Bible stories that Jesus told have changed more than a few lives; including mine. At an early age, Jesus became my hero. And to this day, I am in awe of his gutsy grace and mind-flipping wisdom that changed people. Dramatically.
Some years ago, I discovered the work of Professor Kenneth E. Bailey. For years, he immersed himself in the traditions and customs of Middle Eastern culture. His understanding of the ways the people of Bible lands thought and lived brings to life the words and actions of Jesus and the people he lived among. His insights have transformed Bible stories for me. Based on Dr. Bailey’s work (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 2008), discover some of the hidden surprises in the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).
Chances are you already know this story. You still remember the children’s song about Zacchaeus being a wee little man. The song begins:
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….
We love this song. It tells a simple, happy story:
Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus.
See him he did. And happy he was!
Happy are all the little people who want to see Jesus.
Now, the adult version of this story is a bit more complicated. As it turns out, Zacchaeus was happy not only because Jesus came to dinner that day, Jesus also saved his life! Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors, especially chief tax collectors were not popular figures. (Some things never change, right?!)
Well, everyone in town noticed things about him. They noticed that he had a bigger house than he should have had. They noticed that he had nicer clothes and ate more extravagantly than almost everyone else. And they noticed that he made them poorer than they should be; and angrier than they wanted to be.
Nearly everyone knew that Zacchaeus had been stealing from them; for years. Only he knew just how much he was supposed to collect. And if he added a little extra, for his benefit, who would know? Well, nearly everyone knew. And nearly everyone hated him.
And this may explain why he avoided crowds. A wee, little man in a big, angry crowd can get oneself stabbed and left for dead in a heartbeat. When the crowd moves along, no one seems to know what happened and how that body ended up on the ground.
So fear may be a reason why Zacchaeus runs ahead of the crowd to hide in a big tree with big leaves to see Jesus. He badly wanted to see Jesus; he was motivated; we just do not know why.
One way to know that he was determined to see Jesus is that he did two very unusual things that day. For one, he ran. No self-respecting Middle Eastern man runs. You just don’t do that! And the reason for that is that it was very shameful for a man to ever show his bare legs in public. It disgraced yourself AND your family. No one ran in their long robes and allowed their legs to show unless they were quite desperate or overcome with joy.
Besides that, men don’t climb trees. Guys just don’t do that. To this day, it is possible to find Middle Eastern men talk about how dreadfully embarrassing it is to climb a tree. It still brings shame to the family.
But Zacchaeus did it anyway. He ran. He climbed a tree. He was up in the tree as Jesus approached. AND as the crowd approached, too. He may have risked his life trying to meet Jesus.
Jesus no doubt understood why the crowd was angry with Zacchaeus. Jesus knew that Zacchaeus, although he was a member of the Jewish community, was on the inside track with the Roman government for whom he gathered taxes. Like everyone, Jesus felt Rome’s oppression daily. Soldiers were everywhere, watching for any signs of unrest or revolt. Rome made them all feel afraid and angry. Yes, Jesus knew what was going on. Everywhere Jesus went, he found the people oppressed, afraid, miserable, and angry.
Zacchaeus was a betrayer and a traitor and deserved every bit of the people’s hatred and anger. Zacchaeus aided and abetted the imperialists, making everyone more miserable than they otherwise would have been.
Now, when Jesus walked up and saw Zacchaeus “treed” by the angry crowd, he could have done several things. He could have joined the crowd and shouted at him and threatened him. That would be understandable to everyone.
Jesus could have looked up to Zacchaeus and said:
“Look, Zack, everyone hates you. What you need to do is repent, quit your job, apologize, get back in good standing with your people, and keep the law of God. IF you do these things, the next time I’m in Jericho, I won’t just pass through, but I’ll stay in your house and tell you what a great man you are!”
And the crowd would have LOVED the speech! But that was not the speech Jesus gave. None of that happened.
This story is typical of many in the gospels: Jesus does not say or do what most people expect him to. Instead, Jesus does the completely unexpected, the unconventional: Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home! For dinner! In the home of a cheat and sinner!
Now I ask you: Has a stranger ever invited themselves to YOUR home? For dinner?! And spend the night?! Very unlikely, I’m sure. I mean WHO does that?? Well, Jesus did.
