OK – if you know the song, sing it:
“Zacchaeus 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
And as the Lord came walking by, he looked up in that tree, and he said,
“Zacchaeus, you come down here!”
For I’m dining at your house today, for I’m dining at your house today.”
This story comes toward the end of Jesus’ travels to Jerusalem. He “set his face toward Jerusalem” several chapters back, and has been on the way ever since, healing people, welcoming children, welcoming sinners, and speaking in parables.
There have been stories of wedding banquets, lost sheep, lost coins, lost prodigal sons, the healing of lepers and blind beggars, persistent widows and unjust judges, smug Pharisees, and rich young rulers.
So a crowd has gathered in Jericho as word of Jesus’ coming has spread. Our little friend, Zacchaeus, is introduced.
The name Zacchaeus is a Greek rendering of a common Hebrew name meaning innocent, clean, or pure. Righteous, even.
How ironic. Laughable, really. After all, we all know Zacchaeus was a scumbucket chief tax collector, wealthy swindler of little people; politically corrupt, someone actually working FOR the Romans….For his name to mean clean or innocent would be like Shrek being named Snow White. He is clearly someone to be reviled.
At any rate, he behaves in a manner unbefitting a person of his rank and standing (even though he is a scumbucket) and RUNS through or beyond the crowd and climbs a tree so he can see Jesus. Really. What adult climbs a tree? That’s like Governor Beebe or some political figure shinnying up a fencepost in order to see the presidential motorcade better. It’s just not something you do.
But Zacchaeus did. He wanted to see Jesus that much.
And Jesus apparently wanted to see him as well, instructing him to come down and take him to the house for dinner.
For his part, Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree, happy with the way things are playing out, and making public excuses and explanations, backpedaling as it were, that he was about to start giving money back and about to start giving money away and in general, turning over a whole new leaf. It’s a public repentance.
Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”
The other people in the crowd are astounded that Jesus announces he’s going to go to Zacchaeus’ house. Probably more than a few shook their heads and made disparaging tongue clucks and sighs, rolling their eyes and commiserating with each other that there’s just no accounting for taste, that Jesus must be a poor judge of character, and so on.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s a different way to look at Zacchaeus.
What if he really DOES live up to his name? What if he IS innocent, and pure and clean and righteous? What if he is someone about whom terrible things are believed that are in fact untrue, someone who is actually a good guy in disguise?
What if he RAN and climbed a tree not because he was bound and determined HE got to see Jesus, no matter what, but what if he ran out of sheer exuberance and excitement? What if he ran like an excited child, like someone with the faith of a child?
If this is true, then it’s the crowd that is the guilty antagonist in this story.
It’s all in the translation of the Greek. Unfortunately, I don’t know Greek. I would like to study it, but for now I have to rely on what people who do know and understand it write.
Recall in the scumbucket version, Zacchaeus is so delighted he gets to meet and dine with J that he promises to make right all the swindling he’s done, giving half his wealth away, and refunding people he’s cheated 4-fold. It’s like a public repentence.
But for this version in which Zacchaeus is maybe not really such a bad guy, the text can also be translated so that the action is something that has been going on and is continuing in the present. That ing participle thing. I’ve been giving away half my wealth to the poor or I am (already) giving away half, and I give back four-fold to those who have been cheated.
In this version, Zacchaeus turns out to be a sheep in wolves clothing, more of a saint in our midst than a villain. To me, this fits what I know about Jesus better, because Jesus is forever turning things upside down. He has said, “I have come to seek out and save the lost.” And what this childlike Zacchaeus is delighted to discover is that while he has been seeking Jesus, Jesus has been seeking him just as much. And now they’ve found each other. The Savior and another everyday saint.
One other thought about Zaccheaus: he was short. Small of stature, slight of build. Not tall. But aren’t we all? Aren’t we all at least a bit short when it comes to living as the people we were created to be? I know that person who lives down the street from me who doesn’t pick up after his dog is short. And that woman on her phone who cut me off in traffic this morning is short. And— oops. I’m being short-sighted , aren’t I?
It’s really easy for us to inflate our own importance some of the time. We all do it to varying degrees at one time or another. We’re human. We can be quick to judge and oh so adept at interpreting cause and effect for the behavior of other people.
Here’s a poem from a wonderful old play called “For Heaven’s Sake” by Fred Silverstrom.
An inchworm, measuring by the inch,
Puffed out with pride at an inch and a half.
He turned to see the other worms flinch,
But they knew their wormness measured an inch,
And they only started to laugh.
And even he was forced to smile
When he measured his inch against a mile.
Now is it so odd
That you and I squirm,
Like the measuring worm,
When measured by God?
The truth is, the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, not the saintly. But the truth is also that there isn’t a one of us who is without sin, who isn’t a little bit short and at least a little bit lost.
This morning we celebrate All Saint’s Day.
In a lot of Protestant churches the idea of “saints” is still a little strange. In denominations where we don’t canonize people, where we don’t give even Biblical heroes like Paul or Matthew the title—unless our church happens to be called “St. Paul” or “St. Matthew; in a tradition where every believer is equal, the idea that some may be more equal than others is hard to swallow. But the Biblical idea of “saints” is simply one of believers who have gone before us. What makes them special is not necessarily that they have been heroic or martyrs but that they have had a relationship with God—and with us. We learn from them, we model our own faith after theirs. Every person who is a saint to us becomes a window through which we glimpse God.
Part of the communion liturgy we will use in just a bit says, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, strengthen us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. “ Who is this “cloud of witnesses?” It’s Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s Miriam and Mary. It’s tax collectors who climb trees to see Jesus. It’s my mother and brother, and my dad and grandparents; it’s Tom’s mother, and Carol’s friend, and Ken’s dad, and Cheryl’s sister. It’s each of the people whose names are listed as having gone before on the special insert in your bulletin. It’s the guy down the street who doesn’t pick up after his dog, and the woman who cuts you off in traffic. There are people you can’t stand who are saints, and probably a fair number of folks who might be surprised to discover YOU are one!
Ultimately of course, it IS all of us, and we’ll be there for others who will follow. I’ve talked to or heard from a number of people over the past few weeks for whom this is a difficult time due to grief and loss. An anniversary of a death, new losses, reminders of older ones….sometimes it seems like the scythe responsible for slicing the thin membrane between life and death is cutting a broad swatch very close to the surface we’re occupying. It’s always nearby, but we aren’t always as aware of it. It’s the stormy blast. It’s part of what we seek shelter from, and the longer each of us lives, the more apparent it becomes that we need a good strategy to cope with the repercussions of this ongoing cycle of life and death.
The living and dying of our saints is a threshold to God. They are a reminder that we are not just material beings, that the life of the Spirit is real, and as long as we travel the road on this side of eternity, we are not alone. The power of God sustains us and sometimes electrifies us and that cloud of witnesses is always present to cheer us on. From trees. From pews. Sometimes from the strangest of places you’d never expect.
Thanks be to God.