A Short Man Stands Tall
I run the risk this morning of relating an incident in the life of Christ which you probably heard as a child, but which I hope you will hear again with pleasure because it presents him in such an appealing way: not as a wonder-worker suspending the laws of nature, but as a personality so radiant and so eager to see the best in people that he often worked remarkable changes in their lives. If there is one Bible story no Sunday School kid ever forgets, it’s the one about the short guy who climbs a tree and gets the biggest surprise of his life. Just for fun, if you also know with absolute certainty what his name was — and remember God is watching! — please hold up your hands. Now, with the confident voices born of such esoteric knowledge, when I have counted to “3” please speak his name in unison: l, 2, 3. The name, in case that (rather tepid) (vigorous) response left you confused, was Zacchaeus. The sermon this morning is going to remember Zaccheus and what his dramatic encounter with a young Jewish prophet named Jesus tells us about the message of the gospels.
Here is the setting for that encounter: Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem when he stops at one of the oldest cities on earth, a place called Jericho, deep in the Jordan river valley. I suppose you could call it the Palm Springs of ancient Judea, a sub-tropical city famous for its dates and figs and bananas, its fragrant balsam and roses — such a welcome oasis in that parched land that the Bible refers to it as “the garden of the Lord” (Gen 13:10) and “the city of palm trees” (Deut. 34:3) The Roman general Mark Antony, hopelessly bewitched by Cleopatra, gave her the city of Jericho as a present, and then threw the country of Arabia in to boot — which makes Richard Burton’s gift of the great diamond for his Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor, look pale by comparison! All sorts of traders and caravans moved through Biblical Jericho, jostling for room in its narrow, dusty streets with pilgrims, priests, robbers, and soldiers.
It was an ideal place for the Romans to station internal revenue agents, and our friend Zacchaeus was one of these — in fact, he was head man at the Jericho office of the Roman IRS. Tax collectors have never been very popular anywhere, and in Palestine in the time of Christ they were especially despised because they not only represented an occupation army but they were widely viewed as traitors and robbers who charged an extra 10% or more above what Rome demanded and tucked the surcharge away into their own pockets. When Luke says offhandedly that Zacchaeus is a rich man, he probably means to hint that as contractor-in-chief of the local tax agency the way he got to be rich was by cheating. Back in the 18th century when tax collectors were milking France for all they could get, a group of Parisians were amusing themselves one day by recalling stories of famous robbers in their history. The great philosopher Voltaire was present, and after a while he said, “I can tell a thief story better than any of yours.” When they begged to hear it, he began: “Once upon a time there was a tax collector” — and then he paused. They said, “Please go on. We’re eager to hear this tale of your greatest thief.” Voltaire said, “I’ve already told it. Don’t you see that my mention of a tax collector implies the greatest thief story in history?” People in Palestine when Jesus was alive would understand perfectly. They detested tax collectors and spoke of them in the same breath with cutthroats and thieves, traitors and brothelkeepers. As you can imagine, tax collectors had a very limited social life.
It would be logical to assume that on the day we are remembering, the revenue agent named Zacchaeus notices a commotion at the edge of town and asks a man racing to join it what’s happening. Without stopping to be seen in the company of such an outcast, the man shouts over his shoulder that the young prophet Jesus from up in the hill country of Galilee is passing through town, and Zacchaeus decides he’d like to see what this celebrity looks like. If he had any motive beyond curiosity, we are not told, but it’s possible he had heard that this Jewish prophet was not as harsh and judgmental as many of them were — that, in fact, he had accepted as one of his close followers an IRS agent named Matthew. Since law-abiding Jews shunned their disloyal brothers, tax collectors probably got together with other tax collectors when they traveled around the country, and Zacchaeus may have had a friend who told him stories like these: how when agent Matthew left his toll booth to follow Jesus, there was a dinner party where as the gospel record puts it, “a good many tax collectors and other disreputable people came on the scene and joined [Jesus] and his disciples.” And how when the Pharisees saw this they said to the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with trash like these tax collectors and sinners?” And how this prophet Jesus told them it was his mission to help people who really needed help, that he had come to offer forgiveness and a new life to the very dregs of society, and that these critical Pharisees needed — great Bible students that they were! — to go off someplace and learn what their scripture meant when it quotes God as saying, “I prefer mercy to ritual and ceremony.”
A word about these Pharisees before we pick up the story again. Their name means “the separated ones” — a way of distancing themselves from people who were not as strict about religion as they were. They were sincere and passionate people who meant well, but who easily became intolerant and unforgiving of those who were not as rigid as they. They remind me in many ways of groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, what is often called The Far Right in religion — people sure they have all the right answers to complex questions, and all the right solutions for complex social issues…..an attitude that in spite of other good qualities often leads to an arrogant self-righteousness hard for others to take.
I’m reminded of the time it was “Kindness to Animals Week” at the elementary school, and how exhilarated and full of pride the third-grader was when he came home one day. His mother noticed, and wondered why. He told her that the students in his class had agreed that each one of them would do something special that week to be kind to animals. He said that what he had done had really worked. “Well, that’s nice,” his mother said., “What did you do?” “I saw a 2nd grader kick his dog, so I beat him up!”