And again, Jesus does the opposite of customary tradition. Instead of joining the crowd yelling at Zacchaeus, Jesus tells him to “come down” out of the tree right now! And as he does, imagine Jesus physically putting himself between Zacchaeus and the angry people, taking him under his arm, and leading him to safety back toward town. Jesus rescues Zacchaeus from danger by accepting him, loving him, and protecting him. Jesus takes upon himself the anger of the crowd. And saves Zacchaeus’ life. Imagine the chutzpah; the courage!
Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Today, salvation has come.” Today, despite what he has done, Zacchaeus remains within the household and tradition of Abraham and Sarah. He remains part of the family of faith. This is Jesus’ idea of “salvation!”
We do not know how the people felt about Jesus’s courageous act of graciousness. What is clear is that Zacchaeus is transformed by this shocking, amazing, and costly act of Jesus. Zacchaeus responds by likewise offering shocking, gracious, costly, life-altering changes of his own.
‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’
By giving “half of all his stuff,” Zacchaeus commits to undoing the wrongs he has inflicted upon his entire community. And he makes himself very much poorer.
There is even a bit of humor in his line, “If I have defrauded anyone.” If? Everyone knows it’s not an if.
By returning to the residents four times what he stole from them will ensure that Zacchaeus will no longer be among the wealthiest members of the community. In fact, he may soon become the poorest tax collector in all the Roman Empire!
With one simple act, Jesus began the transformation of, not only Zacchaeus but also the entire town. Zacchaeus’ commitments are life-changing for himself and healing for his constituents. His is an act of restitution. It is reparations. It is restoration. It is a miracle. All because of Jesus.
Jesus began the process of redemption that Zacchaeus sustains the rest of his days. And you can be sure that everyone who heard him make that promise will keep him to his word!
And so Jesus, again, fulfills his purpose, his mission: to seek and save the lost.
Here in this one story are all three essential promises of Jesus:
- To proclaim and offer unexpected, costly love — in rescuing a sinner;
- To engage injustice — by lifting the oppressive aspects of the tax system that oppressed the town; and,
- To demonstrate compassion — for both a single man and for the entire community.
All of these will again be proclaimed and lived out as Jesus moves forward to Jerusalem and the Cross.
Now, I believe that every gospel story, every sermon ends with an invitation. So today, I invite you to ponder:
Who, near you and your church, is despised by angry people?
Who, near you and your church, is looked down upon?
Who is friendless?
Who is outcast and looking for safety?
Who is hiding from people who consider them sinners?
Who is eager to see Jesus?
Who is desperate to hear a word of kindness and grace?
Who yearns to be accepted and welcomed?
Who needs to be set free from the mess they’ve made of their lives?
Who needs relief from cultural oppression, systemic racism?
Who is crying out to have stigmas lifted?
You and I have been invited by the Spirit of God and welcomed by Christ into the household of God, to worship and to pray, to care and to serve, to share the good news of God’s love in Christ.
We are daily invited to answer Jesus’ call to love our neighbors, listen to the lost, welcome the outcasts, forgive those who have harmed the community, make space for those who need a home…
We are the ones God needs. We are Jesus’ hands and feet and hearts that bring grace and healing and redemption. We who are followers of Jesus: are called to do this work.
And it is hard work.
But we have one another to help each other do it. For we have the living God, the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ walking alongside us.
This is enough.
No matter our age, our abilities, our energy, our assets, each of us has something to offer and together we can make God’s love visible in our neighborhoods and the world.
So I ask you to ponder this:
Today, how will I be the answer to someone’s prayer? And how will my church be the answer to our neighbors’ prayers?
I invite you to share your answers with others. Share the three essential promises and actions of Jesus:
- To proclaim and offer unexpected, costly love;
- To engage with justice, lifting both the oppressor and the community; and,
- To demonstrate compassion for sinners, especially those you find in a tree and need to be invited to dinner!
Let us pray.
We are yours, you have loved us and redeemed us, gracious God.
May we respond to your costly grace and compassion
by living lives of welcome, freedom, justice, and love.
In Jesus’ name we ask and seek, work and rest.