My congregation and I will be visiting with Zacchaeus this week. I’m not sure yet what’s going to surface. At the moment I’m pondering all the “stunners” in the text, including Jesus’ stunning act of grace and Zacchaeus’ stunning response: big-time repentance and big-time generosity. It makes the grace I try to offer seem pale and lukewarm, and the same thing when it comes to my own repentance. Here is a sermon I preached on this text in 2001. Perhaps it will contribute to the conversation as you and your congregation visit with Zacchaeus this year.
“I Must Stay at Your House Today”
A Sermon on Luke 19:1-10
It is hard to imagine any Jew choosing to work as a tax collector for the Roman government. But that is just what Zacchaeus, Matthew and many others did. Roman authorities decreed how much money was due. Then the collectors charged that to the people, plus extra to pay themselves—sometimes a LOT extra. That was how they made their living. The system was corrupt, and it bred resentment among the citizens. No group of people was hated more than tax collectors. It was bad enough to participate in the system. It was even worse to betray your own people for the oppressor.
It is hard to imagine Zacchaeus choosing to be a tax collector, but perhaps he didn’t have many options. The text makes a big deal of how small Zacchaeus was, how unusually small. It makes me wonder whether he had an illness, or injury, or genetic condition that prevented him from reaching a normal height. If so, and if people then were like they are now, he probably got worried over: “Oh, he’ll shoot up one of these days,” his concerned mother would say. Or worse, Zacchaeus got teased: “Hey, shorty!”
Perhaps Zacchaeus had physical limitations, or perhaps he was one of many sons in his family, and there wasn’t enough of the family business to go around. Maybe there wasn’t any place for him. All this is to say I wonder whether Zacchaeus had much choice in the matter. Maybe it was either tax collecting or begging. Take your pick.
Zacchaeus had done well at it, made it big in that way at least. The result was that his physical needs were more than met, and his family’s needs, if he had one. But the result was also isolation. Zacchaeus was of little account in the neighbors’ eyes. They had no use for him. If they saw him coming down the street, they crossed over to the other side. Zacchaeus had certainly made a living, but he hadn’t made a life. There’s a difference.
And that’s what Zacchaeus had in common with the first rich man we read about this morning, the one who knew his life was missing something. Making a good living, making money, is not the same thing as making a life. Maybe that was one reason Zacchaeus was more than mildly curious about Jesus. Did he know that Jesus had another tax collector, Matthew, for a disciple? Had he heard Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector? Word of Jesus’ healing the blind man outside the Jericho City limits had surely reached Zacchaeus. Who wouldn’t want to see the healer?
Maybe Zacchaeus was glad to hear that Jesus was near because Jesus had a reputation of being kind to sinners, kindness being something Zacchaeus rarely experienced. Whatever it was—a hurt, a void in his life, a need—something made Zacchaeus so eager to see Jesus that he became as a child. He hitched up his robes and ran ahead of the crowd, then climbed a tree to get a better view. Perhaps the sycamore branches held children already.
Sometimes people seek Jesus for obvious reasons. Illness or catastrophe knocks their legs out from under them. What are they going to stand on now? On September 11 tragedy on a massive scale drove seekers to houses of worship all across this land. The need is deep and searing, undeniable, un-hideable.
Yet often the need is hidden. Life goes on as normal on the outside, but inside there is loneliness, emptiness, sorrow that never goes away. Appropriate guilt over the very real wrongs we have done. And shame. So many people are ashamed of who they are, ashamed of their bodies, and ashamed of their weaknesses. Countless people are oppressed with the feeling of never, ever being able to measure up. They see themselves the way the town saw Zacchaeus. Small. Of no account. Trash.
The world is full of little people, of little stature in the world’s eyes: the poor, the sick, the feeble, the troubled.
The town of Jericho received Jesus like a celebrity. Everybody wanted to get a glimpse of him. What an honor it would be to get close to Jesus. He might heal some more people. Maybe he would stop to dine with the mayor and the leaders of the synagogue.
