|Artwork by Ayseluna Hockenbary|
At the Table with Jesus: Zacchaeus
I asked you to share about a time when you might have gone to some amount of expense or effort to see someone special - a celebrity or a special guest, or a performer. I’ll tell you about a couple of my experiences, both of which relate to Jesus Christ Superstar of course, my very favorite musical.
I first saw the show when I was in junior high as part of a youth group outing. I think I’ve told you before that I immediately developed a huge crush on the actor who played Judas, and I immediately fell in love with the musical. I worked really hard to be able to see the show more than once a season, even though going from my home in Rome to the big city of Syracuse at the time was a major outing, and buying tickets to the show was costly. But although I would gaze at the actor who played Judas from afar, I absolutely would not go up and speak to him. All the actors came out after the show to greet the audience. I sent my program with my big brother to have him sign, and of course my big brother pointed at me, embarrassing me to no end, but there was no way I was actually going to speak to him directly. I wanted to see him, but I didn’t necessarily want him to see me.
The second experience that came to my mind also relates to Superstar. Not so many years ago, Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the movie version of Superstar, was coming to Syracuse for a special showing of the film. You could get regular old tickets, and see him and another actor from the show on stage introducing the film and sharing some tidbits about their experiences shooting the movie. But they also had some VIP tickets available. For an extra fee of some size, you could be a VIP guest or a deluxe VIP guest. If you were a VIP or deluxe VIP guest you’d get to attend a meet and greet before the showing, get a photo with Ted Neeley, get a special t-shirt and gift bag, and then get to sit near him during the film. The deluxe VIPs got to sit on his right and left side for the film. The other VIPs got to sit in the row right behind him. I wanted one of those VIP tickets. But I intentionally just got one of the regular VIP seats. I wanted to be near Ted Neeley, but sitting right next to him for the whole movie, and having that much of his attention for such a sustained time? I didn’t think I could quite handle that! Who have you longed to see, gone to some lengths to get to see? How close did you want to get?
Today, as we turn again to the gospel of Luke we find Jesus traveling through Jericho. As he’s traveling, a crowd gathers along the way, hoping they can see Jesus. And among the crowd is a man named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, Luke tells us, is a wealthy chief-tax collector. Remember, we talked about tax collectors a few weeks ago. Tax collectors were considered traitors - they were Jewish folks working for the Roman government. The Romans were the occupying force in Israel, and they were generally hated. And Jewish tax collectors working for the Roman government had a reputation for overcharging - they could keep anything extra they collected in taxes and line their own pockets. And so tax chiefs were considered traitors to their people and their faith.
This Zacchaeus, we read, is trying to see Jesus. We don’t know why exactly. What has he heard about Jesus? Perhaps he’s heard that Jesus has a tax collector, Levi, among his followers. Perhaps he’s heard that Jesus has eaten meals with tax collectors. At any rate, he wants to see Jesus. But Zacchaeus is short in stature, and in the crowd, he can’t hope to even catch a glimpse of Jesus. So he runs ahead and climbs up into the branches of a Sycamore tree so that he will be able to see Jesus as he passes by. His behavior is a little - uncouth - for an adult man. To run, to climb a tree - his behavior is childish. But he just wants to see Jesus, and so he does what he needs to do.
What I can’t figure out is whether Zacchaeus hoped or expected that Jesus would see him in return. But of course, Jesus does. He looks up, sees Zacchaeus, and says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted, and he hurries to get down from the tree so he can welcome Jesus. But not everyone else is quite so pleased. Everyone begins grumbling about Jesus, saying, “He’s going to be the guest of someone who is a sinner!”
Here’s where things get interesting: Zacchaeus speaks up for himself. In our version of the Bible, we read that Zacchaeus says, “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.” Put this way, it looks like Zacchaeus is making a public act of repentance, vowing to change his ways going forward, either in response to Jesus favoring him by choosing to come to his home, or in response to the crowds, as if to placate their grumbling, to show he’s turning over a new leaf. And then Jesus says to Zaccheaus: “Today salvation has come to this house.” He declares that Zacchaeus, too, is a son of Abraham. And Jesus says that his purpose is to seek out and save the lost. It reads like a great story of repentance and redemption.
