|RIP Leslie Jordan—You'd have been the per-
fect leading man in a movie about Zacchæus.
On the last Sunday of October, we commemorate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Today our call to worship was based on Psalm 46, and our opening hymn was A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. The message was on the story of Zacchæus found in Luke 19.
We also baptized Leah Queen this morning, and, as is our tradition on such Sundays, sang I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry.
Here's the video of today's worship service (click on "read more"), followed by a transcript of the sermon.
Words to Live By
Zacchæus 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.
Do kids still sing that song? I doubt it. But I bet most of us gray-hairs remember it, don’t we? It’s a good song about a good story—a very good story. It’s such a good story that I doubt few of us can appreciate just how good it is. It’s been swallowed up by a children’s song. And though the song covers just about all the salient points of the story, it kinda gives us an excuse not to think about what lies beneath the surface. Zacchæus—and maybe Jesus, too—become caricatures. We don’t think about their humanity in this story.
So let’s look at Zacchæus this morning. He lived in Jericho—a town we know mostly because that’s where Joshua fit the battle. But did you know that Jericho is one of the oldest inhabited places on earth? That wall that came a-tumblin’ down when Joshua had Israel blew their horns was the world’s first protective wall around a city.
The version of Jericho that Jesus passed through on his way to Jerusalem—and Calvary—was a small city at the eastern edge of the Roman province of Judæa—just a few miles north of Qumran. Qumran is famous, because that’s where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. This isn’t really all that important to the story of Zacchæus, but maybe it helps us put his hometown in context.
Jericho wasn’t a huge place. But it was a small city, and so there was some opportunity for somebody who was ambitious. And that’s where Zacchæus comes in. He was a Hebrew, but apparently he didn’t place loyalty to his people or his religion too high on his list of priorities. We don’t actually get to see that list in the Bible, but it’s obvious that money—and maybe power and ambition—are at the top of it. That’s because Zacchæus is a tax collector.
Now you’ve heard me talk about tax collectors before. They’re not like IRS employees. They’re not what we think of as civil servants, doing their job and going home every evening to eat dinner and watch TV (or whatever the first-century version of TV was). Tax collectors in the Bible are always greedy, they’re almost always traitors, and they’re usually thugs. Whenever a place is occupied by a foreign power, there are going to be people who resist the occupation, and there are going to be those who cooperate—or collaborate—with the occupiers. And tax collectors were the ultimate collaborators with Rome. They helped oppress their neighbors by not only collecting Rome’s taxes, but by collecting more than was owed. That’s how they got rich. And their method of doing this was usually by force—either they used force themselves, or they hired ruffians to do it.
So that’s the kind of person Zacchæus was: A greedy criminal as far as his neighbors were concerned. He was hated. People were no doubt afraid of his thugs, but they probably weren’t afraid of Zacchæus himself. Because he was, as we all know, a wee little man. “Short in stature” is the rather formal way we read that in our modern Bibles. We’d also recognize it in the original language, though, because the Greek word for small is micros. So the good people of Jericho might well have thought of Zacchæus as a micro-thug.
If Hollywood were to make a movie about the story of Zacchæus, I think there would have to be a decent amount of comedy in it. And the perfect actor to play the leading rôle would’ve been Leslie Jordan, who tragically died this past week. So if you want to picture the man in the story, I don’t think that’s a bad image to have in our heads.
Speaking of which, the Bible seldom gets into the heads of its characters. Most of the stories we have just tell us what’s going on on the outside, and it’s up to us to figure out what’s going on inside. And nowhere is that truer than in the case of Zacchæus. He’s living in his mansion with his servants, ordering his ruffians to go around town and collect Rome’s taxes from his neighbors. And as far as most people are concerned, he’s got his reward: Lots of money, but no friends… at least no real friends—only the kind of friends money can buy (and even they probably laugh at him behind his back).
But then something happens that exposes the real Zacchæus. Word sweeps through Jericho that a man named Jesus is about to come to town. Communication back then wasn’t great, but word of mouth had probably reached Judæa months before that there was a preacher and miracle worker up in Galilee that had attracted a great following (and a lot of attention from the authorities). There were lots of charlatans then as now, but this man was said to be different. He wasn’t in it for the money and he wasn’t in it for the glory. Apparently his love for God and for the people was genuine. And so everybody wanted to see him and hear what he might have to say.
And lo and behold, “everybody” included our micro-thug, Zacchæus. Maybe if he were anybody else, the crowd gathered on the roadside to watch for Jesus would’ve made way for the little guy so that he, too, could get a look at this Holy Man. But Zacchæus was a jerk. Nobody liked him, and everybody was probably planning a few jokes at his expense over his inability to see over the heads of taller people (and that apparently included just about everybody over the age of twelve). They didn’t have many opportunities to get back at Zacchæus, but here was one chance, and they weren’t about to pass it by.
