March 21, 2021
Zacchaeus was likely a wealthy and powerful man in Jericho … maybe the most wealthy man in town.
In Jesus’ day, tax collectors collected what was owed by families to pay for centurions, roads and aqueducts … the infrastructure of an oppressive system. And these tax collectors would also charge over-and-above this, keeping the extra money for their trouble.
Get on Zacchaeus’ bad side, well, the amount of tax you paid went up in relationship to how much you’ve angered him. Bribes and commissions kept a person in the tax collector’s good graces.
In short, Zacchaeus was a powerful and well-known member of the Jericho community.
But this doesn’t mean that he was respected, liked or accepted. You could expect people being complimentary and polite to his face and disparaging behind his back.
In all likelihood … even though Luke says that Zacchaeus was a sinner … he used his position to extort money, after all … he would have been welcomed in the Temple or synagogue. On the way in, Zacchaeus would have ritually cleansed himself before entering … and then went back to sinful practices during the week.
With the wealth he boasted … and the financial support for the Temple or the synagogue that could come with it … Zacchaeus would have received preferential treatment … the best seat in the house.
That’s one of the interesting aspects of today’s story from Luke … with all his wealth and power … why would Zacchaeus climb a tree to see Jesus?
Being such a privileged member of the community, you’d expect that the crowd would part and allow him to stand out in front or he’d even arrange for a private meeting with this rabbi who’s passing through town on the way to Jerusalem.
Instead, he sprints ahead of the crowds and shinnies up a tree and waits to get a view of Jesus. And why was he the only one trying to get a better look of the procession of Jesus and the disciples?
You’d think the Pharisees or others in the crowd would have shown some enthusiasm, as well.
Luke describes Zacchaeus as being short in stature … so the crowds that gather to see Jesus would have blocked his view. Scholar Mikeal Parsons says that the audience that first heard this story may have thought Luke’s description meant “small in spirit” rather than small in height.
If this description was true, you’d think the branches of the trees would have been full of people who were small in spirit.
As he passes by Jesus sees Zacchaeus … Jesus sees Zacchaeus … calls him by name … and commands him to climb down telling the tax collector that he wants to stay in his home.
Zacchaeus hurries down the tree and receives Jesus … taking him home.
While the Pharisees and others in the crowd grumble and complain … which seems to be all they do in Luke’s gospel … Zacchaeus is joyous that Jesus has not only noticed him, but also calls him and wants to share a meal with him.
At Zacchaeus’ home, the host would have been expected to extend a certain measure of hospitality – giving him welcoming kisses, having Jesus’ hands and feet washed and anointing his head … all before they sat down to eat.
Zacchaeus may have been hated and avoided by the community, but Jesus welcomes and makes it known that he sees Zacchaeus … not necessarily because he was a sinner, but perhaps because he knew that the conditions within the tax collector were ripe for a change to occur.
The small in spirit became bolder in spirit than those who were lining the streets.
Depending on the Bible translation you use, Zacchaeus will be giving half his possessions to the poor … or he has already been doing it. The verb tenses make all the difference between the translations.
This means there are two dramatically different ways of looking at his actions … one, that he is offering repentance for his sinful exploitation of those in the community … or, two, he has quietly been redistributing the wealth that he has collected from the wealthy and the merchants in Jericho.
This means that his heart is tuned toward the less-fortunate and, since he has been operating under the radar … he has been misunderstood by the community because no one knows the tax collector’s story.
I have to admit that this interpretation piqued my interest … working within an oppressive system to improve or liberate the lives of those exploited or put at risk by it. Zacchaeus may have been a sinner, but not as bad a one as the community believed.
I’ll leave it to you to ponder which translation you prefer, but since this is Lent … a season of repentance … let’s stick with the first version … that he will give half his wealth to the poor and make restitution … plus interest … to anyone he might have defrauded.
Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus’ acceptance and grace opens up a reordered life for the tax collector … a life that is shaped by God’s values and commitment to justice.
Maybe that’s why the Pharisees and the members of the crowd are so upset … their expectations were upended by Zacchaeus’ U-turn … and their expectations will continue to be overturned as the tax collector lives into the promises he has made … and the promise that was made to him by Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.
Today, Luke reminds us that we are all capable of making such a U-turn … such a change in our lives. Grace makes all that possible.
We know what awaits Jesus in Jerusalem … Luke has been dropping some not-so-subtle hints. Today, Jesus tells the disciples exactly what will happen when they reach the city.
Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is a kind of U-turn as well. Jesus is paving a different way to change the world than was modeled in the Roman empire in which he lived.
Rather than violently overthrowing the oppressive system as most Jews at the time expected and had been anticipating since the time of King David … Jesus … throughout his ministry and his confrontation with Rome in Jerusalem … called on the people to give up the tools of violence and hatred … and instead choose to love and serve their enemies. In other words, to make a U-turn of their own.
For some, it was too much of a whiplash-inducing change.
As we proceed through the season of Lent, we are invited to reflect upon the unfounded expectations we carry … the ones that the ways of the world shape within us … to reflect upon the things that keep us from calling and welcoming others into the community … or even keep us from being as joyous as Zacchaeus whenever we are reminded that we are called by name to live into the grace we have received.
It is a season when we can consider if we are small or if we are bold in spirit.
As Holy Week nears … as we near Jerusalem and the cross … we need to listen for where God may call us … toward paths that bring healing, reconciliation, love, and peace into our lives and into the life of the world.
And know that a Zacchaeus-like U-turn is always possible for each of us when love is at the heart of the manoeuvre.