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The Crucial Encounter: Zacchaeus


Luke 19:1-10

Everyone knows that fire attracts animals. The fire can be small, a family bonfire in a provincial park on a summer evening. The fire can be huge, like the fire at Woodbine Race Track that killed 28 horses two years ago. But whether large or small, fire attracts animals – even as the same fire keeps the animals at bay. There’s something about fire that irresistibly draws an animal, but only to a point; for fire simultaneously renders an animal apprehensive, even fearful.


I: — Many people react to Jesus Christ as an animal reacts to fire. Our Lord attracts people; they are drawn to him, and they do approach him. They want to move closer, but not too close for comfort. They are attracted to him at the same time that they are wary of him.

Zacchaeus was like this. He had heard much about Jesus, was intrigued by what he had heard and decided he had to check Jesus out for himself. He found a curious crowd in Jericho that was waiting for Jesus, and joined it. Now Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a short man. Then why didn’t he stand at the front of the crowd if he wanted to see Jesus? Children stand at the front of a crowd. Zacchaeus was an adult, and no adult wants to be identified with children. Moreover, if he stood at the front of the crowd then all the adults taller than he, standing behind him, would be looking at him. He would feel their eyes boring holes in the back of his head. After all, no one liked Zacchaeus, and he knew it. He was a tax collector, commissioned by the hated Roman occupation. This alone was enough to make him resented. Worse, however, he defrauded people even as he collected money from them on behalf of the government. The last thing Zacchaeus wanted was to put himself on display in a crowd. Yes, he wanted to see Jesus, but he didn’t want to be seen seeing Jesus. And so he climbed a tree. The tree-perch was perfect. The tree-perch would let him see Jesus even as it protected him from the crowd. Even more important, the tree-perch would allow him to see Jesus without being seen by Jesus. He’d be close enough to “get a line” on the man from Nazareth , yet far enough away to be out of reach; close enough to see for himself, yet distant enough to be safe. Certainly he was curious; just as certainly he wasn’t committed. He wanted to assess Jesus for himself, but he didn’t want to be noticed – not by the crowd, not by Jesus. The tree-perch was perfect.

I’m convinced there are many people like Zacchaeus in that they surmise that Jesus just might have ever so much to do with life, but they aren’t sure. They want to assess the Nazarene but they don’t want to appear over-zealous. They want to know if he has anything to say to them or do for them, but at the same time they want to remain “cool.” And so they too “climb a tree,” as it were. They may slip into the back row of church minutes after the service has started and leave before they are pressed into the coffee hour. They may seek out a church large enough to guarantee them anonymity. They may even avoid coming to a church building at all, preferring to read about Jesus in half a dozen books in the hope that they can take note of him without being noticed by anyone, including him.

What do these people want? What are they looking for?

[1] I’m convinced they want a centre for life. They want a perspective from which they can see life whole. They want a standpoint from which they can see life integrated. They fear seeing life like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces jumbled; worse, they fear having to piece life together themselves when some of the pieces to the puzzle might be missing.

At the same time as they seek a centre to life, however, they are nervous about religious eccentricity. They are suspicious of religious extremism. They’ve seen “religious” people “go overboard;” they’ve seen people “fished in” by religious “hype.” Even as there’s much they want to apprehend there’s also much that keeps them apprehensive. And so they find a tree of some sort that will get them close enough to Jesus to satisfy their curiosity but far enough away to keep them safe.

[2] I’m convinced too that such people are looking for resources. While they’d never be able to quote or find the verse which speaks of those who “have the form of religion but deny the power of it,” they perceive the distinction. “The power of it” is what they think they’re looking for; “the form of it” they shun like the plague. Simply put, they want help; they want help for getting through life.

As eager as they are to find help, however, they don’t want to appear desperate. They don’t even want to appear needy. They might not use the teenager’s expression, “no sweat,” yet they don’t want to appear driven. They want to save face, want to appear to be in control, want to appear intellectually inquisitive but never credulous.

