I met Zacchaeus some years ago. I had known about him for a long time but I had never known him. In fact I had discovered Zacchaeus as a child. He was one of my favorite characters in the whole Bible in Sunday school, probably for the reason that most children like him: “Zacchaeus was a very little man and a very little man was he.” (So goes a children’s song which, incidentally, ends with a very Anglican notion as Jesus stops and calls the little man down out of the sycamore saying, “I’m going to your house for tea.”) But beyond this I did not know Zacchaeus.
Perhaps it helped that I at least knew his name. We don’t know the names of many people in the crowds that Jesus encountered. They are for the most part an anonymous parade of individuals whose personalities and biographies are lost to the ages. But a few made it into and through the oral tradition and finally onto the pages of scripture. They are so rare that we have to wonder why. In Zacchaeus’ case, there was no particular reason why he should have been known at all. He was neither a leader nor a person with a special place in the narrative of Jesus’ life. Nor was his city, Jericho, especially important, located as it is fairly far from Galilee where the bulk of Jesus’ ministry took place. Of course, the story itself tells us why Zacchaeus was well known in Jericho. He was well known because he was well hated. He was among that despised lot of people known to first century Palestinian Jews as tax collectors, cogs in the wheel of Roman occupation and oppression. Not only that but he was head of the local tax office, and thus a profiteer. That was why he was rich—rich off other people’s money and misery. But every town had its tax collectors, and we may suppose that Zacchaeus was no richer and no more despicable than the rest.
So what was it about this man that makes him memorable to the point that people prerserved not only the story but the name of the man in it? If you ask me it is because this episode is functionally Luke’s version of John 3:16. If you ever were a Baptist you learned that verse by heart; and if you grew up in The Episcopal Church prior to 1976, you heard it every time you went to communion. “So God loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It has frequently been called “the gospel in miniature” because it sums up the whole message of the New Testament. But that is John. This is Luke. Luke is interested in a cluster of themes, but none more clearly than the punch line which he gives this story: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Consummate storyteller that he is, Luke anchors the greatest theme of them all in an episode made more memorable because we know the name of the quintessential lost man.
Interesting that Zacchaeus does not fit the profile of many another character on Luke’s pages. He is not poor, not sick, and not a woman. He is rich, however, and Luke is very much interested in what rich people do with their possessions once they come into contact with Jesus. And he is an outcast, made so not because of leprosy or mental illness but because of his status as a tax collector and thus a “sinner.” Zacchaeus is thus “lost.” But how “lost”? Lost because he is short, lost because he cannot see. Don’t miss the double-entendre here. He “was trying to see Jesus,” but could not because of the crowd. People get lost when their vision is blocked. Few things can be so frustrating, or so effectively marginalizing as the inability to see and thus to connect. But even more interesting is that Zacchaeus does not give up on the notion of seeing Jesus. He forfeits dignity (grown men of some prominence don’t run and climb trees, even in first century Jericho) for the sake of seeing Jesus. And, doubtless, on his perch the last thing he expects is to be spotted, called out, called down.
But Jesus comes to the place, looks up, and sees him. Maybe there is more in that detail than there would seem to be. Zacchaeus ironically has found a way in his life to compensate for his stature. He has climbed to the top of the heap in Jericho. Whether he is liked or respected or not, he does have some power and money. It is not stretching a point to say that Zaccheaus is strangely exalted, and not only in his sycamore situation. And Luke is ever interested in seeing how the exalted are humbled and the humbled exalted. So it is not exactly surprising that Jesus would come to the place and “look up.” One can imagine two feet dangling from a branch, a face partially hidden behind leaves. Jesus calls him by name. Luke no doubt wants us to think that Jesus has the kind of omniscience that would supply Zacchaeus’ name. But you might well imagine that on seeing the dangling legs, Jesus stops, points, and forms a quizzical look as if to say, “What’s with the legs? To whom do they belong?” Heads turn. Suddenly the little man is explosed. “Those legs?” someone says. “Oh. They belong to Zacchaeus. He’s our chief tax collector. [laughter].” Whatever. Jesus seizes the moment. He calls him by name.
