Luke 19:1-10 (tr. 1599 Geneva Bible)
1 Now when Jesus entered and passed through Jericho,
2 Behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief receiver of the tribute, and he was rich.
3 And he sought to see Jesus, who he should be, and could not for the press, because he was of a low stature.
4 Wherefore he ran before, and climbed up into a wild fig tree, that he might see him: for he should come that way.
5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, come down at once: for today I must abide at thine house.
6 Then he came down hastily, and received him joyfully.
7 And when all they saw it, they murmured, saying, that he was gone in to lodge with a sinful man.
8 And Zacchaeus stood forth, and said unto the Lord, Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor: and if I have taken from any man by forged cavillation, I restore him fourfold.
9 Then Jesus said to him, This day is salvation come unto this house, forasmuch as he is also become the son of Abraham.
10 For the son of man is come to seek, and to save that which was lost.
(Zacchaeus climbs into tree)
What? It’s not easy being a wee little man!
I’m Zacchaeus. Yes, yes, I know, the name is longer than the person. I’ve heard that one before. I suppose next you’ll be telling me that I’m a real down-to-earth kind of guy, and that I never look down on anyone (because I can’t). Well please don’t stoop to my level. Although…did you hear the one about the short psychic who escaped from jail? She was a small medium at large!
Seriously though, of all the things I dislike about my size (it’s actually a pretty short list!) the worst is that it’s harder to see, or to be seen in the world–you either get stepped on by the crowd, or else you get stuck in the top of a tree.
What do you see when you look at me? Do you see a man small in stature or a man great in generosity? Do you see an important man? A wealthy man, perhaps? Or just a wee little man stuck in a treetop?
People see what they want to see.
That crowd back there, they look at me, and all they can see is ἁμαρτωλῷ (hamartolo). A wretched sinner.
I know most of them well enough. I go to church with them, at the Jericho Presbyterian Church. Simon the shepherd over there, he works for the grocery store. So does Jacob the fisherman. Both of ’em, dirt poor. Ruben the blacksmith over there, he works for the chariot dealership. He does alright, thanks to all the Romans here now. It’s no sin to sell things to the Romans. Only to work for them.
Which brings us to me. I work for the IRS. The Imperial Revenue Service. In other words, the Romans. So, that makes me a wretched sinner. ἁμαρτωλῷ.
People see what they want to see.
The first time I ever laid eyes on this tree, what I wanted to see was the Lord. Jesus of Nazareth had just arrived in Jericho, and everyone was saying that he could be the long-awaited מָשִׁ֫יחַ (mashiach), messiah, the Lord.
A dense crowd gathered around him, and I tried to make my way through it, so I could see–but I could not.
“Get back, ἁμαρτωλῷ! Why would the מָשִׁ֫יחַ want to see a sinner like you? Go home!” And then I saw the tree. A tree? I may be small, but I’m a grown man! I have some dignity, you know. What if someone saw me? Someone I knew? Someone I collected taxes from? I was ashamed, and I hesitated. And then he was gone.
My pride kept me from seeing the Lord that day.
The next time he came, I was ready. I swallowed my pride, and I climbed the tree before the crowd even began to gather. We were waiting for Jesus right in the place he said he would be. This time, I knew I would see him. While the crowd was gathering, I did see someone. It was Matthew! Matthew who owed me (well, technically he owed the IRS) sixteen months of back-taxes. Matthew, whose children always said he was “too sick to even come to the door.” Matthew, who was clearly the picture of good health that day. How much did he owe me again? Let’s see, that’s six denarii times 4.5 weeks, times 16 months at 23% interest, 50% to Rome, which leaves… Matthew saw Jesus when he came, but I did not.
My buisness (and my busyness) kept me from seeing the Lord that day.
Perhaps it’s just as well. I heard from others that a rich man came to see Jesus that day. A righteous rich man, who is well respected in the church–one who keeps all the commandments. No one could hear exactly what Jesus said to the rich man, but after awhile, the rich man lowered his head in shame and left in despair. If there was no hope for this man…how much less for a wretched ἁμαρτωλῷ like me.
The third time Jesus came, I didn’t bother to climb the tree. I didn’t even bother to leave my house. I was ashamed, and afraid of what he might say to me.
My fear kept me from seeing the Lord that day.
The next Sunday was commitment Sunday at the Jericho Presbyterian Church–the end of our annual pledge drive and stewardship campaign. It was our custom on that day that each one would come forward, say a prayer of thanksgiving, and offer a sacrifice to God, usually a percentage of our personal income. Usually I avoided this day just as carefully as Matthew (and everyone else) avoided me one tax day.
But for some reason, I felt the need to be in church this day. I felt lonely, and tired, and empty.
One of the leaders of the church stood up to make his prayer and offering. He said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
When he said “this tax collector” he looked directly at me. This tax collector. He didn’t call me by name, even though we had been attending the same church for years. But then again, he didn’t see me as a person, a human being. He saw me as a wretched ἁμαρτωλῷ, as one lost, never to be found.
People see what they want to see. And I still wanted to see the Lord.
When my turn came, I could not lift my eyes to heaven, but I raised my prayer:
Lord, have mercy on me, a sinnner. I don’t know what to offer, but whatever I have is yours. I lay down my pride and dignity. I lay down my busyness and my business. I lay down all my fear and shame. Take half of what I own–the other half already belongs to Rome. And if I have treated anyone unfairly–Matthew, Simon, Jacob, Ruben, anyone!–let me make it up to them four times over. I don’t want anything between us anymore. I just want to see you, Lord.
That was last Sunday. Today Jesus will pass through Jericho one last time. And so here I am in this tree again!
I have no idea whether or not I will see the Lord this time. And that’s okay. I do see things much more clearly now that I have placed everything in the Lord’s hands, and in his service.
You know, we all have our tall trees to climb.
We all have things that distract us, that keep us from seeing the Lord.
We all see what we want to see, whether it’s the very worst in someone or the very best.
We all see what we want to see, in each other, in ourselves, in the world around us.
What do you want to see? And what are you willing to sacrifice in order to see it?
(begins to climb down tree)
ZACCHAEUS! COME DOWN! I AM COMING TO YOUR HOUSE TODAY!
Yes, Lord! I see you! I’m coming! I’m coming!