This is what I call “fierce righteousness,” the kind some people get when they start thinking their cause is so important that it’s OK to suspend decency and good will in order to get the job done. This is the distortion that causes ordinarily good people to excuse ridicule, innuendo and outright slander in pursuit of what they are positive is an ultimate good. It keeps turning out, however, that fierce righteousness is not righteous at all. It’s only fierce….and it spoils the good intended by it. We’ve heard a lot of it lately, but it’s nothing new. Many of the Pharisees of the first century had fallen into that trap. And Jesus was in trouble with these people all the time because he posed more questions than he answered, because he put far more emphasis on human relationships than on their rituals and ceremonies, and because while their idea was salvation by segregation his was salvation by association, mingling with down-and-out people the righteous refused even to look at.
If Zacchaeus had ever heard any of this, having suffered so long from insults and name-calling, he might well have been curious to see a preacher who was different. For all we know of this brief meeting, he may have grown desperately weary of his reputation, wishing he had back, somehow, the things that now seemed so irretrievably lost: peace, dignity, self-respect. We do not always know as much as we think about the hearts of others. Whatever was at work in this man, he rushes out to see what the popular young prophet is like in person.
But he has a problem. Luke tells us that being a very short man Zacchaeus cannot not see Jesus over the heads of the crowd, and certainly no one in this crowd would be sympathetic or move for him if he had triesto push his way through — so he decides to run ahead of them down the road, and climb a tree. It isn’t hard to imagine how people laugh when they see what’s happening. I can hear some bearded Jewish shopkeeper muttering to his son: “Look at that sawed-off little thief scrambling up the sycamore tree to get a look at a prophet of God, and him with a heart as hard as a grindstone. You’d think he’d be ashamed to show his face. We could get lucky, of course. He might just fall out on his head and leave us in peace for a while.”
What happens next surprises everybody. When Jesus reaches the tree he stops, looks up, and calls Zacchaeus by name. Luke probably attributes this to supernatural insight, but there may be a simpler explanation. Jesus may have heard people making fun of Zacchaeus and calling his name, or he may have seen a longing in the man’s face no one else had cared enough to notice. In any event, he stops and calls the tax collector by name. You can be sure that the crowd giggles quietly, anticipating how much fun it will be to hear the prophet of God tell Zacchaeus that he’s probably as close to heaven up in that tree as he’s ever going to get. What Jesus actually says almost knocks them off their feet. “Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down. I must be a guest in your house today.”
In the Bible’s curiously compressed way of telling these stories we are given no hint why Jesus would make such an announcement — why he would risk making everybody in the parade angry by inviting himself to the house of a tax collector, for God’s sake? We can only guess at such things because the gospel records, for all their importance, are so incredibly sketchy. There is an old tradition, lovely but almost certainly unreliable, which tries to explain this moment by saying that Matthew once told Jesus, “Rabbi, if you ever go through Jericho, and have time, there’s an old friend I got to know when we were both in the Internal Revenue Service together, and I’ve often thought that if the two of you could meet….well, I used to think sometimes that he would like to find a better life for himself.”
We can probably be sure of one thing: nothing is likely to have been further from Zacchaeus’ mind than that among all the temple priests, the rich and respected citizens of Jericho, this celebrity from Galilee should choose to stay at his house. But whatever lost world of motives and longing may lie back of this incredibly abbreviated story, the fact is that when Zacchaeus hears the invitation of Jesus he climbs back down as fast as he can and tells Jesus how pleased he will be to have him as a guest. A low rumble of irritation goes through the crowd: “Can you believe this? Those rumors we’ve heard must be true — that this man has a habit of running around with reprobates without any regard at all for his reputation. Here we are in the middle of a welcoming parade, and instead of going to the home of a priest or the mayor, he picks out this scumbag to be his host. No true prophet would compromise himself by entering the house of that treacherous thief.”
Does Zacchaeus hear what they are saying? Is that why he suddenly stops and says to Jesus, “Here and now, sir, I give half my property to charity, and if I have cheated anyone, I am ready to repay that person four times over.” Talk is cheap, but this is expensive, and Jesus is impressed. “Salvation has come to this house today,” he says, “since Zacchaeus here is a son of Abraham.” This is not a reference to blood lines, but to how tall the short man stands at that moment in the sight of God.
It’s a strange little story, with a world of gaps in it, and all sorts of unanswered questions, but if it says anything at all it reminds us that people proud of their goodness are forever surprised at what can happen on occasion to the shunned and rejected when someone’s love and confidence restores their self-respect. It can be read, too, I suppose, as a reminder that opportunities are not infinite. Zacchaeus, whaever his longing may have been, could easily have said, “I think I’ll have him in my home when he comes back this way, and try to get a little more information on him in the meantime,” but although he didn’t know it, there would not be a next time.
Lloyd C. Douglas, Congregational minister and novelist, may have captured the essence of this roadside encounter when he wrote this dialogue: “Zacchaeus,” said the carpenter gently, “what did you see that made you desire this peace?”
“Good master, I saw — mirrored in your eyes — the face of the Zacchaeus I was meant to be.”
The most important reason for this church to exist is the hope that once in a while, in sermon or in song, or through the friendships we make, we catch a glimpse of what we were meant to be.
Grant us the imagination, gracious God, to see the face of
love and trust, and be drawn by it to a nobler life through
Christ our Lord. Amen.