I grew up in a small city that loved parades, especially at Christmas. For a kid, it was beyond exciting. Before the parade, people pushed carts up and down the route, selling cheap gadgets that would light up, spin, or make noise. The most popular floats in the parade were the ones carrying people who threw candy into the crowd (even though it was never very good candy). Of course, there was nothing more exciting than seeing Santa come into town on the last float in the parade. I remember one year when my family got to the parade late. Other families had taken all the best places. I could not see through the wall of people, and if I had tried to scramble for any of the goodies that were being thrown, it would have given a whole new meaning to candy crush. I was miserable, and so were my parents who were probably wishing I had never learned the words, I can’t see. Since there were no sycamore trees in downtown Wilkes-Barre, my dad had to lift me to his shoulders so I would be able to see Santa.
With the same urgency as a kid wanting to see Santa Claus, Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, and is willing to climb a tree to do it. Luke tells us that this man is a chief tax collector, whom Luke often aligns with sinners, and that he is rich, another class of people maligned in Luke’s Gospel. The crowd, obviously hostile towards this man who makes a good living as a shill for the Roman regime by taking advantage of his own people, takes the opportunity to block Zacchaeus’ view, keeping him at the back, away from any possible contact with Jesus. Despite his sinful behavior, despite his great wealth, despite the animosity his neighbors feel for him, something in Zacchaeus makes him desperate to want to see Jesus.
Luke does not tell us what made Zacchaeus so determined to see Jesus, but we can speculate. Perhaps he did not like the looks he got from his neighbors, and he was lonely because nobody ever invited him to anything. Maybe he saw the effect of the poverty he left in his wake, and it filled him with guilt. Or maybe deep down he knew the difference between right and wrong, and his lifestyle made him so uncomfortable that he was driven to seek out a solution. You may think of different reasons why Zacchaeus felt compelled to place his dignity and safety on the line to scurry up that tree. I personally find it easy to think of reasons why Zacchaeus does this, because I believe I am a lot like Zacchaeus. I know I am not perfect, I know I make mistakes, and I admit that there are times when I willfully commit sins that impact me and my neighbor, yet something compels me to keep turning my eyes to Jesus.
That is why I am so glad that Luke gives us this story. In Zacchaeus, I see a man who experiences some of the same struggles I face. Namely, how to do good in a world that forces us to take care of ourselves first. I am sure that Zacchaeus did not grow up dreaming of ways he could defraud his neighbors and betray his people. Yet as a chief tax collector contracted by the Roman Empire that is exactly what he was doing. In his mind, though, I am sure he thought about taking care of his family, paying his bills, and maybe having a little left over to play a round of golf every once in a while. This rings true in my own life, and I wonder if it rings true for anyone else. I sometimes stop to think about whether or not I am compromising my faith when I make certain choices. It might be something simple, like buying a shirt – I can pay less for a shirt that may have been made in a sweatshop or I can pay more for a shirt that was ethically produced. Or it might be a choice with tremendous gravity, like deciding who to vote for in the upcoming election, being honest with myself as I weigh the factors that influence my choice. The choices Zacchaeus made put him at odds with his community, and forced him to the fringes. He struggled to find acceptance and love, to make peace with himself in light of the choices he felt he needed to make. Zacchaeus is holding out a slim hope that in Jesus, perhaps he can find that acceptance, love, and peace.
When Jesus appears on the scene, he astonishes Zacchaeus and the crowd, and he should astonish us, too. First, Jesus shows us that when we seek to find him, he will meet us where we are; he finds us. That is certainly good news for us gathered here today, but it is also good news for those who may feel like Zacchaeus, blocked by the crowd and unable to make it through the wall of people. Some people have been hurt by people who claim to be Christians, or they have been hurt by the Church. They may still want to experience a relationship with Jesus, but feel like they cannot enter that relationship in traditional ways. Jesus shows us that he will find all who seek him.
