Isaiah 43:14-21, Luke 19:1-10
March 25, 2007
We’re making our way along the road to Jerusalem. As you know, we’re examining that time in Jesus’ life and ministry after he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He took that road, knowing where it would lead him!
Today we look at an event that happened as he came to the town of Jericho. This is the story of Zacchaeus. And it’s a wonderful story of grace and reconciliation. It’s a story that makes me glad to be a follower of this Jesus. I hope it does you, as well!
By this time, the crowds that were coming to see and hear Jesus were getting larger and larger. His ever-growing fame and popularity preceded him where ever he went. A couple of weeks ago, Luke told us that there were so many thousands of people gathered in one place that they “trod upon one another.” Here in Jericho, it was no different. It was perhaps worse. As he came into the city, the crowd was so large it was difficult for people to see him. And at this point, they weren’t even coming to hear him speak. They just wanted to get a glimpse of him as he came into the town.
Now, let me ask you this. As you picture this scene, what do you see? We all have those mental images, don’t we? When we read these stories, we automatically convert them to images in our minds. Well, I’d like to “tweak” those images today – just a bit.
For instance, when you picture this scene, how many people do you see? Scripture tells us that these crowds were very large. But sometimes I think our images don’t reflect that. We tend to see smaller groups. We tend to be focusing on Jesus and that makes us see a smaller frame of this picture, with not much of the crowd. I know I tend to do that. I suspect a lot of us do. When we see artists’ renderings of these scenes, we don’t usually see a whole multitude of people, do we? But they were there. And I’m hoping to help “populate” your image a little more.
The next thing I’d like you to consider is this. And I know I’m walking on “shaky ground” here. But, how many people do you see up in the trees? Do you see just one tax collector up in one sycamore tree? Again, I’ve seen artists’ pictures of this scene and that’s often the case. But I’m not so sure that does justice to the Biblical account.
As I think this through and as I begin to see a much larger crowd, I can’t imagine that there was only one guy who thought of climbing a tree to try to get a better look. I’d be willing to bet that there were a number of people who had that same idea. And if there were children in the city, I’m sure they were up in the trees! I’d also bet that people were up on rooftops and looking over balconies. We know the housing in those ancient cities was built on various levels. And I know the scripture doesn’t mention what other people did in order to see Jesus. But remember, Luke is focusing on the story of Zacchaeus. He doesn’t say what other people may have done. And he doesn’t say that Zacchaeus was the only one who was trying to get a better vantage point.
Now I’m going to shake up your image a little more. Because the other thing I want you to think about here is this whole idea of Zacchaeus being “short of stature.” That’s the assumption we always make. We even have that song “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…” In “Politically Correct speech” we would say that Zacchaeus was “vertically challenged!” But let me tell you, the wording here in the Greek language is actually a little ambiguous. And I heard one scholar once making a plausible case that those words may actually have referred to Jesus. Look at it again. “He (Zachaeus) wanted to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was short of stature.” Think about it. It works grammatically!
The problem is, it doesn’t work with our mental image of Jesus. I know now that I’m really treading on some thin ice here. But I would suggest that Jesus may not have looked the way we often picture him, which is tall, blonde, blue eyed, and rather “western” looking. (Western hemisphere!) I think the assumption in people’s thinking has always been “the son of God couldn’t possibly have been the short guy in that sentence.” But think about it. Coming from that region of the world, he probably would have been olive skinned, dark haired, and dark eyed. He may well have been more “ruddy looking,” than we’ve often seen him portrayed. And he may have been shorter in stature, so that climbing trees in order to see him may well have been what often happened – especially as these crowds became larger. Think of it! The Bible has stories of people cutting holes in roofs to get near him!
The reason I suggest all this, is so that we might think more seriously about this story of Zacchaeus. Is this a matter of Jesus noticing one person in one tree and speaking to him, or is this a matter of him looking up and singling Zachaeus out? I think that makes this encounter with Jesus even more amazing! It shows he knew this man before hand – either by “supernatural” insight, or by the reputation that this man had as the chief tax collector. And if he singled him out of the crowd purposefully, and maybe even thinking of doing so ahead of time, I think that emphasizes the fact that Jesus was making a bold move here! This was shocking! This was scandalous!!
Choosing this man Zacchaeus was quite the “Politically Incorrect” thing to do! Associating with this man would not ingratiate Jesus among the people. Watching this happen, the people would not have been saying, “Oh look, he’s going to help that poor misguided man!” No! They hated this man! Remember the Romans were smart! They had to govern these “pesky” people. And they knew the people didn’t like them. So, when it came to taxation, instead of exacting taxes from the people themselves, they got some of them to do their “dirty work.” (I got to thinking we should be telling this story around April 15th! Wouldn’t it have had more of an impact then?!)
