A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 6, 2012
Darrell was a classmate of mine all through elementary school. Darrell was short—one of the shortest members of the class. As one who was short in stature, Darrell endured a lot of ribbing and was the butt of many jokes. Today I can’t help but wonder how the ribbing and joking affected Darrell’s self image and view of himself later in life. Perhaps you can relate, in that you, too, were teased because of your size or your stature; because of your looks or because you wore ugly, grey glasses, like I did. If you were teased or ridiculed in any way because of your looks or other personal attributes, then you can probably relate to Zacchaeus as well.
When I try to picture in my mind Zacchaeus, I think of actor Danny DiVito—a very short, slightly stocky man with wavy, thinning black hair. Now imagine this short, stocky man running down a dirt road and scrambling to climb up into a tree. That is what I picture in my mind when I think of Zacchaeus. The fact that Jesus asked to be a guest in the home of Danny DiVito—I mean Zacchaeus—caused no small scandal in the community of Jericho. The crowd literally was shocked that Jesus could do such a thing. Didn’t Jesus know who Zacchaeus was? For a teacher such as Jesus to enter the house of someone like Zacchaeus was considered to be unclean. Didn’t Jesus realize that Zacchaeus was a despised tax collector, the chief tax collector of the district in fact, a traitor to his own people, a Jew who had sold his soul to the Romans? Tax collectors were renowned cheats, and they were hated for sharing in Roman domination. They often extracted more money from the people than the Romans demanded. Whatever they could collect above and beyond what the Romans asked for, they could keep themselves. If a tax collector could collect two, three, or even four times the proper tax, he was free to do so, and no one but the tax collector himself was any the wiser. You can imagine how you would look upon such a tax collector. We all have problems enough with the IRS, but at least their tax rate is somewhat uniform. But on with the story. Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was going to be passing his way. He wanted to “see who Jesus was.” Zacchaeus was a seeker. And since he was “short in stature”—we might call him a little person—he climbed up into a tree so he could see. As an aside, if you go to Jericho today, they will take you past the “Zacchaeus tree.” So it was that Jesus looked up into the tree and invited himself to the home of Zacchaeus. In inviting himself to dinner, three things happened that drastically altered the course of Zacchaeus’s life.
First, Jesus saw potential in Zacchaeus. In asking Zacchaeus to “come down,” perhaps Jesus wasn’t just talking about the tree. Perhaps Jesus was challenging Zacchaeus to come down from his pedestal of arrogance and wealth. Perhaps Jesus was calling Zacchaeus to come down from that metaphorical tree he was hiding in, and to take off that mask he was trying to hide behind. Perhaps Jesus was saying, “Come down, Zacchaeus, and mingle with the common people and see how they are having to live and suffer.” Come down, Zacchaeus, from your tree of hard-heartedness and thievery. Come down from your sense of pride and humble yourself. In actuality, Zacchaeus had already humbled himself. For you see, in that day it was undignified for a grown man to run, just as it was undignified for a grown man to climb a tree. The crowd must have ridiculed Zacchaeus as they saw him run and scurry up that sycamore tree. But perceptive that he was, Jesus saw a yet-to-be realized potential in Zacchaeus that no one else saw. Zacchaeus was savy;. Zacchaeus was determined. Zacchaeus had a lot to offer. Jesus recognized that. That’s the way Jesus was—able to see the potential in people that no one else could see.
Second, Jesus restored Zacchaeus’s self-image. In spite of his wealth and uncaring arrogance, I believe that Zacchaeus probably had very low self-esteem. As already noted, he was short. Maybe people called him “Shorty.” Perhaps selling out to the Romans was a vain attempt of Zacchaeus to regain some sense of self-worth. But it didn’t work. For his dealings with the Romans caused him to be despised and shunned by his own neighbors. He was branded by all the community as a “sinner,” an outcast. But Jesus changed all that. When Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s house, his heart was filled with gladness. Here was one who had finally affirmed his self-worth, in spite of all that he had against him. Even he was worthy of the Master’s attention. There was, indeed, hope for his life. By having Jesus enter his house his sense of human dignity was restored. That is the way of Jesus—to affirm human worth, to build up self-image, to restore human dignity. We see it time and again in the gospels, especially the gospel of Luke. The man with the withered hand, the spirit-possessed outcast, the man born blind (a case which the community said was the result of sin), the woman who had had an issue of blood for twelve years, the woman taken in adultery. In all these cases and many more, Jesus restored self-esteem and affirmed human dignity and worth.
