Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
Alright. Time to tell the truth. How many of you sang this song?
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree.
Spoken: And he said, Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house today.
For I’m going to your house today.
Ah, Bible camp! How it made Zacchaeus famous! Did you also know that, early in the pandemic, there was an internet meme of Zacchaeus on social media - one of the earliest to “socially distance.”
It’s an interesting story, this story of the wee little man, Zacchaeus. Whose name means “clean.” Or “innocent.” Isn’t that interesting? Because I don’t know about you, but I have never heard Zacchaeus portrayed as innocent.
In fact, Zacchaeus was, based at least on his identified vocation, far from innocent. He was a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated. They were considered to be traitors because even though they were Judean, they worked for the Roman empire. So they were not allowed to serve in positions as judges or witnesses. They were thrown out of the synagogue. Their families were disgraced. They were known for skimming off the top of what they collected. So, they were very wealthy. And Zacchaeus was not just any tax collector. He was a chief tax collector. It is a title we see nowhere else in Scripture or even in any surviving Greek literature. That Luke, in this story that is specific to his gospel only, would identify the vocation of Zaccheus to be chief tax collector - well, it’s to show us how much he was hated! How much his family was hated! How much they were outcasts in their community. Even the description of his stature - that he was short - suggests, at least metaphorically, that he was without character. And held in the lowest regard.
But, there’s something unusual about this story as we’ve heard it all these years. It’s verse 8. It’s the verse where Zacchaeus is responding to Jesus: 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.
The problem with this verse is that it can be translated in the future tense, as we just heard and are likely most familiar with. Or it can be translate in the presence tense. In the present tense, it’s more a declaration of the way in Zacchaeus is telling Jesus about how he is using the wealth he has accumulated in his position: Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.
So, which is it? Is it the future tense? A confession by Zacchaeus about how he intends to turn over a new leaf? Or is it in the present tense? And Zacchaeus lifting up an old leaf for all to see.
What I know in my few years of biblical translation is that the harder, least expected version is usually the right version. We, like the crowd, want to jump to the conclusion that this chief tax collector is like all the rest. A thief. A traitor. Someone who should be despised, simply because of what he does and what he’s worth.
Rather, though, than this story being an unraveling of Zacchaeus and his vocation, perhaps it is the unraveling by Jesus of a culture that casts him aside. That despises him and counts him as nothing. Even worse than nothing.
Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. There is an intentionality and an urgency in Jesus’ request for him to come down. To, of all things, take Jesus home for dinner. By seeing Zacchaeus. By calling him. By staying with him and blessing him through his presence, Jesus is making a strong statement that this one - even this chief tax collector - is a child of Abraham and a child of God.
The faith and resilience of Zacchaeus is a lesson for us. He is determined to find a way to see Jesus. Even though a towering and discouraging crowd is in his way. And as he climbs that majestic sycamore tree. As he goes further and further up so that he can see Jesus, both his faith and his actions are rewarded. Jesus looks up. Sees him. Tells him to come down. Calls him by name as Jesus calls all, particularly all on the edges of our world. And tells him, as Jesus tells all of us, you belong. You are mine. You are loved.
Thanks be to God! Amen.