I know what it’s like to be fairly short. You are always asked to be in the front row of pictures. You are constantly shifting this way and that to see around people’s heads in the theater. And don’t even talk about being in a crowd! You can say you were there. You can hear just fine. But seeing isn’t happening.
So I understand Zacchaeus’ predicament. He was “short of stature,” he was small. And like many “small” people (regardless of their height), he had compensated for his feeling of smallness by lording over other people. He had gotten into the perfect profession—tax collection. As we talked about last week, tax collectors were generally despised. And for good reason. They worked for the enemy of the Jewish state—the Roman Empire. They collected taxes, and then some. It seemed like they were only out for themselves.
Zacchaeus lived in Jericho, and Jesus was passing through. So, like most of us in the presence of a celebrity, he wanted to get a look at this man. The healer who had just given sight to a blind man outside the city gates. The storyteller who seemed to turn the whole world upside-down. The prophet who talked about faith the size of a mustard seed (a very small seed) being able to do amazing things. The One who some said might be the (sssshhhh) Messiah to lead them out of their terrible plight. This was someone Zacchaeus just HAD to see.
But he couldn’t. He tried to worm his way through the throng, but somehow elbows and hips and even feet blocked his way. He could feel the excitement. He could hear the swell of voices and the cheer of crowds. He could make out movement—but he couldn’t see Jesus.
Now Zacchaeus could have given up. He could have gone home. He could have stayed put and been able to say “I was there.” But something in his smallness wanted to see. Something tugged at his soul, maybe not even a conscious thought, that maybe this healer, this storyteller, this prophet, this One of God, might “see” Zacchaeus, the real Zacchaeus—The little boy who had been so hurt by his peers, teased and pushed around because of his size; The teen-age Zacchaeus who had had to endure the ridicule of the marriable young ladies; The adult Zacchaeus who had chosen to be a tax collector (to get back at them all!); The Zacchaeus, like all of us, who wanted to be accepted for who he was, loved even though he was who he was, forgiven and freed from the hurt and the rejection and the anger and the hostility and the loneliness of who he had become.
And then it happened. Zacchaeus knew how he could see Jesus. He would climb up into a tree, regardless of the fact that it was young boys who did such things, not a grown man!; regardless of the fact that he would have to hike up his robes and expose all sorts of things in the process; regardless of the fact that he would give fodder to the townspeople to laugh at him once more. So he ran ahead, giving himself enough time to get up in the tree.
And in the tree, Zacchaeus could see everything! He looked down on the road. He could peer into the walled courtyards of his neighbors. He was above everyone else here! What a glorious experience. And he would get a really good look at the man, Jesus. He sat there chuckling to himself, ignoring the snide remarks of the crowd as it surged near to him.
And then Jesus stopped. And Zacchaeus’ heart stopped too. Because the man Jesus slowly looked up. And their eyes met for a moment before Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down. For I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus’ mind was flying at a hundred miles an hour as he CAREFULLY extracted himself from his perch. He kept hearing “Zacchaeus” (how did he know my name?), “must stay” (as if there was no other choice), “your house” (do I have the right food, the best wine, to properly host such a guest?).
Zacchaeus was so proud. Jesus had picked HIM. In front of everybody. Jesus wanted to stay with him, MUST stay with him! Wow, what a story he was going to have to tell… no matter. And when he reached the ground, he could hear all around the muttering: “Told you this guy wasn’t a prophet, picking Zacchaeus!” “Why would he want to eat with that traitor?” “Sinner, Sinner, Not a winner.”
And he was just going to ignore them, as he always did. Just going to pretend that he didn’t hear them, didn’t care what they thought, didn’t need to be respected or liked or … And then something happened. Something like what the Grinch in the Christmas story experienced. Grace, or Mercy, or a New Persective. Zacchaeus was given a glimpse of who he could be—the Zacchaeus who didn’t have to act big to shield him from being small but the Zacchaeus who could give away half of what he had, half of what made him powerful, half of his protection—he could give half of it, not to politicians, not to the church, not to anyone who could give back in return—he could give half of his wealth to the poor! And then a second thought: he could be a Zacchaeus who didn’t need to strike out, or strike back, or strike against everyone. He could be a Zacchaeus who would restore what he had taken from others. No, he would double it. OOH, he would give them four times as much as he had taken—out of the generosity of his heart, a heart that was no longer small, but like a mustard seed, had expanded into something great.
And then he realized he had said all this out loud! And he waited for the laughter, for the outright jeers, for the refusal of these glorious ideas. But what he heard was Jesus saying, “Today, salvation has come to this house… for I came to seek and save the lost.”
We all have pieces of ourselves that are like Zacchaeus. We have built up walls. We have strayed far down paths of resentment. We have made ourselves small. But the good news is that Jesus is nearby. And all we have to do is change our perspective—climb into a tree, take a good look at ourselves, have a moment of clarity of who we were meant to be. The good news is that Jesus sees us, reaches out to us, must stay at our house, even before we do anything. The good news is that no matter where we think we are, no matter how far away we have gone, no matter what we need to do--Salvation, being part of the Kin-dom of God, has come today.
It doesn’t come because of what we might say we will do. It doesn’t come because of our actions (those are just the fruits of our change of perspective, our change of heart). Jesus offers us the chance to grow our mustard seeds of faith—Standing on the ground that he already chose us, and called us by name. Then it is up to us to “see” clearly who we are, in God’s eyes, and to work on changing our lives to match that vision.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.