And third, Jesus gave Zacchaeus a whole new outlook on life and priorities. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus said of him, “because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (19:9). Not only was Zacchaeus a son of Abraham by Jewish descent, but now Jesus declared him to be the son of Abraham in spirit because he had demonstrated the faith of father Abraham. Jesus restored to the community of God’s people one who had been excluded by that community. Thus, there was a new joy, a new affection, a new reason for living in the house of Zacchaeus.
The bottom line of it all was that Jesus called for a response—a response of faith and a response of commitment. And Zacchaeus did respond. He vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor, and if he had cheated anyone, to pay back four times the amount he had taken falsely in accordance with the Jewish law. Zacchaeus rightly understood that the response of faith doesn’t end in the heart; it affects every area of a person’s life, including the bank account and pocketbook. As we read this, I can’t help but think of Ebeneezer Scrooge who underwent a kind of spiritual conversion experience and joyously danced in the streets and gave away his wealth to the poor. Zacchaeus’s life was transformed by his meeting with Jesus.
Speaking of meeting Jesus, I think of an important book I read. Many of us who read a lot could cite a dozen or so books that have changed the way we look at life and religion. As I think about the dozen or so books that stand out in my mind as milestones or signposts that turned my thinking in a new direction, I would have to include a book by Marcus J. Borg titled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In this groundbreaking work published in 1994, Borg calls into question many of the traditional ways that people have viewed Jesus over the years. Many of us learned as children stories about Jesus that stand in conflict with our adult way of thinking. And many of the things we learned about Jesus may not be correct. So Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time seeks to examine all the perceptions we have had of Jesus and help us to see Jesus in a new way. Borg says, “both within and outside the church, the childhood image of Jesus can become a problem” (1). He speaks of a “collision between the modern worldview and childhood beliefs” (7). Borg points out that in the books of the Bible, traditions and beliefs about Jesus were adapted over time and applied to the changing circumstances of the early Christian movement. As situations that the early Christian movement faced changed, so did the way the early Christians looked at and wrote about Jesus. In Christian theology there has been the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (10). A good example is the great difference we see in how Jesus is depicted in the synoptic gospels (Mt., Mk, and Lk) and John’s gospel, which was written much later. Borg notes that “the gospels contain minimally two voices—the voice of the pre-Easter Jesus and the voice of the community in the post-Easter setting” (21). Borg’s bottom line reads like this: Jesus “was a spirit person, subversive sage, social prophet, and movement founder who invited his followers into a transforming relationship with the same Spirit that he himself knew, and into a community whose social vision was shaped by the core value of compassion” (p. 119). And so, what Borg’s book is about is meeting Jesus again.
Well, Zacchaeus’s meeting with Jesus mirrors Borg’s picture of Jesus, and that is why this story is so important for the understanding who Jesus was. Zacchaeus entered into a transforming relationship, and he demonstrated a newfound compassion. And such is what our Christian faith—our association with Jesus—should do for us: result in some type of transformation and lead us to a life of compassion. It should call us forth from that “tree” which separates us from God and from others. Call us to quit trying to hide and become the person we were created to be. And challenge us to put forth our best effort.
Regardless of our situation, regardless of past mistakes we have made, regardless of our looks and human imperfections, a positive faith experience can help restore our self-image and affirm our human dignity and worth and give us a whole new outlook on life and priorities. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done, there is always the possibility of personal transformation and a newfound compassion. That’s what meeting the real Jesus can do for us. Amen.
Work cited: Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.