Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
It was a bit uncharacteristic for her, because between the two of us I tend to have the more collector tendencies, but a while back my wife decided that she wanted to get the complete collection Disney Animated Studio movies. As of right now there are fifty-five movies in that collection. A couple of the older, obscure ones have never been released on DVD, but she is off to a good start with just under half of them in a couple of years. We have watched these animated movies with our kids and that has been an interesting experience. In many instances the last time we watched these movies were back when we were children, and what we noticed and think about the movies has changed a lot. Some of the Disney movies, Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland for instance, really do not hold up. There are others that do stand the test of the time, like Beauty and the Beast. I would know, because the movie was just released on Blu-ray in September and I lost count how many times it has been watched in our house already. However, even then there are things that I noticed as an adult that I was completely oblivious to. For instance, Beauty and the Beast has a near critical plot hole. The Beast’s castle has to be no more than three or four miles from the village, yet the entire village has not clue there is a monster living next door. The movie hand waves and ignores this little issue, but it is a gaping hole in the plot that I completely missed when I was younger.
I mention how age can change the perception of children’s movies, because I think that same principle applies to this morning’s scripture. I do not know about you, but the story of Zacchaeus is one that I will always associate with vacation bible school and Children’s church. It is impossible for me to read this scripture without singing the song. I know that many of you know it: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.” At just the name of Zacchaeus I can see the coloring sheet and storybook images from my younger days. Like many of you, I was taught the story of Zacchaeus and I was taught the main point of the story is that Jesus loves and cares for everyone, even someone who has a reputation of being not nice like Zacchaeus. That is certainly a valid lesson to take out of this scripture. However, just like I noticed different things when viewing Disney movies again, there are some different things that stick out of this story. Specifically, I am wondering just what kind of person was Zacchaeus, why did meeting Jesus change his life so quickly, and what other lessons can we learn from his story?
The reason why we teach young children that Zacchaeus was not very nice, is because he was a tax collector. Not only that, but he was the chief tax collector. This means that not only was he a tax collector but he administrated other tax collectors. The scripture we looked at last week also had a tax collector, and I mentioned that tax collectors were hated. They were viewed as thieves and traitors. This is because the tax collectors were locals, recruited by the Romans, to take money to the people and ship it off to Rome. The taxes could feel oppressive and it was made worse by the fact that it was one of your own doing the oppression. That is why tax collectors were viewed as traitors. They were viewed as thieves because tax collectors did not have a salary. They received their income from the taxes the collected. A certain amount had to be sent in, but beyond that the tax collectors had a lot of discretion on how much they collected. As you can imagine, most tax collectors brought in enough taxes so that they could live quite comfortably. This lifestyle happened completely at the expense of their neighbor. Imagine how you would feel if you are just barely getting by, and your neighborhood tax collector cruises by in a brand new Ferrari, a car that you know that he could only afford because he raised your taxes this year. The scripture says Zacchaeus climbed the tree because he could not see over the crowd, but perhaps he also climbed the tree because the crowd intentionally kept him pushed back. As I read this morning’s scripture, there are two questions that come to mind. Why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus so badly and what happened in meeting Jesus that caused Zacchaeus to change so quickly?
Jesus meets Zacchaeus towards the end of his life. The scripture begins with “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.” Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for what would become holy week. One of the main ways to get from Galilee where Jesus primarily ministered and lived was to travel by the Jordan to Jericho, and from Jericho there was a twenty some mile walk through desert to Jerusalem. This means at this point, Jesus was not exactly an unknown quantity. Zacchaeus would have heard the stories of Jesus. Perhaps he sought Jesus out because he wanted to see the miracle worker in action. Of course by this point, stories would have traveled about what kind of teacher Jesus was. Zacchaeus would have heard how Jesus taught like one with authority. He would have heard stories of the cryptic but deep parables Jesus told, and he would have heard stories of lives changed. Based off the reaction of meeting Jesus, I think this is what drew Zacchaeus to Jesus. The possibility of a changed life is what led Zacchaeus to climb a tree so that he could get a glimpse of this life-changing rabbi.
If that is true, then why did Zacchaeus want a change in his life? I realize that at this point we are in the realm of complete conjecture, but for me to better understand the scripture I think it is important to ask what are the details of the story that are not recorded on the page. In this instance, just who was Zacchaeus? Perhaps he was a man who knew what he wanted. He had spent years pursuing wealth and power. He saw that a tax collector was the fast track to that. As an agent of the empire he could command respect, or in the very least demand fear. He was able to take what he wanted. He grew wealthy. He was clearly very good at collecting the Roman cut, because he was elevated to chief tax collector. He poured himself into his work, he tenaciously pursued his goals, and he did not care who he stepped on to get to the top. In this hypothetical scenario, Zacchaeus reached his goal. He had more wealth than he could have imagined and he was the top dog, but perhaps he realized that being the top dog was not all he thought it would be. Perhaps Zacchaeus discovered that for all of his money and power, he was just still just a little man. Perhaps he found himself alone, full of guilt, and ashamed. Perhaps in the dark of night he found it difficult to sleep because his great wealth came at the expense of his heart and soul. Maybe that is why he wanted a change and why he sought Jesus out.
