Wee Little Man, Changed Heart
October 30, 2016
William G. Carter
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.”
Years ago we took the tour bus through downtown Jericho. It’s not far from the Dead Sea, and some of it hasn't changed very much over the centuries. There was an open market place to the right, with two locals squabbling over the price of figs. Off to the left, there was a public square with a camel, along with an enterprising photographer who would snap a picture of you on the camel for a small fee. Then the tour guide at the front of the bus said, “Right up here, in the next block, we will pass the actual sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus.”
Everybody laughed, because if you’ve ever been on a tour of ancient places, you know there’s a good bit of nonsense to please the tourists. The real tree is long gone. But everybody looked, because we love the story of Zacchaeus. It’s as relevant as ever.
For a moment, it was quite a thrill for the imagination. This is the town, this is the street, where Jesus invited himself to the home of the most famous tax collector in the Bble. He looked up into that tree and said, “Come on down, Zaccheus. I’m eating dinner at your home and spending the night.”
Now, the kids like the story because it sounds like Zacchaeus is kind of short, just like them. But I will point out that the grammar is ambiguous. We’re not sure if Zacchaeus is the short one or if it’s Jesus. Listen to the sentence again: “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” Which one of them is the short one? Maybe Jesus was 4’11”. The grammar is not clear.
But before you chew on that, let me say that what is clear is the impact of the story. Zacchaeus changes his life. Not only does Jesus intrude on him with the same intrusive grace that Luke has been narrating for nineteen chapters, but Zacchaeus responds. He makes a big, dramatic change. “Look, Lord,” he says, “I will give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I’ve defrauded anyone, I will repay them four-fold.”
It’s an unusual moment. Jesus has been changing lives by preaching, teaching, healing, and feeding the multitudes. But ever since his mother Mary first said “yes” to an angel, there hasn’t been a lot of evidence that people have actually done something in response to his ministry. They have talked about his stories, they’ve reacted to his teaching, they’ve benefitted from his healings – but that one of them should actually make a change in his life, why, that’s pretty rare in the Gospel of Luke.
As you may recall, he has been with tax collectors before. Some of them have followed after him, others have had him for dinner. As we heard last week, one tax collector appeared as the hero of one of his stories. But that a tax collector should make a change, specifically a financial donation, that’s an unprecedented response to the work of Jesus. Especially given who tax collectors were in his time and place!
We have at least one elected tax collector in our congregation and a couple of retired IRS agents. They are nothing like the tax collectors of ancient Israel. Zacchaeus and his bunch were Jews who sold out to the Roman Empire. Their job was to collect for the Romans whatever it took for the Roman soldiers to occupy the land. As an additional incentive, they could collect whatever additional fees they could get away with. If the local Roman soldiers were friendly, they could back them up and split the additional proceeds. That would have been especially true in an isolated border town like Jericho, off in the desert.
We know two things about New Testament tax collectors. Most of them lived in luxury (imagine that!) and all of them were hated by the neighbors in their towns. It got so bad that the leaders of the Jerusalem temple kept a list of “despised trades,” people who were not welcome to worship with the rest of God’s people. Tax collectors were always at the top of the list.
So what does it mean that Zacchaeus “wanted to see Jesus”? What does it mean that he was willing to climb a tree and risk the embarrassment of being spotted by the crowd of people who hated him? What does it mean that he was “happy to welcome him”? He was the happy tax collector, literally he was “rejoicing exceedingly.” It’s the same verb as the shepherd who rejoices as he finds the lost lamb and carries it home on his shoulders (Luke 15:5), except this time it’s the Lost Lamb who rejoices when the Good Shepherd finds him – and calls him by name.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down. I must stay at your house today.” The guy whose job has excluded him and caused him to be hated by others is wanted, and named, and visited by the Christ of grace.
Now that’s a story that lies at the heart of the Good News of Jesus is all about. And it’s a story that keeps being told by others among us who find themselves wanted, named, and visited.
I have started to read the memoir of a man named Brennan Manning. Ever hear about him? He has some kind of story. He heard the call of God and was ordained as a Catholic priest. He served for a while and said, “Is this all there is?” He was a former Marine, had served in the Korean War. Presiding over a congregation never really floated his boat.