This leads to the second astonishing thing Jesus shows us – the relationship Jesus offers is not contingent upon anything we can do. Based on Luke’s characterization of Zacchaeus, and the crowd’s hostility towards him, we are led to understand that this man is the least likely person to receive acceptance or salvation. He is a sinner through and through, and is no longer worthy to be a part of God’s family. The state of Zacchaeus’ soul inspired John Calvin to deduce from this passage that, “Christ especially guides by his grace those who seem to be furthest from it.” So it is that Christ, with the same determination Zacchaeus exhibited in climbing the tree, declares, before Zacchaeus utters a word, that he must stay at Zacchaeus’ home. Jesus enters into a relationship with Zacchaeus before Zacchaeus can confess his sins, ask for forgiveness, or declare his faith that Jesus is the son of God. This is radical grace, and when Jesus exercises it, the crowd begins to scoff, grumble, and judge.
Crowds can get like that. This crowd in particular esteems itself as righteous in comparison to Zacchaeus, and as such, they feel justified in blocking his access to Jesus and sitting in judgment of “this crook.” They believe that in their righteousness, they are the arbiters of what should and should not be permissible in their religion. This same mentality led to the evolution of the type of church you would have walked into 1500 years ago. In that church, the Lord’s Table would have been at the center of the worship space, and it would have been fenced off to restrict your access to it. I, as the priest, may or may not have read the Scripture to you. It wouldn’t really matter, anyway, since most of you wouldn’t be able to understand Latin. I would preach a sermon that may or may not have been based on Scripture, but you couldn’t evaluate that since you did not have a Bible at home. The church in this period served as the crowd that blocked access to all the short people, the sinners, who needed Jesus and desperately wanted to see him. People like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox heard the voice of the prophet Isaiah who spoke out against corrupt worship. They strived to push through the crowd, making a space for people like Zacchaeus to meet Jesus face to face. They read and proclaimed the Scripture in the language of the people. They broke down the fence so everyone could gather around the table and share in the feast of God’s grace. They reformed the church in a way that they believed aligned more faithfully to Jesus’ summons. They dreamed of a church that ceased to do evil, learned to do good; sought justice, rescued the oppressed, defended the orphan, and pled for the widow. They struggled for a church that made a place for people like me who, on my best days, still fumbles my way towards doing the right thing.
This leads me to thank God for the most astonishing thing about this story. The grumbling of the crowd stuns Zacchaeus. I can almost imagine Zacchaeus in this moment, thinking, “Uh oh, Jesus is going to find out who I really am. He is going to tell me he can no longer come to my home. He is going to break our relationship.” Seeking to justify himself, Zacchaeus responds to the crowds grumbling judgment by saying to Jesus, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor – and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.” I believe he is sharing his struggles with Jesus. I believe Zacchaeus is telling Jesus that, while he is not perfect, he is trying. And as it turns out, that is more than enough for Jesus.
“Today salvation has come to this home! This man is indeed a son of Abraham!” These are Jesus’ words, to Zacchaeus, to his neighbors, and to us. Zacchaeus is saved and restored. He is accepted, loved, and granted peace. Yet he still has not admitted his sin or asked forgiveness. Jesus saves him, anyway. Jesus seems to be going out of order, here, and as we’ve already seen, that can really cause the crowd to grumble. Today’s crowds might expect a broken spirit and a contrite heart before salvation is offered. They might want to hear a word of confession and see some remorse before a person is restored to the crowd. But Jesus goes against the crowd, showing us that he offers salvation and restoration to those who are works in progress. He forgives sins and welcomes into relationship those who are so battered, bruised, and maligned that all they really know is their deep, gnawing need to find Jesus – even if they don’t have the vocabulary to express that need. And Jesus can do that, despite the crowd’s insistence that he play by their rules. Jesus can go out of order – he can do that because he is God, and he has come to seek and save the lost.
This is our hope, and it is the message Jesus calls us to share with the world, for it is the hope of all. We must not fall in with the crowd who blocks access, who tells people, “Until you live up to a certain standard, you cannot access the grace of Jesus Christ.” We must instead be like the sycamore, bearing up those who seek Jesus, allowing them to stand on our shoulders so they have a clearer view, helping them identify the moment when Jesus finds them. We must listen for those in our midst who are crying out, “I can’t see,” and make the way clear for Jesus to find them.