In telling us about Zacchaeus, Luke does not tell us any of this. We might say he looks at Zacchaeus from Jesus’ point of view. 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 it is there for all to see.
You get the sense that Zacchaeus is isolated, that there is a hiddenness about him, that all his bravado is a mask for a deep-rooted sense of inferiority. Luke does not identify a single important family member, friend, or acquaintance in Zacchaeus’ life. He is shut off from the community because of his job and the tax-collector’s typical tactics of extortion. And, perhaps most important, Zacchaeus is hiding from God. While he may be been short in stature, it feels as if Zacchaeus believes himself to be even shorter in soul. What does Zacchaeus lack? He has 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. It tells us so much about God’s nature, about the authentic spiritual life, and about how “churchie” people sometimes get it all wrong.
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 your help. 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 his ill-gotten gain, Jesus is able to look past all that is wrong with Zacchaeus. He is able to see what Zacchaeus lacks.
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 people believe God loves you because you are a part of the Chosen Nation and because you follow all the rules and regulations and because you keep yourself ritually clean for worship in the Temple and because you make the right sacrifices at the appointed time. Basically, folks believe you deserve God’s love when you do all the things required to earn God’s love.
2000 years later I don’t know if 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 spouse, be a better parent, be a better person, get to church more often, and serve on some committees when you are there. Do this for several years and then maybe you will be worthy of my love.”
The problem is, when we put these kinds of words on Jesus’ lips 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 you need to come around to the right kind of life before God can love you, then we are saying in effect, “Save yourself.” This is not the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German 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 this! 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 the meal, overjoyed with a new sense of love and purpose, with a new sense of community and a renewed 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 how love comes first, purpose follows, and finally repentance and amendment of life become a possibility.
St. Augustine believed we are created with a need for God – a God-shaped void in our souls. He observed that people try to fill their God space with everything else but God. This surely is true of Zacchaeus and it points directly to what he lacks. But Jesus does not demand Zacchaeus divest himself of all the corrupt and worldly ways crammed into the space where God alone can be. He loves Zacchaeus and he calls him. And this sense of love and calling grows and grows and grows in the place only God can be. Then and only then, is Zacchaeus ready and able to get rid of the stuff that does not belong in his life.
This is how God works. This is how grace works. This is how salvation comes to us throughout our lives. Sometimes it is dramatic, other times it is a small step forward in the process of sanctification – of being the saints God created us to be.
What do you lack? Do you sense God loves you right now, right here where you are? Can you discern God calling you to service – giving you a reason and a purpose in life beyond surviving the daily grind and paying the monthly bills? These two spiritual elements seem to be prerequisites for 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 row 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 this alone sets him apart from everyone else in the crowd. This is why Jesus is able to see him.
If you are listening to my sermon this morning and thinking you are not all that different from Zacchaeus, that you are lacking something you cannot 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 I can do for you as your priest.
When I was ordained I did not take a vow before God and the Church to highlight all the ways a person is unlovable. 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 God’s forgiveness. Call me some time and let’s talk. Lets 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.