” go through Samaria (John 4:4), where he met the Samaritan woman, or as in this case where Jesus tells Zacchaeus “he must stay at his house,” Jesus reveals a divine appointment. Every time Jesus says he must do something, he reveals God’s intent to intervene in that particular event. And in the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus must stay at his house where something extraordinary was about to take place.
Zacchaeus rejoices not only because he got a good look at who Jesus is, but more importantly because Jesus declares he must stay at his house. The NIV reads: So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. The NRSV reads: So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. Neither translation captures the joy with which Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus to his house. The verse should read: So he hurried down and joyfully welcomed Jesus. Zacchaeus was rejoicing that Jesus not only greeted him but offered to be his guest.
To us the idea of someone offering to be our guest would sound intrepid or worse even, shameless. But in ancient culture people felt honored if someone of great importance offered to be their guest. Such a guest would bring honor to the host family.
The reaction to both Jesus’ personal encounter with Zacchaeus and his offer to “re-dignify” Zacchaeus’ house surprises both Zacchaeus and the crowd. The people begin to mutter: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” In the gospel according to Luke, the rich are always presented in a bad light. In chapter 12 we have the parable of the fool rich man whose soul would be reclaimed that night. In chapter 18, Jesus meets the rich ruler who when commanded to sell everything and to give the money to the poor, went away sad. But here, Jesus offers himself as guest to a rich chief tax collector. And contrary to the young rich man’s being unwilling to change, Zacchaeus offers to give half his wealth away and to repay fourfold those he had cheated. We might wonder, why didn’t Jesus make the same demand to Zacchaeus he did to the rich ruler? This makes clear that Jesus is not against riches or the rich. To be generous never demands us to give away everything we have. To be generous is to give with joy and gratitude. Being generous and grateful are revealed by our openness to others in need. Jesus’ visit not only has changed Zacchaeus’ heart from greed to generosity, but he also completely changed his perspective of life. He will not defraud anyone else. He will in fact repay those he has cheated. He will mend his ways and make a complete “U-turn” in the way he will carry out his business. Zacchaeus pledges to adjust his ways as prescribed in the Old Testament regarding restitution and gives clear evidence of repentance as preached by John the Baptist (Luke 3:10-13).
At the end of Zacchaeus’ declaration of repentance, Jesus declares: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” If the crowd was right in saying that Jesus had entered the house of a sinner, Jesus reverses that description with his declaration. He brings salvation to the sinners. No one is beyond the reach of his grace. Change and transformation are possible for even the hardest sinner. This brings to mind the words of Paul who said about his own salvation: The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost (1Timothy 1:15). If God could raise children to Abraham out of stones, Jesus extended grace to a child of Abraham by changing his heart.
This story raises some themes worthy of our consideration. Zacchaeus was a short man. Could it be possible that Zacchaeus suffered from pathological dwarfism? Luke would not have pointed out Zacchaeus’ stature had he been simply a normally short man. Luke’s intent by describing Zacchaeus as a short man serves to emphasize the impact of Jesus’ saving grace. In Leviticus 21:16-24 we read the list of physical deformities that prevented people from becoming suitable ministers of God. Dwarfs could never serve as priests because their condition was considered a physical blemish. Yet, Jesus’ visit to Zacchaeus not only extended mercy to a hated man and dignified him by becoming his guest of honor, but he also redeemed him from the prejudice and weight of the Levitical law which bans him from ever being a servant of God. Jesus transforms Zacchaeus from bitterness and anger, to a joyful spirit, from a greedy man into a generous person, and from a religious outcast into a child of Abraham. But most of all from a hardened sinner into a redeemed child of God.
Along this same line of thought about Zacchaeus’ physical condition, let us think of those considered disabled today. Jesus did not change Zacchaeus’ physical condition in order to prove the grace of God bestowed upon Zacchaeus. Jesus did not even pay attention to his physical condition at all. Jesus did not have to “fix” Zacchaeus’ physical condition in order to validate he had been endowed with grace. This implies that Jesus treats every person regardless of the world’s standard of what is or is not normal. In other words, Jesus accepts the autistic child just the same as he does the genius. Jesus accepts the blind, the deaf, the mentally retarded just the same as he does us. But what is more, we are called to do the same. The church is called to treat everyone the same, regardless of the physical, mental, or emotional condition the person has.
Another theme or topic that this story raises is the reach of God’s grace. The people murmured when Jesus went, called and offered to stay at Zacchaeus’ home. This man has gone to be the guest of a sinner, the people said. Sinners. Who are they today? Are they still around? Are we still sinners? The people considered Zacchaeus a man unworthy to be Jesus’ host, but Jesus rejected that perception. Is it possible for us to think someone is not worthy of Jesus’ love? If not, let us show signs that everyone is worthy to be in the fellowship of Jesus as we are.
One last point is that of sight. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but he was short and could not see him due to the crowd. Vision. Each of us sees the world differently. Each of our upbringings shaped the way we see the world. For that reason it is not difficult why we cannot see most anything the same way. But when it comes to seeing Jesus, do we help others to see him clearly, or do we block their vision from seeing the real Jesus?
Let us pray that we never block the vision of the Zacchaeuses around us but rather that we usher them to the Lord. Let us pray to the Lord to give us grace to treat everyone with respect and love regardless of his or her physical, mental, or emotional condition. And as for Zacchaeus being a sinner, let us be mindful and grateful for God’s salvation of us. We are saved not because we are righteous, but because we too are sinners except that we have acknowledged our condition in repentance before God. Amen!