+ When I was a little boy at the Lutheran Church at which I grew up, we used to sing a little song in Sunday School. I haven’t heard since then. I bet James knows the song. But it went like this:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in the sycamore tree,
The Savior for to see.
In fact, I even remember an illustration of Zacchaus for us little tykes. It showed this little man in a tree looking at Jesus. It must’ve been the fact that he was “wee little man” that made him so appealing to kids.
At the time, I was certain that Zacchaeus was a munchkin of some sort. Of course, the Bible and the Wizard of Oz were both equally meaningful to me at that time (and at time both still are).
But his wee stature makes our Gospel reading a seemingly pleasant story. We’ve all heard this story of how Zacchaeus climbed the Sycamore tree to see Jesus. And on the surface, it really is a pleasant story. It seems to be a story of faith and persistence and how, with faith and persistence, Zacchaeus invited Jesus to his home, which Jesus did and ate with him. A very nice story.
But…(there’s always a “but”) to truly understand this story we have to, as we always and always should, put it within the proper context of its time and its culture. When we do that, we find layers to this story that we might not have seen at first glance.
The first clue that something more is going on in this story is the fact that Zacchaeus is identified a chief tax collector. And that he is rich. The fact that he is rich is actually a bit redundant. The chief tax collector is, of course, going to be rich.
But it isn’t that he’s rich that we might find something deeper going on. The real big deal to this story is that he is a tax collector. That’s important.
I don’t know if you remember our Gospel story from last week—the story of the Pharisee and the—who?—the tax collector? In that story, the tax collector went to heaven, the Pharisee went to hell. This week, we have another tax collector.
The reason Jesus uses tax collectors in this way is important. It’s important because a tax collector at that time, in that culture, was one of the worst people one could imagine, if you were a good Jew, that is.
On one hand, he was seen as a traitor. He had sided with the occupying government—the Roman government—and collected taxes from his own people to pay the Roman government. These tax collectors were also notorious for lining their own pockets. And this might be why there is mention of the fact that he is rich. He, no doubt, was rich because he stole money from the people. It was easy for tax collectors to skim the coffers so they could keep what they wanted for themselves. And even if they didn’t resort to such underhanded dealings, they were usually judged by the general population as doing so. Certainly, no one trusted and certainly no one liked tax collectors.
But this wasn’t the end of Zacchaeus’ troubles. Probably worst of all, Zacchaeus was seen as ritually unclean by his fellow Jews. After all, he handled the money of the Romans, which had on it, an image of the Emperor. Since the Emperor was viewed as divine, as a god, what Zacchaeus was handling then was essentially a pagan image and to handle it was to make one’s self unclean according to the Jewish Law.
So, Zacchaeus—poor Zacchaeus—was in a lose-lose situation. He was despised as being both a traitor and as being religiously unclean. And Jesus knew full well who Zacchaeus was and what he stood for in his world when he called up to Zacchaeus in that tree and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Jesus knew full well that Zacchaeus was unclean—nationally and religiously. Zacchaeus was an outcast. He was living in the fringes of his society. He probably had few friends—and the few friends he had were no doubt friends with ulterior motives—friends who knew they could get something out of Zacchaeus.
When we re-examine our Gospel story again knowing what we know now, the story takes on a very different tone. It becomes less of a sweet, Sunday School story about a short man and becomes quite a radical story. It shows us that Jesus truly was able to step outside the boundaries of his day and reach out to those who truly needed him.
Now, for Zacchaeus, he does the right thing. He says to Jesus that he will not only pay back half of his possessions, but he even offers to pay back four times the amount he stole. This is really incredible because Jewish Law didn’t expect anything close to four times the amount being paid back. In the 6th Chapter of Leviticus, whenever anyone commits a trespass against God by deceiving a neighbor in the a matter of a deposit or pledge or by robbery or if one has defrauded a neighbor, the one who defrauded shall pay back the principal and add one-fifth to it. (Leviticus 6.1-7)
But we know why Zacchaeus makes the offer he does. For those of us who are truly repentant, that’s what it feels like sometimes, doesn’t it? I often hear from people about how sorry they are for this and for that. But on those occasions, when I am truly sorry—truly repentant, truly striving to make right the wrongs I’ve done—I find myself wanting to go above and beyond the call of duty. I want to make right the wrongs I’ve done and feel as though it is truly right again. That is what Zacchaeus is truly saying to Jesus. And that is what we should be truly saying to Jesus as well when we turn away from the wrongs we’ve done and attempt to do right again.
The story of Zacchaeus shows us that sometimes Jesus must violate some social norms and even the popular interpretation of scripture. Just by going to Zacchaeus’ home, Jesus has made several major faux pas. He has talked with an unclean person. He has gone with this unclean person to the house of the unclean person—a household which according to Jewish Law is unclean as well. That means the building, the wife, the children, anyone who enters it, is unclean.
So Jesus enters the unclean dwelling of an unclean person. And what does he do there? He probably goes there and he probably eats there. Again, two more things the Law was clear were wrong. Eating food prepared and served by unclean people was unclean as well. And eating that food makes the clean person unclean.
And yet, as we know, Jesus was not made unclean by any of this. What in fact happens? Jesus makes the unclean clean. Jesus purifies this man, his family, his house, his food—his life. The purification of Jesus was bigger than anything anyone at that time could possibly understand. And even for us—now. His presence and his Word turns the uncleanliness of that place into a place of redemption and joy. And that is how this story for today really ends.
It’s never mentioned outside of the fact that Zacchaeus is “happy to welcome” Jesus, but there seems to be an almost palpable joy present in this story. The word Joy is never even used. But we know—we feel—that as this story ends, there is a true and wonderful joy now living in that house of Zacchaeus because of Jesus’ presence there. The lost have been saved. The unclean have been cleansed. The wrongs have been righted. See, this is what want for our story as well.
No matter what we’ve done, no matter how unclean we or the standards of our own day or society have made us, the presence of Christ in our lives, the sound of his Word in our ears, redeems us. With Christ, we have been found. With Christ, joy has replaced whatever dark emotions lived within us at one time.
Those of who have climbed the sycamore tree searching for Jesus, who have gone here and there searching for him among the crowds, have not found his salvation in those places. Where have we found Jesus? Right here. In our own homes—in our own place. Jesus comes to us in a familiar place and we are better for it. Jesus comes and fills out familiar places with joy. Jesus is still saying to each of us today, “hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
Our house is this life that we have. It is this house he enters and dwells within. And by his presence he purifies. And fills with an almost palpable joy!
Today, at this altar, we will heed that call. When we come forward for Eucharist—when we come forward to eat his flesh and drink his Blood, we are saying yes to his command that he must stay at our house today. And when we leave here and go into the world, we do so knowing he has redeemed us and made us whole so that we can share that joy we feel with others. And that we no longer see the uncleanness of others.
So, let us listen to his words to us.
“Today salvation has come to this house.”
That salvation he promises is with us. Here. Now. Let us rejoice in that salvation. And let that implied joy we find in our Gospel story come bubbling up within us at this news so that when he comes to us we will be overjoyed to welcome him.