And that is when I met Zacchaeus. On hearing that feature of the story, I realized that Zacchaeus was none other than I. Because I have heard that voice myself, sometimes when I have least expected it or least wanted to hear it. And though it has never been exactly an audible human voice, there has been that moment when I have realized that some pedestal I am on of my own making is vulnerable to something or to someone who calls me to come off it. Or, by the same token, when I have taken to hiding behind status or convention or regulation or some form of pretense, I have from time to time heard a distinct voice saying something that sounds like, “Frank,” the way my mother might have said it or “Frank,” the way Joe might say it when I am being uncharacteristically absurd or uncommonly outrageous. Jesus invites Zaccheaus to come down, and in so doing he immediately has a relationship with him. That he would invite himself to stay at Zacchaeus house should strike us as the bizarre thing that it is. But this twist, too, is not to be missed. That is what incarnate deity habitually does. It takes up residence in the life and soul and “house” of the one it has called out of anonymity into its own marvelous light. And strange things begin to happen.
Jesus does not lecture Zacchaeus on the requirements of salvation, nor does he squeeze out of him some confession of faith or sin. From what storyline we have, Zacchaeus needs no more than to be accepted to become accepting, no more than to be welcomed to extend a welcome. While the crowd is still grumbling, he immediately knows that his life is all wound up in ways that don’t sit well with the hospitality that he has received as well as given. So a reckoning begins. Luke makes it very clear in story after story that the gospel opens up not only our mouths but our wallets. The very experience of Jesus is antithetical to hoarding, withholding, self-protection at the expense of others, accumulating power or wealth or influence. Not very many people seem to understand that, which is I suppose what “lost” actually describes. But I would want to go further than the generosity dynamic and suggest that fundamentally the conversion of Zacchaeus, and therefore of me or you, is about something more basic. The Son of Man who seeks us out challenges us by his very example to live according to the Truth. Salvation comes to the house of Zacchaeus precisely because it does not leave Zacchaeus merely a short man with a short man’s attitude. There is a Truth and this exchange of hospitality between Jesus and Zacchaeus fleshes it out. The Truth results in changed lives. Generosity is one result. Wholeness is another.
So salvation can come to the house of Zacchaeus, who as a child of Abraham, has as much chance of being at God’s table as Jesus is at his. Male Jewish tax collectors can come into the reign of God and practice the life of God as much as anyone. There are no distinctions in that realm, only a banquet to which all are invited. The point is never who we are that qualifies us, but who we become once touched by God’s grace.
Perhaps that is enough of Zacchaeus and his story. Maybe nothing more needs to be said. Yet I can’t let it go without asking, “So what?” It could be that the point of the whole thing is a moral one: change your life and your lifestyle and make sure that they accord with the values of the Lord you serve. But I think it more than that. If the Zaccheaus I have met is as familiar to you as he is to me, I suggest that he suggests you find yourself in his story and therefore where you are in your own. Maybe you really can’t see what all the fuss is about. Maybe you have some inchoate suspicion that there is something about Jesus and his gospel that could mean something, or something more, to you if you just could lay your eyes or your hands on it. Or perhaps you are either watching the spectacle from a safe distance or indeed hiding comfortably above and out of view, detached, let’s say. Or maybe you are even this moment hearing something that sounds like a voice but feels startlingly like unimagined joy bidding you to come join a life where you will never be quite the same. When at times the noise of the crowd seems to drown out even your inmost thoughts that slither down the crevices of a life you never have completely figured out, you just might see yourself standing and saying things like, “Yes. This is it. This is really it. And I am it and it is now.” Then you know, don’t you, that salvation has come to your house. Today.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2010