Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Mystery and Manners” observed that when authors of fiction write about the rich, they are more concerned with what the person lacks than with what the person has. And although St. Luke’s gospel is not fiction, he took the same approach when he wrote about Zacchaeus. Luke lets us know who Zacchaeus was and what he has with two brief descriptions: he was a tax collector and he was rich. But Luke does not dwell on the benefits of this status; though we can be sure there were many. Zacchaeus had a better life-style than most, he lived in a prestigious Jericho neighborhood, and he enjoyed the best methods of transportation, the finest clothes, and the most sumptuous foods. All in all, Zacchaeus reveled in the privileges that come with affluence.
But when Luke wants us to know about Zacchaeus, he does not describe any of that. He tells us about what Zacchaeus lacks. Luke does not lay it out in black and white. You have to read between the lines to get the specifics, but they are there for us to see. You get the sense that Zacchaeus was isolated, that there was a hiddenness about him, that all his bravado was a mask for a deep-rooted sense of inferiority. The local community rejected him because of his occupation and his tactics of extortion. When Luke set out to tell us about him, he could not identify a single important family member, friend, or acquaintance in Zacchaeus’ life. And, perhaps most important, Zacchaeus was hiding from God. While he may have been short in stature, you get the sense that Zacchaeus believed himself to be even shorter in soul. What did Zacchaeus lack? He had everything the world offers, but nothing that comes from God.
The conversion of Zacchaeus – the personal transformation achieved with blinding speed – is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. The best sermon I ever heard on Zacchaeus had two simple points. First, Jesus tells Zacchaeus “I love you where you are.” Hiding in a Sycamore tree, cheating everybody in town out of their hard-earned money, alone and miserable and isolated, but nicely dressed! – Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “I love you where you are.” Then Jesus says to him, “I need you. I want you to do something for me. I want to come to your house for lunch.” And there, at Zacchaeus’ home, surrounded by all that ill-gotten gain, Jesus was able to look past all that was wrong with the little man’s life. He was able to see what Zacchaeus lacked.
No one had ever told him “God loves you right here, right now - no conditions, no qualifications, no catches, and no hidden fees. God loves you.” Do you realize what a radical statement this is? In Zacchaeus’ day it was believed that God loved you because you were a part of the Chosen Nation and because you followed all the rules and regulations and because you kept yourself ritually clean for worship in the Temple and because you made the right sacrifices at the appointed time. Basically folks believed you deserved God’s love because you did all the things necessary to earn God’s love.
2000 years later I don’t know that things have changed all that much. We still attach God’s love to conditions like attending church and quoting the bible and being a “good person” – however you might define ‘good.’ Now, as then, we want to put limits on God’s love. We are more comfortable with a Savior who says “Be a better parent, stop cheating people when you collect taxes, get to church more often, and serve on some committees. Do that for two or three years and then maybe you will be worthy of my love.”
The problem is, when we put those kinds of words on the lips of our Savior, then our Savior doesn’t really save us at all. It all rests with us and with our ability to get our own act together. When the Church says to a person that she needs to come around to the right kind of life before God can love her, then we are saying in effect, “Save yourself.” That is not the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, wrote this:
"Christ is not concerned, himself, with being good. He is concerned solely with love for the real person, and for that reason He is able to enter into fellowship with our guilt and to take the burden of our guilt upon Himself. Jesus does not desire to look down on us as the only guiltless One while each one of us goes on to our ruin under the weight of our guilt. He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which we die. He wishes to assume it. A love which left us alone in our guilt would not be love for the real us. From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into our guilt and takes that guilt upon Himself in His body, on the cross.”
This is why we proclaim Jesus as the only Savior!
So Zacchaeus responds to unconditional love – perhaps the first time in his life he has ever known a love like that! And then he responds to Jesus’ call to service. Long-dormant gifts of hospitality resurface. He makes a meal for Jesus and His Disciples. And at that meal, overjoyed with a new sense of love and purpose, with a new sense of community and fellowship with God, Zacchaeus makes the kind of moral and ethical changes so many people would demand of him before they would allow God to love him. But notice the process. Notice that love comes first, purpose follows, and finally repentance and amendment of life are a possibility.
What do you lack? Do you sense that God loves you right now, right where you are? Can you discern God calling you to service – giving you a reason and purpose in life beyond surviving the daily grind and paying the monthly bills? These two spiritual elements seem to be prerequisites to real transformation. If they are not present, change will not occur.
By my reading of this account, Zacchaeus does one thing to initiate the change in his life. He climbs a tree. He is too short to see over the crowd as Jesus passes by. He is not well liked, so no one will let him pass through to the front. And goodness knows he probably does not want to be front-and-center when Jesus passes by anyway. So he goes to the back and climbs a tree and that alone sets him apart from everyone else in the crowd. That is why Jesus was able to see him.
If you are listening to my sermon this morning and thinking that you are not that different from Zacchaeus, that you are lacking something you can not live without, that you are putting all the wrong things in the place where only God can be, that you have never really sensed God’s unconditional love for you, or that you don’t believe you have anything of value to contribute, do me one favor… call me some time.
Climb a tree, as it were, and lets talk. There is nothing more important that I can do for you as your priest. When I was ordained I did not take a vow before God and the Church to point out all the places where people are lacking. I took a vow to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that all people might come to know the power of God’s love and the healing of His forgiveness. Call me some time and let’s talk. Let’s talk about you and about Jesus and about how Jesus can love and use a person just like you – right now, just as you are.