Except for one thing that I didn’t realize until I was doing my research for today’s message, something I missed every other time I’ve preached on this text. When you look at the original language of the New Testament, the Greek, there’s something surprising (to us at least) about what Zacchaeus actually says. He doesn’t say “I will give half of my possessions to the poor and “I will payback four-fold anything people have been overcharged.” The verbs he uses are present-tense. As in, Zacchaeus is saying that he is doing these things already. He’s saying, “I am giving my half of my money to the poor,” and “I am repaying people who have been overcharged.” Huh. If the verbs are present-tense, it seems like Zacchaeus is trying to show how he is undeserving of the criticism of the crowds, or at least letting them know that he’s already been working to mend his ways, to make changes to his hurtful practices. Whether Zacchaeus has always been trying to be an exemplary tax-collector, or whether he has made some recent changes to his behavior, Zacchaeus can’t be so easily labeled by the crowd or by us as a “sinner” or traitor or an evildoer. In fact, we can contrast him to the rich ruler, who, in just the previous chapter of Luke, was sad and seemingly unready to follow Jesus quite yet if it meant selling his stuff. Zacchaeus has made a significant beginning already. And his very name might be telling. Zacchaeus means innocent.
So, if the point of this text, then, isn’t that Zacchaeus makes a sudden declaration of a new path in life once Jesus invites him to dinner, what is it about? If Zacchaeus was already on the path to trying to do his best, trying to go against the grain of the stereotypical tax collector, why do we need to know his story?
To answer this, I think we have to look at what’s different about Zacchaeus’s story. What makes this story stand out? What’s unique about it, that would make it important enough for Luke to record? Obviously, as we’ve seen over these past weeks, Jesus often eats with folks known as tax collectors and sinners. Why do we care that he eats with Zacchaeus in particular? Well, of course, the other thing that sets Zacchaeus apart is his size. Zacchaeus is short in stature. He wants to see Jesus, but can’t. And apparently no one is making a place for him. No one is giving him a spot in the front row. He’s getting lost in the crowd, and he’s afraid he’ll miss the opportunity. So he makes his own place. Even if it means all the attention eventually gets drawn to him, and he has to embarrass himself enough to be a grown man running and climbing a tree, if it means he gets to see Jesus, he’ll do it.
Zacchaeus’s story is about seeing Jesus, and being seen by Jesus, about seeing God, and being seen by God. David Lose writes, “Perhaps Zacchaeus simply represents the chief attribute of all disciples: a desire to see Jesus and a corresponding joy in his presence.” Zacchaeus longs to see God in the flesh, and will make a fool of himself to make it happen. What will you do to make sure you can get close to God? Are you willing to make a bit of a fool of yourself? To stand outside of the crowd, to take extra measures, if that’s what it takes?
And unlike the crowd who doesn’t notice Zacchaeus when he could use some help getting to the right spot, but notices him when it comes time to dole out grumbling judgment, Jesus sees Zacchaeus right away, and wants to be in relationship with him. As in the other encounters we’ve had with so-called sinful people this Lent, Jesus says nothing to chastise Zacchaeus, or tell him he should change his behavior. He just sees him, speaks to him, and commits to spending time with him. God-in-the-flesh sees Zacchaeus. Do you feel like God sees you? What does God see in you? Do we see each other in the same way that God sees us?
This Lenten season, we’ve watched people see and be seen by Jesus - Levi and the tax collectors, a woman who has a known sinner, and Simon the Pharisee, people seeking out places of honor and people in low places, not making it onto many guest lists, and Zacchaeus, short in stature, but not too small for God’s notice. What we find is not so much a pattern of sinners being called out and held accountable and so moved to repentance, but people being seen for the first time in a long time, after being shoved to the sides, dismissed, and disregarded. And finally being seen, being seen and loved by Jesus, we’ve witnessed that love do amazing things in their lives. Being seen and loved changes everything.
Friends, whatever you have gone through or are going through, whatever you’ve struggled with, whatever labels have been laid on you by people who assume they know all they need to know about you already - God sees you. And God is delighted when you go out of your way to see God. And God is delighted to spend time with you. Because God loves you. And I think trusting in that unwavering love can change your whole life, and free you to be exactly who God is calling you to be.
And friends, one piece of who God calls us to be is to be someone who sees like God does! To begin to see like God does, at least. It’s life-long work. Who is on the outside? Who’s on the margin? Who has been ruled out of bounds? Whose unseen generosity and faith would surprise us? Who is trying to find a spot where they can see Jesus, that we could let to the front of the line? Who has climbed up a tree, hoping to be noticed? Jesus sees so clearly. And the closer we draw to Jesus, the more clearly we will see too. Amen.