The Romans made the job of Tax Collector very enticing. They made it law that a certain amount of money would have to be collected for Rome. But whatever the tax collectors took above that, was just fine with them. So they did. And the people hated them! And they hated them, not only because they saw them as “collaborating” with the despised Romans, but also because they were becoming rich doing so! Add to all that the fact that this Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector! So Jesus, who already had a bad reputation among some people because of who he chose to associate with, was making an even worse association here in Jericho!
This story, you see, is an example of how Jesus was not as concerned about people’s prejudices as he was about people themselves. It shows how his love and his redemption transcended human conventions. It shows how his Grace was truly amazing!
I want you to notice how that redemption happened. I doubt Zacchaeus came there that day to have his life changed. He simply came to watch! His part, though up in a tree, was to be on the sidelines. Many people in God’s kingdom are like that. They are content to watch and observe this Jesus. They stay on the sidelines, and then they wonder why their faith makes no real difference in their lives.
This story shows that it wasn’t in the watching of or in the learning about Jesus that made a difference for Zacchaeus. It was when this became a one on one encounter with Jesus that his life was changed! And I would submit to you that the same is true for all of us! A person who is just “interested” in Jesus and has merely “learned about” him, is not nearly as “on fire” as one who knows Jesus personally! It is in the knowledge of Jesus, rather than the knowledge about Jesus that a person places their faith in Jesus!
So I ask you the most important question we can ask this Lenten season. Do you know Jesus? Not “Do you know about Jesus?” but “Do you know him?” Many people know about Jesus, but they don’t care about him all that much! But do you know Jesus? Are you in a relationship with him? Do you talk to him? In other words do you pray? Have you given your life to his redemption – redemption he offered even to this chief of Tax Collectors? Is your relationship with him strong? Or has it been a bit neglected? And if so, what do we need to do in order to strengthen it?
I want you to remember also in this story that Zacchaeus didn’t make the first contact. Jesus did. And this almost seems presumptuous of Jesus, doesn’t it? “Hey Zack! Come on down. I’m staying at your place.” That might be considered bad manners in our culture. In theirs it was different. And in this case, it added to the shocking choice of this man!
Again, Zacchaeus didn’t make the first contact. But he did put himself in a position for Jesus to reach out to him. If you’re looking for a way to help rejuvenate your relationship with God, that’s a key! Sometimes when we feel a distance from God, we think it’s up to us to do all the work to get back. It isn’t. Instead, what we often need to do is to be open to God, to be available to God. Often we need to put ourselves in a position where God can touch us! The Old Testament writers often called this “waiting upon the Lord.”
If we aren’t sure how to do that, know that it starts by making a step – by taking an action – it starts with climbing the tree. One thing we can do is to make a specific time to allow God to touch us. I know it’s not easy to have a devotional time in our busy world. But that’s essential if we’re going to an effective life of faith. We need to be sure we’re worshipping regularly with other Christians. We may not consider missing Church a “mortal sin” like our Catholic brothers and sisters. But we should recognize that it’s not good for us – or for our Church! We also need to be taking advantages of fellowship opportunities. Because being a member of the body of Christ means that we share our lives with others. We need to be a part of Christian Education. We’re going to be hearing a lot more about that in the coming weeks!
All those are things that are akin to climbing that tree. All of those things put ourselves in a position where Jesus can reach out to us. Or they might simply be a matter of putting ourselves in a place where we can finally hear him – when he’s been trying to speak to us all along!
Never forget that God’s redemptive power and love – for us – is way beyond our comprehension. If it seems limited, it’s because we have limited it! We might doubt God. We might think our problems are beyond his power. We might think we aren’t lovable. We might think, “If God only knew us, he wouldn’t bother!” God does know us! It’s only a question of us knowing him. God loves us, and he wants to be in a close relationship with us – though we may feel like we don’t deserve it.
So let’s take those steps to draw closer to God. Let us take definite action to put ourselves in a position where God can reach us, and where we can hear him calling to us. Let us never be complacent in our faith, thinking we’re as close to God as we need to be. Let us climb that tree.
Eternal God, we thank you that you have reached out to us, not just when we were ready, but also when we were not expecting it. Help us to hear your voice calling us. Help us to listen and to share ourselves more fully with you. Help us to know the joy of your kingdom. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.