Updated: Dec 5, 2022
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE].
Today, we hear about what might be one of the cutest encounters in all the gospels. To appreciate some of the subtleties of the scene, it helps to have a certain understanding of tax collectors at the time of Christ.
Generally speaking, none of us, I dare to say, enjoy interacting with the IRS—the Internal Revenue Service. But that sentiment was even worse at the time of Christ. Our taxes, God willing, are used to advance our national interests. But Jesus’ day, taxes collected from the Jews were given over to the Roman Empire—the occupying nation. Rome employed local Jews who’d collect taxes in behalf of Rome. And it wasn’t uncommon for tax collectors to overcharge their fellow Jews, and line their own pockets with the excess amount. That’s an important detail that’s relevant a bit later in the scene.
Now, Zacchaeus wasn’t just any tax collector. He was a chief tax collector. That should tell you something. In a culture where age and seniority were highly regarded, Zacchaeus was likely someone who had been in the business of tax collecting for a long time to rise to that rank. And he was wealthy. It wouldn’t be unheard of to think that at least some of that wealth was acquired unjustly.
To survive and thrive as a tax collector, Zacchaeus had to be thick-skinned enough not to care about his reputation with fellow Jews. After all, he got rich by collaborating with the enemy. But what do we see as our gospel scene unfolds?
Jesus arrives in Jericho and Zacchaeus wants to see him. Unlike others who have previously sought Jesus out, Zacchaeus isn’t looking for some kind of healing, forgiveness, or any other kind of favor from Jesus. We’re not given any clue as to why Zacchaeus wants to see him. He just wants what he wants. It’s an almost childlike reason.
But he was short. And so, he ran ahead of the crowd. Now, men of influence ran for no one. Others were supposed to come to them. As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was kind of a big deal, and it would be undignified for Zacchaeus to gird up his loins and run. But he doesn’t care, as we've established. And so, he runs—like an excited child—spurred on by his own curiosity.
And then with even greater audacity, he climbs up a tree. I don’t know how often grown men climb up trees. Most local boys here have climbed up mango trees as children. But as we’ve gotten older, we use poles with little hooks and plastic bags on them to pick mangos. Zacchaeus, perhaps an elderly man, climbs up a tree, again with childlike abandon. To this point, we still have no indication that Zacchaeus wanted to speak with Jesus. He seems content enough simply to see Jesus as he passes by, like a child watching a parade.
What happens next is quite extraordinary. God is never outdone by us in anything that is good. And that includes excitement when God and sinner meet. In that next scene, I can imagine Jesus excitedly speaking to Zacchaeus, as if playing along: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And quickly, Zacchaeus came down and received him with joy.
Remember, Jesus had intended to pass through that town. But he stopped there that day because of Zacchaeus’ excitement. Zacchaeus’ exuberant display stopped God in his tracks. But of course, haters gotta hate, so we hear the reaction: “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner,” some say.
What Zacchaeus says next is striking: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over”.
Again, Zacchaeus likely wasn’t a person who was bothered much about the regard others had for him. So why the extraordinary display of generosity? In short, it was because our Lord’s reputation was being called into question in that moment. Zacchaeus sensed a growing scandal and was trying to diffuse it. He speaks not for his own sake, but for Jesus. He did it to protect Jesus’ reputation.
If Zacchaeus benefited from it at all, it was so that shame for previous actions wouldn’t separate him from his newfound friend and Lord. Zacchaeus chose willingly to separate himself from wealth, rather than risk being separated from Christ. That’s in stark contrast to the decision of a rich young man from another gospel scene, who made the opposite choice; who chose wealth over discipleship.
One almost can’t help but admire Zacchaeus for his childlike excitement and reckless abandon that prompted God to pause for a day and spend time with him and his entire town. Zacchaeus is the hero in this gospel scene, and the embodiment of our Lord’s exhortation: Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.
We’re meant to follow Zacchaeus’ example. Let the children come to me, says the Lord. We’re meant to come to the Lord with childlike joy, excitement, and reckless abandon in our pursuit of Jesus, which may at times lead to uncharacteristic behavior that may seem undignified to some eyes, but in the end, arrests God himself in his tracks, so that the Divine One spends the day with you and me, and with everyone whom we love and know.
Have you and I run in order to see Jesus, spiritually or metaphorically—or even literally? What tree have you and I climbed for the sake of Christ? What lengths have you and I gone for our discipleship? And have we done that with excited joy? Have we been generous with the poor, and just to those to whom we may have been unjust? Do we act to protect Christ’s reputation?
Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and sinner who turned his whole life around for the better that day. We can do the same beginning today. May God bless you.
Kristus og Zakæus, by Niels Larsen Stevns, c. 1913, oil on canvas, Randers Kunstmuseum. [Public Domain]