"Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man"

Preacher: Amy Norton
Date: November 3, 2019

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10


Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see…

Anyone here know this song? I only learned it this week but I love it.  We don’t know much about Zacchaues, but the story (and song) make sure we know that he was short. So short that when Jesus came by, he had to climb a tree to see him better.  We also know that Jesus was chief tax collector. This was like a multilevel marketing scheme- Zacchaeus paid the taxes to the empire and then was reimbursed through the actual collection, hopefully at a profit. 

As Tax collector, chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was essentially working for the empire, at the literal expense of his own people.  You remember Kent’s sermon last week where we learned that collecting taxes was a forbidden profession for observant Jews at the time? It was considered ritually impure, and immoral.  

Ironically, Zacchaeus’ name means “pure” or “innocent”. That’s like if in a Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens had named his famous miserly character “charity” instead of “Scrooge”. On second thought, perhaps we’d see at as foreshadowing…and perhaps it IS foreshadowing, because at the end of this story, Jesus declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ household. 

How do we get to that point? How do we get from a man ironically named Zacchaeus to a man aptly named Zacchaeus?  There re so many possible directions to take this sermon, and we only have time for one, so I really do encourage you to ponder and interpret this text for yourselves this week and see what the Holy Spirit reveals to your heart. 

What has jumped out at me the most vividly in this story, and perhaps it’s the influence of the song, is how childlike Zacchaeus is…not childish, but childLIKE.  And we all know what Jesus says about those who seek the kingdom like a little child (that they’re the only ones who will enter it).  Firstly, Zacchaeus, a grown man, sprints over to see Jesus, clamboring up a tree to get a glimpse of him.  This is far from the dignified decorum and comportment that men of his era were expected to display in public.  Have you ever seen kids suddenly catch wind of the ice cream truck jingle and take off running to meet it? That’s what I’m picturing here. Zacchaeus so wants to see Jesus, to meet him, that he throws dignity and decorum to the wind.  He knows what’s really important in this moment- he unabashedly seeks Jesus.  

Theologian David Lose ponders, “perhaps Zacchaeus simply represents the chief attribute of all disciples: a desire to see Jesus and corresponding joy in his presence…This story is not about formulas regarding repentance and forgiveness - indeed, as in other places in Luke, it calls into question any attempts to reduce the miracle of salvation to a formula.  Rather, it embodies the promise that anyone- ANYONE- who desires to see Jesus will.  More than that, anyone who desires to see Jesus will, in turn, be seen by Jesus and in this way have their joy made complete.”

And there’s more to him climbing the tree than just zeal or that unselfconscious, joyful, childlike enthusiasm. This story makes a point of telling us that Zacchaeus was “short in stature”. We also can infer that he was short in status, since tax collectors were generally treated as outcasts. But let’s focus on the height part. Zacchaeus was a wee little man, the song goes, and while much has changed in 2000 years, one thing we still have in common is that society values height in men.  

So really, all Zacchaeus had going for him was his wealth, and even that was something that marginalized him in his community. You know, it can be so easy for us grownups to try and compensate (or overcompensate) for the things we don’t like about ourselves, our perceived flaws and, no-pun-intended, shortcomings.  It’s much harder to accept who we are, to embrace who we are, and to live fully into who we are.  Perhaps even to use it to our advantage.  

For example; I have a stubborn streak. I used to be somewhat ashamed of this, but now I realize that my stubbornness is just part of what makes me, me, and in fact, being stubborn makes it easier to hope.  Solid hope, is at its foundation, stubbornness. Stubborn faith and stubborn trust, stubborn hope. 

One of the many reasons that Children learn languages faster than adults, linguists theorize, is because they’re less afraid of or worried about making mistakes. They fully accept and embrace themselves as learners, and it’s to their advantage to do that.  When Jesus came into town, wee little Zacchaeus didn’t let his short stature stop him.  Nope, he used it to his advantage, embraced himself for who he was, and scrambled up that sycamore tree as only a child can.  

Jesus, ever seeking those who seek him, notices Zacchaeus right away. As we see time and time again in Luke, Those who seek Jesus often find that Jesus has been seeking them al along. Jesus sees Zacchaeus, I mean really sees him.  Never having met him before, as far as we know, Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name, and invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house, “Zacchaeus! Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

People scoff at this (probably all the woke, observant people that we heard about in last week’s sermon), saying “how can you eat with a sinner?!”Whether they’re worried that Zacchaeus’ impurity will contaminate Jesus, whether they’re worried about how it will look, whether they see it as a betrayal, or whether they’re simply jealous, they make their incredulous displeasure known.  Zacchaeus interjects, however, saying “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much!” 

1st century listeners might remember the young rich man who wasn’t able to give up his money, or the boastful Pharisee from last week’s sermon who bragged about giving away the requisite 10% of his income. Yet here is Zacchaeus, maybe beginning to live up to his name, giving away half his income and paying reparations.  

There’s an interesting linguistic note here; some scholars translate Zacchaeus’ interjection in the future tense, a promise that from her eon out he will give away half his income and pay reparations…others, however, argue that the correct translation is the future tense, which would mean that Zacchaeus, who everyone assumed was a greedy, traitorous, miser, all this time has been giving away half his income and pays reparations to anyone he wrongs. These two translations do offer sligthly different narratives and can lead to different (though not necessarily conflicting) theological conclusions.  And so again, I invite you this week to read the text both ways, and see what each reading provides you. 

Both readings of this text, however, point to the third way that Zacchaeus embodies the childlike spirit with which we ought to seek the kingdom of heaven: TRUST. In giving away half his income, Zacchaeus is profoundly trusting that his needs will nevertheless be met. In paying fourfold reparations, he trusts others will come to him if they feel wronged, and will be honest with him in their claims.  Zacchaeus puts his trust in goodness, hospitality, and good faith. He puts his trust in the kingdom. Some may call it naive, or childlike, but in Jesus’ case, childlike isn’t exactly the worst thing to be.  As Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

Turning to the crowds that were complaining about his choice of dinner host, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”