[3] I’m convinced too that such people are looking for foundational certainties. They want to know that God is, God cares, God blesses. They want to prove for themselves not that God makes a difference to life (good digestion makes a difference.) They want to prove for themselves God makes the difference.

They want certainty. But they don’t want the artificial “certainty” of propaganda; they don’t want the certainty enjoyed by those who won’t think critically; they don’t want the certainty of those who try to quell their doubt by talking to themselves in a loud voice. (You must have heard the story of the minister who left his sermon notes in the pulpit.   On Monday morning the church custodian found them and began to read. He noticed, pencilled into the margin, the minister’s instruction to himself: “Pound pulpit here: argument weak.”) People want the certainty of inner persuasion, not the so-called certainty of outer authoritarianism. They know that if they can recognize truth when they come upon truth, they will have all the certainty they will ever need. And when it comes to truth, they suspect that Jesus is somehow linked to it. They want to come close enough to find out, yet remain distant enough to avoid being hassled.

Zacchaeus isn’t unusual at all. There are hordes like him. They find a tree and climb it. The tree lets them find out a few things for themselves at the same time that it spares them embarrassment at appearing needy.


II: — What happens to them next? What happened to Zacchaeus? Jesus stands at the foot of the tree, looks up at the little fellow and says, “What on earth are you doing up there? Come on down. I’m going to your house. We’re going to eat together.” If Jesus had said, “Get off that silly perch, you twit,” Zacchaeus would still be in the tree. Who doesn’t stiffen when told in such a manner as to be “told off?” Who doesn’t dig in his heels when he’s publicly humiliated? Only one thing brings Zacchaeus out of the tree: our Lord’s insistence that he’s going to the little man’s home; our Lord’s insistence that they’re going to share a meal.

In first-century Palestine eating with someone was the sign of intimacy, the sign of agenda-free friendship. To eat with someone meant that embraced that person without reservation; you cherished him without hesitation; you received him without qualification. To eat with someone meant that no ulterior motive was going to surface half way through the meal. To eat with someone meant that you were declaring amnesty, regardless of what hostility might have arisen previously. It was a declaration of pardon, of peace, of solidarity. The shared meal was the sign of exile ended, of rehabilitation begun, of elevation to honour, of dignity restored.

Only Christ’s limitless mercy, forgiveness, kindness; only his freely-bestowed pardon frees people from their defensiveness and induces them to give up their tree perch. Magnifying their shortcomings won’t do it. (This merely humiliates them.) Sending them on unnecessary guilt trips won’t do it. (This drives them either into self-righteous priggishness or into neurotic despair.)

We should notice that Zacchaeus’s reputation – so very bad it couldn’t be worse, and all of it deserved – Jesus doesn’t even mention. He knows that Zacchaeus has “fleeced” people for years, yet chooses to say nothing about it for now. Tree-perchers are never persuaded to abandon their roost through being harangued or threatened or browbeaten. They are never persuaded to give up the safety of their perch through being reminded, subtly or not so subtly, of the defects about them which they and others can see only too plainly. They abandon their perch only as they find in the approach of Jesus Christ something they never expected; namely, a pardon and a joy that melts their suspicion and lifts their head.

At the end of our Lord’s encounter with Zacchaeus Jesus exclaims, “Salvation has come to this house.” And so it has. Most people are rather vague about the meaning of “salvation.” It’s really quite simple. Salvation is simply a creaturely good, damaged and devastated by sin, restored at God’s hand. Ultimately salvation is the entire creation restored. As far as Zacchaeus is concerned, salvation is one particular creature restored: Zacchaeus.

Restored to what? Restored to whom? Through his encounter with Jesus Christ, Zacchaeus, created to be a child of God but now hissed at as a child of the devil, is restored to being a child of God. He’s restored to a place within a community that had detested him, and not without reason. He’s restored to himself, for prior to his encounter with Jesus Zacchaeus knew he was on the wrong side of everyone, including himself. Reconciled now to God, he’s reconciled as well to his community and also to himself. A multi-dimensional reconciliation like this adds up to restoration. “Salvation has come to this house.”