This should’ve been the end of it. And perhaps even Zacchæus thought it would be. So he didn’t get to join the crowds to see Jesus pass through their city. He’d had bigger disappointments in life. Except maybe he hadn’t. As he watched friends and families and neighbors all gathered together to share in a big event in the life of their community, it hit him especially hard that he had chosen a different path—one that placed money over people and power above community.
I’m sure he knew that just looking at Jesus wasn’t going to change his life. And maybe he didn’t even yet realize what change was, or even that he needed it. But he decided that he just had to see Jesus. Remember how I talked a few weeks ago about how our lives are a journey, a pilgrimage? I also talked that week about punctuation, and how a little dot or squiggle can change the meaning of a sentence. In the same way, one seemingly minor event or interaction can change our attitude about things, or even our direction. And when Zacchæus decided that he had nothing to lose by running ahead so that he could see Jesus, I think that was one of those weird little decisions that made all the difference. For Robert Frost it was choosing the road less traveled. For Zacchæus the tax collector, it was climbing a sycamore tree.
And when the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree,and he said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down!For I'm coming to your house today!’
You’d think that this rich tax collector had once again put himself above his neighbors by climbing that tree to get a look at Jesus. But it was quite the opposite. What he did was a humiliating act for an adult. It would look pretty stupid in 2022 for one of us to do that at a parade, and it was even more embarrassing for an adult male to do that two thousand years ago, in a society that was much more concerned with pride than ours is. Grown men didn’t run, and they most certainly didn’t go climbing trees, especially not right out in public.
What happened next changed Zacchæus’s life… and it also helped changed the way we understand Jesus and his mission. As Jesus walked along the road, he must’ve noticed what the crowds were saying. Some of it was curiosity about who he was. Some of it must’ve been adulation. But some of it also must’ve been derision—not at him, but at the silly little rich man in the sycamore tree—Zacchæus was his name.
And so when Jesus got to the tree, he stopped underneath it, looked up, and said the weirdest thing. He called the man by name, and told him that he was going to his house. “Zacchæus, come down from that tree this instant, because I’ve got to go home with you!” Notice he didn’t ask him if he could go home with him. And he didn’t simply say he intended to go home with him. He told him he had to go home with him.
Something in Zacchæus told him that he had serious problems and that Jesus was the solution (or would at least help him find it). And something in Jesus told him that Zacchæus was the reason he had chosen that road on that day to travel to Jerusalem. God had brought them together, and nothing could now keep them apart.
And, believe me, the crowd would like very much to have kept this from happening. There were dozens—hundreds even—of decent families that Jesus could’ve eaten with that day. Just about any of them would’ve been thrilled to have him. And there were probably quite a few people that weren’t decent—people who were sinners, people who had placed themselves outside the community because of their own actions, and people who were shunned because they were unjustly condemned. But Zacchæus was probably the worst: a greedy sinner and a traitor to his people.
But Jesus looked up in the tree to see who the people were laughing at. And he didn’t see a fool, and he didn’t see a greedy rich man, and he didn’t see a traitor… or maybe he saw all that and more. But what he saw more than anything else was a descendant of Abraham and a child of God. He didn’t see the man who’d lifted himself up to get a better look, but a man who had debased himself because somewhere in him was a seed of faith that was begging to be nurtured.
Look at the proud, the Prophet Habakkuk said, their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith [2:4]. These are words to live by, words that remind us that pride takes many forms, and that righteousness isn’t thinking we’re perfect—that’s self-righteousness. Righteousness is the intention behind our thoughts, words, and deeds. The rich and powerful little micro-thug whom Jesus had to look up to see was not at the moment of their meeting the proud man, but the one man in town that day who had more faith than anybody else—faith enough to, quite literally, go out on a limb. And though he was roundly criticized for it, Jesus realized that it was Zacchæus—more than anyone else in Jericho—for whom he’d come.
Zacchæus was a wee little man, but a happy man was he,for he had seen the Lord that day and a happy man was he;and a very happy man was he.
Zacchæus isn’t the only man in the history of the world whose dreams led him too far in the wrong direction, who got everything he wanted in life only to realize none of that was what he needed. Yet there remained in him a kernel of God’s grace that led him to look for God. And, wonder of wonders! what he discovered was that, at that very moment, God was looking for him. His grateful response was to give away most of what he thought he wanted above all things.
Our response is twofold: We thank God by giving of ourselves, and we show our own faithfulness by welcoming into the community one whom Christ as embraced in his arms. Life is too short to judge. Let us share happiness when we find it, and rejoice when the family grows.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening Jr.