So Father Manning joined a Franciscan order, took a vow of poverty, and went wherever he was directed by his abbot. For a while, he lived in a cave in Spain while he was serving the poor. He worked as a campus minister in Ohio. He kept asking, “Is this all there is?” He slipped into alcoholism, left the priesthood, and dried out. Then he married a woman and moved to New Orleans. The people he’d known really wanted nothing to do with him. His family regarded him as a failure.
But in the thick of it all, he discovered the love of Jesus. It had been there all along, but he had ignored it in the name of mere religion. He had served the church and found it to be full of people obsessed with guilt. The way they worked out their own guilt was by imposing more guilt on the people around him. “It was complete nonsense,” he said. “Did Jesus die for nothing? Did he come back from the dead to make people feel guilty?”
In his recovery from alcohol, Brennan Manning discovered the love of Jesus. “I was pursued until I was found,” he declared. Indeed it didn’t totally fix everything. He began to speak wherever anybody wanted to hear about the love of Christ and wrote best-selling books – even though he had at least two more relapses into addiction and was later divorced from his wife. But he still kept talking about the love of Jesus. His ex-wife ran the office that booked his speaking trips.
In fact, in a strange twist, he was once booked to speak at a church very close to here, which I will not name. When the church leaders discovered what a mess his life had been, they uninvited him. They said he wasn’t spiritual enough, that he wasn’t a good example. Brennan Manning didn’t care. He said there must be more than what he called “moralistic religiosity,” and he kept writing books and talking about the love of Jesus.
When he passed away three years ago, he was traveling widely with a back brace, catheter, and an IV bag, with the simple message of the love of Jesus. He said, “The work that God had given me to do is helping people to enter the existential experience of being loved in their brokenness.” He was found and loved by Christ, and he did something about it.
That’s why my friends and I looked out the bus window in the city of Jericho: it was another place where somebody had been found and loved by Christ. And he did something about it. Zacchaeus said, “Lord, half my possessions I give to the poor, and if I’ve defrauded anybody, I will restore it four-fold.”
Now, I didn’t want to point out that today is the day we make our pledges to support the work of this church. I don’t want to reduce the abundant love of Christ to mere fund-raising. We were not baptized in order to pay the light bill and meet the budget. No, we were baptized in the love of God in order to proclaim the love of God. It’s just that big.
And even if our lives have been busted or shipwrecked in any way, it is here in the community of Jesus Christ that we proclaim there is something more. We are found, we are named, we are visited – and we are invited to change, to become more like Christ.
Now let me say a word about what that meant for Zacchaeus, before we explore what that might mean for you and me. Zacchaeus was “a child of Abraham.” That means he was circumcised into the Law of Moses. The Torah was given by God to give guidance for his life.
But Zacchaeus decided that getting rich and selling out your neighbors was more important than the gift of God’s Word for his life, even when that Word said, “Live honestly, don’t defraud, be generous with what you have.” So he knew, somewhere deep inside him, that there is indeed something more.
And then one day, that Something More, the Word of God on two legs, walked up to his tree, called him by name, and invited himself for dinner. Luke says, “He hurried down, and he was glad to welcome him.” The gladness comes because he is free from having to live a divided life. The love of God found him. He was always, and now renewed, as a child of Abraham.
We are the adopted children of God, claimed by the same grace and love that saved and restored Zacchaeus’ life. And it’s time for us to do something about it. If you want to pitch in for the heat bill and last week’s bell choir anthem, great! The church needs that, but I’d like to think we are capable of so much more.
I remember what John Calvin said: “God has given the earth and its resources to human beings. As children made in the image of God, we’re called to share our resources and serve one another.” In fact, he argued in one of his writings, that a person is defrauded when a need is left unmet by someone with the power to meet it.
So here’s what Zacchaeus writes on his pledge card today: I’m not ever going to defraud anybody. No, I’m going to be about the work of restoration through my generosity. And he makes that promise because he is confident of the love of God through Jesus, the One whom he calls “Lord.”
But enough talk; it’s time to do something. I want to do what Zacchaeus did, to commit myself to the work of God’s love through my generosity.
How about you?
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969) 303-312.
 Read about Brennan Manning online at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/june/22.42.html?start=1