III: — How does Zacchaeus respond? He doesn’t say “Isn’t this grand!” and go on living with nothing changed. Instead, the grace that now surrounds him quickens gratitude in him. Zacchaeus exclaims to Jesus, “From now on I’m going to share everything I own with any needy person I find; and if I’ve cheated anyone, I’m ready to repay him four times over.” It was the big giveaway. All his life he’d been a greedy grabber; now he wants only to give. His turned-around outlook was the spontaneous outflowing of his delight in his new friend. He didn’t have to have his arm twisted. Jesus didn’t have to lean on him or coax him or pester him. With grace-quickened gratitude Zacchaeus gladly did what he knew a disciple should do.

When I was a youngster my mother would ask to me rake the leaves or shovel the snow or wash the windows. I would do it all right, but do it grudgingly. She would recognize my sullen resentment at being asked to do anything. Exasperated now she’d gasp, “I’m asking you to do only one little thing. Why do you have to look so hard done by?” Under my breath (always under my breath: my mother was formidable and still is) I’d mutter, “You wanted the leaves raked. You’re getting the leaves raked. What’s your objection?”

I didn’t understand her objection and her upset when I was thirteen. I do understand it now that I’m sixty. A claim upon us that we don’t meet cheerfully, gladly, is a claim upon us that we haven’t met at all. Haven’t all of us, at some point, asked someone to give us a hand with some small task only to find that he did it so very grudgingly that we wished we’d never asked him? Martin Luther never wearied of reminding us that an obedience which isn’t glad and joyful and eager is simply no obedience at all. When next we teach a Sunday School class, drive a patient on behalf of the Cancer Society, sit with someone whose problem seems slight to us but distressing to her, assist someone who, for now at least, can only receive while we can only give, or attend church meetings that are less than thrilling but without which there’d be no Christian presence in the community at all – on all such occasions we must re-own this truth.

When people hear the expression “the claim of Christ” (make no mistake: as long as we are going to call him “Lord” we have to acknowledge his claim) immediately they think “‘claim’: that means restraint, restriction, something that inhibits freedom and suppresses joy.” Not so. In gladly obeying our Lord who has given himself readily for us, we shall find, as Zacchaeus knew, not that our lives have shrivelled but rather that they’ve expanded; not that our Lord’s claim deprives us of our freedom, but rather that it guarantees us our freedom; not that we are being squeezed into a cramping mould that threatens to suffocate us, but that we are delivered from all the cramping moulds of social expectation and social conformity and social climbing. In a word, it’s the claim of Christ that frees us to recognize and reject all fraudulent claims. For all other claims are cramping and suffocating, not to say arbitrary and ridiculous. Just because the claim of Christ frees us from all other claims, and just because the claim of Christ is the obverse side of his mercy wherein he wants only to bless us, only the claim of Christ liberates.

When I say, with my Reformation foreparents, that unless the command of God or the claim of Christ is obeyed cheerfully and eagerly it isn’t obeyed at all; when I say this I’m not pretending for a minute that the Christian life is uninterrupted ecstasy. I’m not pretending that Christians are, or are supposed to be, jumping up and down at all times like a two year bouncing up and down in his jolly jumper. At the same time, I must insist that if we haven’t apprehended the privilege, the sheer privilege, of serving Jesus Christ in a world whose suffering never relents, then we are far from the kingdom. We remain far from the outlook and attitude of a little man who scampered out of a tree, went home to eat with Jesus, and gladly turned himself around. A reluctant or joyless obedience is no obedience at all.


So, who is up a tree this morning? Who not? How and why do we come down? What mood or attitude characterizes our obedience, eating with him who is both our companion in life and indeed the bread of life?

These questions are the questions we’ve endeavoured to answer today. Then may our re-hearing the old, old story of our Lord’s encounter with Zacchaeus, in the oldest city of the world ( Jericho ,) write indelibly these truths upon our minds and hearts.


                                                                                                        Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                 

June 2004