He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’ —Luke 19:1-10
The story of Zacchaeus is a well-known one, especially for us short people. Ever since I stopped growing when I was in 8th grade, I’ve been able to relate at least partially to our vertically challenged main character in today’s passage from Luke. One of my most vivid memories related to my height was standing in the lunch line in high school. We were all teenagers, which means we were starving, so of course everyone was crowding as close to the front of the line as possible. Which meant standing shoulder to shoulder and heel to toe with the people beside and in front of you. Luckily, my female friends were more or less my height at the time, but the boys in our grade… not even close! They all had insane growth spurts around freshman year, so they were towering what seemed like feet above us. I distinctly remember standing next to my best friend, who was at eye level, and looking around to see nothing but boys’ t-shirts around us, since all the boys’ chins were above our heads. If I craned my neck, I could see some of their faces, but it wasn’t even worth trying to have a conversation at that angle. It was easier just to let them look over our heads and face the fact that we were basically invisible.
Being short, that is a nice advantage. It’s usually pretty easy to hide or escape notice when that’s what you want. As a naturally shy person, I’ve used this technique many times. Why draw attention to myself when doing so would mean having to worry about impressing people, whether by my appearance or wit or social skills? Much easier to quietly duck down and fade into the background. Anytime I’m not feeling particularly confident, this is a handy strategy.
Unsurprisingly, due to his short stature, Zacchaeus in our story was familiar with this strategy as well. And for good reason: he was about as unpopular of a person as you could find in ancient Judea. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which means that it was his job to collect money from his fellow Jews to give as payment to the occupying Roman army. This “job” didn’t actually come with wages, so the only way to any kind of living doing it was to collect extra money from the taxpayers and keep some of it yourself. How much you chose to take, and from whom, was up to the individual tax collector to decide, so although it was a widely despised occupation, some tax collectors would have been more hated than others. Based on his reputation in our passage, Zacchaeus would’ve been in the “more hated” category for skimming too much off the top, since he is described as being very rich and is clearly disliked by his fellow citizens.
And so, when he wanted to get a better look at Jesus, he used a trick that he as a short man already knew: hiding. Although this time he cleverly combined it with adding height and therefore a better view: he climbed a sycamore tree. Now, sycamore trees in ancient Judea were a type of fig tree with wide, dense, fairly low branches. Those low branches would’ve made the perfect hiding spot for a small person to get a couple yards off the ground but stay concealed so as to avoid notice. His hiding didn’t work out quite as he planned, but we’ll get into that part later.
When most people hear the story of Zacchaeus, I think we tend to think of him either as this funny, bumbling man—probably due to that silly children’s song about the “wee little man”—or else as this worst-of-the-worst sinner who is just lucky that Jesus was so nice to him. I don’t know that we necessarily read the story and automatically put ourselves in Zacchaeus’s place. But when I read this passage this week, that was how it hit me. No, I may not be the “worst of the worst” as a sinner—I can certainly name some terrible sins that I haven’t committed, including the extortion that Zacchaeus was guilty of—but that does not make me innocent.
Yes, Zacchaeus took more money than he should have, and did so at the expense of his fellow Judeans. But, the very nature of his job required that he take some if he wanted any money at all to live on, and it’s hard not to get a little carried away when looking out for your own interests. How many of us could say for certain that we wouldn’t do the same in that situation, or at least take a little bit extra? I don’t think I, for one, could say that with 100% certainty. The truth is that our world is complicated. The systems in which we live and participate are corrupt, just as the system that produced Zacchaeus’ job as a tax collector was corrupt. We participate in sinful patterns and systems on a daily basis as we purchase clothing or food that was produced by workers paid less than a living wage, as we reap the benefits of not being discriminated against based on our skin color—or as we live on land claimed for “free” by our white ancestors after it was taken forcefully away from its Native American inhabitants. Not all of our actions are necessarily malicious, evil, or even sinful in themselves, but that does not mean that we are free from the burden and consequences of this sinful world around us. And that doesn’t even get into the everyday actions we do that are sinful, some large and some small: letting loose harsh words about a family member, coworker, or neighbor; selfishly taking something for ourselves when we know someone else wanted or needed it more; or pretending not to see the person in need whom we could have chosen to help. We are all sinners, plain and simple. And the more we stop to think about our sins, the more ashamed we feel. And the more shame and guilt we feel, the more and more tempting it is to hurry to the nearest sycamore tree and find a good hiding spot.
As Zacchaeus was sitting there up in the tree, he was trying to get an unobstructed view of Jesus. Jesus, this famous traveling rabbi known for his compelling teachings, happened to be in town, and for whatever reason, Zacchaeus really wanted to see him. I imagine it was because he had heard such amazing stories of this teacher: of the healings he had performed, the cryptic parables he would share, and the quotable sayings he originated. Jesus had a magnetic personality and drew people to him, and Zacchaeus was not immune to that pull. The truth is that no one is—that “pull” is the loving presence of God made flesh and dwelling in our midst. A whole crowd had already gathered to see Jesus walk by, and Zacchaeus had a good view of the proceedings from his tree branch, safely shielded by the leaves from anyone seeing such a high-ranking official doing something as undignified as sitting in a tree. Or so he thought.