Another possible scenario, is that Zacchaeus grew up as an outcast. He was always shorter than the other boys, and I have no doubt that teens of the first century could be just as cruel as the teens of day. Perhaps for reasons out of his control Zacchaeus found himself on the outskirts of his social circles and community. It only made sense that an outcast would find himself in a profession that seemed designed for outcast. After all, it could have seemed to Zacchaeus that no one liked him anyway, so why not give them another reason. Being a tax collector made Zacchaeus wealthy, but wealth was not he wanted. Perhaps all he truly wanted was acceptance. When Zacchaeus saw his reflection all he saw was a little man, scorned and unwanted. Perhaps this is why he sought Jesus out. He had heard of the Rabbi who seemed to offer more to life. Perhaps, Zacchaeus wanted to find Jesus because more than anything Zacchaeus wanted to hear someone tell him that he was loved and accepted for who he was.
Now clearly both of those hypothetical scenarios are just guesses, we have no way of knowing. However, we do know there has to be a deeper story to Zacchaeus. There had to be some deep inner turmoil going, because just being recognized by Jesus, just greeting Jesus has a profound impact on him. When Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house he bestowed honor upon him. He communicated that Zacchaeus is someone worthy of my attention, my time, and even my blessing. We get the sense by the muttering of the crowds, that no one had ever really communicated that to Zacchaeus. Jesus touched a chord deep in Zacchaeus that caused him to do an instant 180. He pledges to immediately give half of his wealth to the poor, and then he pledges to pay back four times the people he cheated. Zacchaeus repented and backed up that repentance with his actions. This is why Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
As we consider how the story of Zacchaeus applies to us today, I think there are two questions to consider. First, who are the Zacchaeuses around us? Who are those people that have a bad reputation they cannot shake? Who are those people on the outskirts that do not seem to be liked that much? It is possible those Zacchaeuses of Edinburgh, much like the Zacchaeus of the bible, deserve their reputation. They might engage in destructive behavior and they may not be very nice. It is easy for us to be part of the crowd, shake our head in disbelief or disappointment, and say “how sad.” We have to view them more as sad objects of pity. They are still people, they are still loved by God, and they still need Jesus. Thankfully for Zacchaeus his desire to come to Jesus drove him to climb a tree. What if it did not though? What if the crowd kept him pushed to the outside until he left in frustration with another chip on his shoulder. It is imperative that we make sure we are never ever standing in the way of someone getting to Jesus. People should not have to find trees to get around our way of doing things, our ideology, or our judgmental attitudes to get to Christ. Instead of being roadblocks to the Zacchaeus in our midst, we should instead reflect Christ to them. It is through us, not in spite of us, that those who are unloved, unwanted, and stuck in bad life circumstances find the forgiving, live changing love of Jesus.
The second question for us to consider, is how has Jesus changed our life? In the scripture meeting Jesus is a profound, life changing experience. This is not an isolated experience. One of the things that comes across in the New Testament is that to truly know Jesus is to have a life changing experience. I think a good reflective question to ask ourselves from time to time, is how is would I be living my life different right now if I was not a Christian? If we struggle to come up with an answer, that is a warning sign. Meeting Jesus caused Zacchaeus to repent and turn his life around. He went from making an abundant living from greed to performing amazing acts of generosity. The bible does not say, but I imagine generosity became the new normal for Zacchaeus. Repentance is not a one and done act, it is a new course that guides and directs our life. I imagine that Zacchaeus went from being a little man that people thought little of, to being a little man who was known by the size of his big heart. Meeting Jesus should lead us to repent too. We turn from a sinful behavior, and do the opposite. The story of Zacchaeus should cause us to reflect on how well we are doing at that, and if necessary this story should convict us to fall before Jesus and repent all over again.
The story of Zacchaeus is a familiar one to many of us, but just because we have heard it before does not mean we should dismiss it. May we always be willing to look upon the scriptures with fresh eyes and a heart willing to change. May we be willing to allow scriptures like this one to convict us and may we be open to being molded by them. If today you have been reminded of areas in your life where you are a bit lax in repentance, may you seek Christ once again, repent, and be made new. May we also ask God to show who are the people like Zacchaeus in our community. May we be willing to reach out to those people, invite them, and may we shine the love of Jesus Christ in to their lives. May we take this task seriously, because as this morning’s scripture reminds us, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” May we do our part to help the lost get found.