But instead, Jesus zeroed in on Zacchaeus, the lowest of the low, pond scum in the town’s eyes. Jesus saw Zacchaeus, knew his name, knew all about him. Their eyes met. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus called. At that moment Zacchaeus may have wished the tree branches would hide him from view. Would Jesus condemn him? Would Jesus give him what he had coming? He knew the crowd certainly hoped so. The crowd would like nothing better.
“Zacchaeus, hurry down,” Jesus called. But it wasn’t for a tongue lashing. It was for an invitation. “Zacchaeus, hurry down, because I must stay in your house today.” It was a table invitation!
The crowd was shocked. The thought of dining with Zacchaeus was repulsive to them. How could Jesus lower himself this way? “Jesus has gone to eat in the home of a sinner,” they grumbled. What had gotten Jesus into trouble so many times had happened again. Jesus just kept on eating with sinners. He just kept on offering them grace instead of the condemnation they deserved.
Zacchaeus hurried down. He was overjoyed to welcome Jesus. How good it was to hear a friendly voice for a change! “Lord, my house is this way,” Zacchaeus gestured, and they started on their way.
We can’t overestimate the significance of what Jesus said: “Zacchaeus, I must dine with you today.” In Bible times table fellowship formed a sacred connection between all the participants. Dining together made you friends, not just for that hour, but ever afterward. Jesus wasn’t just offering Zacchaeus a convivial hour at the table. He was offering Zacchaeus divine friendship, communion for life.
That’s what grossed people out so. Nobody wanted to be at God’s table with the likes of Zacchaeus. They wanted him to burn in hell. But Jesus wants the company of sinners. That was his reason for coming into this world. That’s what he was on the way to Jerusalem to seal by his death on the cross: a place at God’s table.
“Zacchaeus is the very person I came to find and save: the lost!” declared Jesus. “Zacchaeus is not trash. He is a child of Abraham.” Jesus was emphatic.
The Lord Jesus notices sinners like Zacchaeus who are up a tree. He notices people off to the side whose sins and sorrows are hidden. He notices the little folk who are as nothing in the eyes of the world. He sees all who are suffering, all who are oppressed under the feet of the big guys. He is eager to heal and to save. He is even more eager to find us than we can ever be to seek him. “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost,” declares Jesus Christ. He proved it through his death on the cross, and God ratified it through his resurrection.
Zacchaeus was touched to the heart. To think that Jesus cared about him, and said so in front of everybody! To think that Jesus wanted him for a friend, and wanted to eat with him! Jesus hadn’t crossed over to the other side of the street to get away from him. Jesus hadn’t thrown contempt at him. Jesus loved Zacchaeus, and he loved Jesus back.
“Welcome, Jesus,” Zacchaeus cried with great joy. And then, knowing he was loved, he was able to confront his own sin and turn away from it. “Listen, Lord! I will give half my belongings to the poor,” Zacchaeus announced, “and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay him back four times as much.” The love of Christ gave Zacchaeus the strength to repent, to make amends, and to give generously, unlike the other rich man who was righteous and apparently needed no repentance.
Whether we’re up a tree or up a creek, whether we’re lifelong churchgoers or newcomers, to each and every one of us the Lord says, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me.”
Listen, my little ones, says the Lord. Listen, all you who have made a mess of your life. Listen, all you who can’t hide your sins. I have come to find you. I must stay at your house today!
Listen, all you who think you have no sin, or only little sins. I know all about you. I know all about your sins. I must stay at your house today.
Listen, all you who are suffering. Listen, lonely ones. Listen, all you who need healing. I see you. I know your name. I must stay at your house today! I see you in the hospital and nursing home. I see your broken bodies and broken hearts. I know your names. You are mine. I must stay with you today!
Listen, all you who are small and weak and contemptible in the world’s eyes. I know every single one of your names. I must stay at your house this very day! Come out of your tree and walk with me!
If we say “yes,” if we let Jesus into our house and let him love us, it means letting him remodel the house. He’s not just going to do a little redecorating here and there. He is going to set our life’s agenda. He is going to direct our faith, and where our faith goes, our pocketbook goes.
Hurry, Zacchaeus! Hurry, Morton Church. Come out from wherever you are. For I must stay at your house today!