Suddenly, when Jesus arrived at Zacchaeus’s tree, he stopped! No one else had noticed this little man sneak up the tree, since the crowd was so focused on Jesus and since Zacchaeus had run ahead so that he wouldn’t be seen. But Jesus saw him. And not only did he see him, but he really saw him. He saw him for who he was—for his self-conscious desire to hide, for his many sins, for his social isolation due to everyone’s hatred toward him—but also for his goodness. Jesus saw the goodness in Zacchaeus that no one else had noticed. No one else had believed it existed or had cared to even look for it. No one, not even Zacchaeus himself! But Jesus, this seeming stranger and famous teacher from another town, could see all of this in just one instant. He looked at Zacchaeus, peering through those sycamore branches, and he loved him. And seeing short, despised, Zacchaeus hiding in that tree, Jesus said to him, “Come down at once. I must stay in your home today!” (v. 5). What a shock that must have been!
This is where everything changes. Zacchaeus had planned to stay hidden, but now he was the center of attention. He had planned just to watch, but now he was being called to action. He had assumed that he was unqualified to do anything related to Jesus’ visit, but now he was being asked to contribute in a way that he could certainly manage. He had expected to be despised, but now he was given the greatest honor of all: being the one person chosen to host this renowned rabbi during his one-night stay in Jericho.
And it’s amazing the transformation that happened within Zacchaeus in that moment. Immediately, he jumped down from his branch and welcomed Jesus. The love and respect Jesus had for Zacchaeus instantly extinguished Zacchaeus’s nerves about being seen in the tree. But even more miraculously, Jesus’ loving treatment awakens a desire in Zacchaeus to be a better man. Without any prompting whatsoever—without judgment, knowing glances, demands, or even requests—Zacchaeus decides that it is time to change his life. He declares right then and there that he will change his ways. He will give half of his belongings to the poor, and he will repay anyone that he has cheated with four times as much. Wow! That is not the same man who until this day was cheating his neighbors in order to store up extravagant wealth for himself.
The text doesn’t say so, but I have no doubt in my mind that upon hearing this, Jesus burst into a huge smile. This kind of transformation is exactly what his ministry is about; it’s exactly what God’s love does and what God intends for the world. Turning from bad choices to good ones, from broken relationships to life-giving kinship, from greed to generosity, and from scarcity to abundance. On that day, through Jesus’ invitation, Zacchaeus discovered his God-given potential to do good in the world, embraced it, and was welcomed into this new life with celebration. As the crowds around him grumbled with jealousy at this sinful tax collector receiving such high honor, Jesus ignored the negativity and proclaimed with joy, “Today, salvation has come to his household” (v. 9). This man whom others looked down upon for his sinful lifestyle, and who was self-aware enough to know his own failings and hide from the hostile eyes of the crowd, was never too sinful or too hated or too invisible for Jesus not to see and love him. The love of God emanating from Jesus penetrated through the leafy branches of the sycamore tree and directly into Zacchaeus’s heart, opening him up to his inherent goodness as it pushed away the selfish desires of sin. God’s love is not just for the righteous, or the well-put-together. It is for sinners. It is for us.
And when we allow God’s love in, astonishing things happen. Like the spouse whose love and presence drives you to be a better person when you’re around them, like the coach who knows just how to teach and motivate you to constantly improve, the Holy Spirit works within us to bring out the very best in us and works alongside us to multiply our efforts beyond what we could achieve ourselves. We need not let our guilt and shame burden us any longer; Jesus knows all about it and does not judge us for it. His love for us is not an ignorant love; it is all-knowing but also powerful beyond measure. He loves us because he knows exactly who we are, our very best and our very worst. And he chooses to shower us with that love in the hope that we can embrace our own best and live into the amazing potential that God has created us for. Zacchaeus was not meant to live out his days as a hated tax collector. Instead, he through his transformation has become an inspiration for countless Christians over two millennia and counting. We have our failings, and will continue to fall short, but that is not all we are. We are also beloved children, created by God out of love and precious in God’s sight.
So when we have those days, or those moments, when we wallow in our own sin—when we feel sorry for ourselves, think that we don’t deserve love, or feel hopelessly lost—we can take heart. Jesus says specifically that he came “to seek and save the lost” (v. 10). Jesus doesn’t love us for our perfection, because that’s not who we are. He loves us for our broken, but beloved, selves—for the goodness in our hearts even when shadowed by guilt and sin, and for the powerful potential we each have within us to be his hands and feet spreading love in this world that he came to save. And when we accept that love and allow ourselves to believe and relish in its goodness, we are transformed. We can take a stand for what’s right. We can give more than we thought we could afford. We can reach out to the people who are different from us. We can make a positive difference in spreading the good news of God’s love.
Like Zacchaeus, sometimes we feel so ashamed that we want to hide from God’s love, but the good news is that Jesus will not hold our past against us. Out of love, he died on the cross and freed us from the bondage of sin so we can face the future with hope. Like Zacchaeus, sometimes we worry that we’re not talented enough or experienced enough to be able to do the work God has set in front of us, but the good news is that we don’t do it alone! The Holy Spirit is empowering our every breath, guiding our steps and our hands to serve the needs of the world.
So let us take those steps, accept that love in our hearts, and look ahead with courage and confidence into a future brimming with possibility. Jesus, our Savior, has seen us as we are and loves us, and he is reaching out with a hand and a smile to allow us to experience something new. We, the lost, have been found, and the burdens of our old life need no longer weigh us down. With Jesus inviting us and the Holy Spirit empowering us, we can experience the incomparable life of faith made even more abundant as we learn to share and spread Christ’s love near and far. Thanks be to God. Amen.