October 10, 2021
A Wee Little Man
When I hear the name Zacchaeus, I always think of that song and “a wee little man was he.” Sometimes I feel like doing the gestures, “He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”
The name Zacchaeus, though, doesn’t mean “short person” or “tree climber.” It means “pure” or “the righteous one.” The story of Zacchaeus is about an unlikely hero who gets his life turned around by Jesus.
Here’s what I love about Zacchaeus. When he spots Jesus from up in that tree, he’s so joyful. It’s like he can see all the way through winter to springtime.
You know, this morning, it was just a little chilly. How rude. I know we can expect an unseasonably warm, sunny afternoon. Yet, according to something called an AcuWeather Alert on my phone just yesterday, quote “Winter is expected to arrive early for many – and pull out all of the stops.”
Into every life, winter comes. Times when the cold wind bites. Grey skies and bare trees. Times when you just want to eat an apple pie and hibernate.
My hope is that meditating on Zacchaeus reminds us what it’s like to fix our eyes on Jesus. It’s like when the morning sun cracks the horizon and burns off the chill.
Hang with me while we do a super quick Bible study. In Luke, we’ve heard all about the life and teachings of Jesus. Now, right before Jesus heads into Jerusalem for the final week of his life, here’s the order of the stories:
First, a rich man comes to Jesus and says “I’ve followed all of the commandments, what else do I have to do to experience your kingdom?” Jesus says, “Go sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” That man goes away sad because he’s wealthy.
Then Jesus tells the disciples that he will enter Jerusalem, be killed, and on the third day, rise again. But the disciples just can’t understand it.
Next, we have the story of Jesus healing a blind man, a beggar. That story is a turning point in the gospel. It represents the reader’s eyes being opened. And then, we meet Zacchaeus.
Finally, the story of Zacchaeus. Here’s another rich man. Only this time, instead of going away sad, he’s saved and gave his money to the poor – and joyful.
Zacchaeus – the pure, the righteous one – is symbol of what happens when we see Jesus and we get it. Our eyes are opened.
In order to put ourselves in this story, we’ll break it down and take it one part at a time.
A little warning. This is an interactive sermon. At four different points in this story, I’m going to ask a question. Don’t answer out loud. It’s not that interactive. We’ll pause for one minute of silence to reflect on it. Then, after a minute of silence, I’ll gesture to our music leaders, and we’ll sing the chorus of Sanctuary. That’ll bring us back together, and I’ll continue with the story.
Also, I know. I skipped reading the scripture. I’m going to read it as we go along. Don’t worry; you’ll catch on.
Chapter One: An Unlikely Hero
We start with verses one and two. “Entering Jericho, Jesus passed through the city. There was a wealthy person there named Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector.”
When we first meet Zacchaeus, we learn that he’s wealthy and a tax collector. He’s one of the people, but he’s working for the man. He makes his entire salary by exploiting people: an extra tax for the four wheels on your cart or maybe a charge for each of the animal pulling the cart. He’s probably one of the most hated people in town.
Zacchaeus is the kind of guy that owns a payday loan business inside a liquor store. He runs insurance scams to take advantage of senior citizens. I wouldn’t even be Facebook friends with Zacchaeus. But here’s what happens.
Verse three: “Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, but he couldn’t do so because of the crowd, since he was short.”
He was short. Remember: a wee little man. He’s like a little kid at a parade who can’t see the action. I wonder if he was actually a person with dwarfism, meaning an adult less than 4 feet and ten inches tall. I wonder if he experienced his short stature as a disability. Zacchaeus is a privileged guy. He doesn’t have to worry about paying off his credit cards. But right now, he feels like an outsider. Whether you’re tall or short, we all have days where we feel small.
Maybe I have to recognize that I’m like an outsider in some way before I’m ready to go looking for Jesus.
Here’s the first question for reflection. In what way do you feel like an outsider who needs Jesus?
Chapter Two: The Eager Believer
Let’s read just verse four. “In order to see Jesus, Zacchaeus ran on ahead, then climbed a sycamore tree that was along the route.”
Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was. He doesn’t even know who it is yet. But he’s curious. He’s hopeful. He can sense there’s an answer there.
He runs ahead with gusto and climbs a tree. This is kind of astonishing. He’s humbling himself by climbing a tree. He’s going to tear his nice suit. He’s displaying a pure heart, child-like enthusiasm. He’s like a little kid running ahead to be first in line for the parade and catch a glimpse of Santa or Cinderella. We don’t know exactly what Zacchaeus hoped to see in Jesus. We just know that he’s enthusiastic.
Here’s our second question for reflection. I wonder: In your life, when have you chased after your desire with enthusiasm like Zacchaeus?
Chapter Three: Meeting Jesus
Our story continues with verses five through seven. “When Jesus came to the spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come on down. I’m going to stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and welcomed Jesus with delight. When everyone saw this, they began to grumble, “Jesus has gone to a sinner’s house as a guest.”
There’s a lot happening in these few verses. Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. How does he know his name? Hurry down here. You don’t have to ask Zacchaeus twice. He welcomes Jesus with delight. And Jesus, not for the first time, is making friends with the person that everyone else calls a sinner. This sinner will turn out to be an unlikely saint.
Then Jesus visits the home of Zacchaeus for dinner. The story tells us nothing about their conversation. We only know that Zacchaeus received him with delight.
The best part of this story, for me, is that he receives Jesus with delight. That’s a clue. Now, Zacchaeus will get his whole life turned around. He’s charged and found guilty. That’s hard. But Jesus sees him, accepts him... and he welcomes Jesus with joy. Trust me on this: If your religion makes you miserable, get a new one.
Let’s pause here for a question. In your spiritual life, what is the source of your true joy?
The Final Chapter: A Changed Man
The closing of the story is verses 8 through 10. “Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to Jesus, “Here and now I give half my belongings to the poor. If I’ve defrauded anyone in the least, I’ll pay them back fourfold.” Jesus said to the tax collector, “Today salvation has come to this house, for this is what it means to be a descendant of Sarah and Abraham. The Promised One has come to search out and save what was lost.”
Now, after our eyes are opened, after we understand the mission of Jesus – we see that even this tax collector is saved, even this traitor is part of the kingdom. And here’s what that looks like: salvation is once again equated with serving the poor. He’s giving away half of his possessions. He refunding those from whom he stole fourfold. He’s like the Grinch who stole Christmas at the end of that story – his heart grew three sizes that day.
Here’s our last question for silent reflection. I wonder: When you meet Jesus, how do you respond?
After the story of Zacchaeus, we’re prepared for Jesus to go to Jerusalem. He’ll eat a final meal with disciples. He’ll be tortured and killed. And his resurrection will signal that the realm of God is stronger than death.
As we look ahead in our story, we’re prepared for wintertime
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.
Is this a wee-little church? In the life of this congregation, is winter coming? If so, that’s OK. You have the vision of Zacchaeus. You have his joyful faith. You know this: though all is far from right in the world, God is all right with you.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree… and it’s almost as if, from those branches, he can see clearly now. He can see all the way through winter into springtime. He can see right through the cold and grey times. He can see the joy of Easter morning. By grace may we all be blessed with such a pure heart. Amen.
(Scripture from the Priests for Equality translation)