In today’s Gospel passage we encounter a story we remember from Sunday School. I remember a song we sang: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…” I remember feeling sorry for him, and determined from that point on, I would always be respectful and loving to short people. After all, I was tall and skinny, so I knew how it felt to be made fun of.
However, Zacchaeus had some other issues. In Zacchaeus, the height challenged tax collector, we find one who would have been considered a cheat, a thief, hated by the Jews. The tax collectors could extort people by charging a fee on top of the resented Roman tax. They were among the most despised people of the time, as we hear time and time again in numerous scripture passages.
Yet, Jesus winds up going to Zacchaeus’ home (a real honor, by the way), having dinner with him, praising him, and granting him salvation. And notice that there is no mention at all about Zacchaeus’ performing any worship rituals or ceremonies to please God. Nor is there any mention that Zacchaeus was committing violence or stirring up strife. No blood sacrifices were being made to atone for his sins. So what is the significance? What does Luke want us to take away from this story?
Climbing the tree is a metaphor challenging us to want to see Jesus more clearly. Climbing the tree is a symbol for us to make sure that nothing stands in our way in coming close to the one who can forgive our sins, heal our wounds, reconcile us to God, and grant salvation.
But then Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down from the tree. Why? Because Jesus is touched by the lengths, or shall I say height, Zacchaeus has gone to see him, and Jesus sees into his heart and wants to share God’s love with him.
Come down from that tree Zacchaeus! The desires of your heart in climbing the tree in the first place have been heard. Come back down and find life, salvation, forgiveness, love, a new heart, a new way of life, a new desire to please God, an ability to love God and your neighbor without reservation…if you will.
For us, the tree might be a metaphor and symbol for being “above it all,” being removed, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually, from whatever deficiency, inability, or anything else that makes us feel “less than.”
Zacchaeus stands for all who have been made to feel “less than” throughout their lives, or who were made fun of, or bullied, kept from advancing professionally, or treated inferior in some way: those who were short, heavy, skinny, very tall, had a limp, a speech impediment, a birth defect, blindness, deafness, child abuse, a disease from childhood that curtailed what you can do, coming from poverty. Anyone who is homosexual has had to deal with disrespect and alienation, as have women. These abuses continue today. How we grieve the very heart of God!
Did I leave anything out? The list is endless! And Jesus says, “Come down, come out of your hiding, walk away from the taunts and bullying. Be who you are—the beloved child of God. Be who God called you to be with passion, courage, and great love! Why? Because you are perfect as God created you and you are beloved by God. And Jesus is coming to you TODAY.
Don Armentrout has suggested some rather revealing thoughts about Zacchaeus: In the tree, Zacchaeus was safe, and the world could go to hell. (Back down) on the ground, Zacchaeus was concerned, (and after his encounter with Jesus) he wanted to help those already living in a hell not of their own making.
In the tree, Zacchaeus could see that ‘God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world,’ but on the ground he realized that God (in Jesus) was on earth, and the world was not all right. In the tree, the committee approach worked best; on the ground, the committed approach seemed best.
In the tree, a dollar to the community chest was a big deal; on the ground, half of his goods to the poor seemed woefully inadequate. In the tree, he discussed the problem of poverty; on the ground, he distributed his goods to those in need.
Zacchaeus came down from the tree and gave half of his goods to the poor, and made up for the ways he had cheated others. He was moved (literally and figuratively) by Jesus’ calling his name, reaching out to him, and coming to his home to share food with him. Zacchaeus knew who he was. Yet Jesus loves him and reaches out to him, granting him salvation and redemption. Zacchaeus is transformed by Jesus’ profligate, fearless love.
In conclusion, there are two strains of thought worthy of our consideration: First, when we reach out and make an effort to come close to Jesus and see him more clearly, Jesus not only shows up, but he comes to break bread with us and dwell with us. We meet him at his altar and cast our pain, anger, and suffering at his feet. And we receive healing.
And second, Jesus is bidding all of us to come down from whatever towers we have constructed that keep us from drawing near to God and God’s people, and from working for justice for all who have been made to feel less than, or who are living less than.
Jesus is calling us to show that we take our faith and redemption seriously by being doers of the word and not just hearers, people of faith in action, and not just keepers of religious ceremonies, people who give sacrificially, not just amass more and more of the world’s goods.
Today we kick off our stewardship campaign, as we look forward to Consecration Sunday on November 24. The encounter with Jesus is meant to transform us, open our hearts, release our pain or feelings of “less than,” so that we can be used by God. So that like Zacchaeus, and all who have gone before in this church, we can open our hearts, minds, and purse strings to give for God’s glory and the furtherance of God’s Kingdom in this place.
Yesterday was All Souls’ Day, and Friday was All Saints’ Day. We remember all those we love but see no more. We celebrate the lives and generosity of those who built this church, who supported the ministries that have been carried out from this church’s earliest days.
Like Jesus, these saints bid us to be our best and to give our best for the Glory of God, and the redemption, salvation, and healing of those present and those yet to come.
Like Jesus, they also bid us to come down from the trees to which we climb to feel bigger or better about life, and he bids us to come out of the caves of despair and pain where we might still be hiding. And then, we can help him touch the world and the woundedness around us in very real, tangible ways. Amen.