Zacchaeus is one of those gospel stories We think we know really well. In fact, many of us were taught a little jingle In Sunday School that told his story: [Sung] Zacchaeus was a wee little man, A wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree For the Lord he wanted to see. And when the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today! For I’m going to your house today!”
I knew some of you would be able To sing along with me. This song, in one form or another, Has been around forever! The usual understanding we have of this story Is that Zaccheaus was not only a wee little man, He was a bad little man as well. Then Jesus comes along And changes his life forever. Zacchaeus promises to mend his ways And live a better life. That’s not a bad interpretation of this story. It becomes a tale of repentance and redemption; A tale of one man Who was transformed by Jesus. And that will preach. That will most certainly preach!
But, what if I told you that The name Zacchaeus in Hebrew means “pure.” Yeah, that’s what I said. His name means “pure.” This cannot be an accident. Luke placed this name in the story for a reason. In 30 years of preaching, I’ve never noticed this until now. This detail made me question if there Could be another interpretation of this story.
What if his confession to Jesus Is NOT an admission of guilt But a declaration of how he has always treated people As he collected taxes from them? What if this wee little man Is NOT a BAD little man, But a PURE little man Who was misjudged by others Suddenly, this story Is a bit more complicated Than I realized. What I’d like to do this morning Is look at our gospel lesson with the assumption That Zacchaeus embodied the meaning of his name, And see where it takes us.
As the story begins, Jesus is passing through Jericho On his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are with him. His arrival has attracted a sizable crowd Who want to see what Jesus is all about. Enter Zacchaeus the Pure who is a chief tax collector. This means he’s in charge of the other tax collectors in the area. Think of him like a branch manager in a bank. Because of his profession, the people surrounding him would assume he is corrupt. Therefore, he would be seen a sinner who is unworthy of God’s forgiveness and blessing. Zacchaeus is also wealthy. the crowd would assume He made his wealth exploiting others.
Finally, Zacchaeus is “short in stature,” which is Luke’s clever way of saying he fell short in many ways. Not only is he physically unable to see Jesus, his occupation and wealth would lead others to believe Jesus should have nothing to do with him. I’m certain that Zacchaeus knew what his neighbors thought of him, but this did not deter him from wanting to see Jesus. Like a little kid, Zacchaeus loses all manner of dignity and composure. He physically climbs up a sycamore tree in order to get a better view of Jesus, and symbolically rises above the judgment of the crowd.
Let’s pause of a moment. Do you see what Luke is doing here? This story is loaded with symbolism from the get go. If we rush through it too quickly, we miss everything he is packing into the opening sentences of our gospel lesson. It’s a tale of how we sometimes prevent others from seeing Jesus by making false assumptions regarding what their character is like. We learn one detail about their lives, and then attach a list of negative attributes to them.
Their skin is brown. Therefore they must be an illegal immigrant and probably a criminal. They’re a politician. Therefore they must be corrupt and will do or say anything in order to get elected. They’re homeless. Therefore, they must be lazy. They’re wealthy. Therefore, they must have stepped on others in order to climb the ladder of success. They’re a member of the LGBT community. Therefore, they are inherently evil and are unraveling the fabric of society as we speak. The power of the way Luke tells this story, is that he leads us to believe one set of assumptions about Zacchaeus that are totally obliterated by Jesus.
But before we get to the good news of Luke’s gospel, we need to pause and consider the ways we’ve all been guilty of keeping others from seeing Jesus. It’s important that we don’t let ourselves off the hook in this story. We need ponder the ways we’re like the crowd. It’s easy to identify with Zacchaeus. It’s easy to think about the ways others have stood between us and Jesus. But its a lot harder for us to admit that we’ve been guilty of prejudging and labeling others. This ugly part of our human nature, has kept others from seeing Jesus. This is a hard truth to embrace. But it’s important that we confess it this morning, if we want to hear the good news Luke is sharing with us.
Let’s go back to the story. Zacchaeus the Pure is in a sycamore tree. He’s lost all manner of dignity and composure so that he can see Jesus. The twist of the story is that JESUS SEES HIM. Out of all the people in the crowd Jesus could have focused on, JESUS SEES HIM. Not only does Jesus physically see him, he ignores all the prejudices of the crowd and issues an unbelievable invitation: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Say what? The invitation would have been scandalous to the crowd: “Doesn’t Jesus know who this man is? Has he lost his mind? Why would he go to Zachaeus’ house instead of OUR house. This man is not worthy of Jesus’ time and attention.”
I’m also certain the invitation would have surprised Zacchaeus: “Jesus, sees me. He really sees me! He knows I am Zacchaeus the Pure. He sees past the judgement of this crowd and is the first person to treat me like a human being in a long time.”
And so Zacchaeus climbs down the tree and stands in front of Jesus. But his confession is misunderstood. It’s mistranslated from the Greek. This may be due to the preconceived notions of translators regarding what this story is about. Zacchaeus’ confession, as it appears in the NRSV, is in the future tense: “I will give,” “I will pay back.” This implies a new set of behaviors that are different from the way Zaccheus conducted himself in the past.
However, the Greek verbs here are clearly in the present tense. This is what Zacchaeus actually says to Jesus: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I GIVE to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I PAY back four times as much.” In other words, “This crowd thinks I am corrupt. But I really am Zacchaeus the Pure. I am an honest business person. When I sin against another, I try to make it right. You, Jesus. You are the first person to see me for who I really am.”
The one modern translation I found that got the verb tense right is Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Here is how he paraphrased Zacchaeus’ words: “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.” This change of verb tense is significant because it changes the meaning of the story.
It also changes the intention of what Jesus says next. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
If everything I’ve presented to you this morning is correct, Jesus is not announcing forgiveness to Zacchaeus. He is embracing Zaccheus as God’s beloved in front of those who thought of him as less than beloved. The phrase “salvation has come” can be understood as salvation has “come upon the stage” as if what was hidden is now clearly seen by others. The Message paraphrases Jesus’ words as follows: “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
We usually read this story and think that Zacchaeus is a lost sinner whom Jesus found and forgave after he repented. However, I would argue that Zacchaeus may have felt lost because of what others thought of him. He may have seen himself as unworthy of God’s love because he had been told this one too many times in his life.
What Jesus did is restore Zaccheus’ relationship with God. He did so in a very public way. He reminded Zacchaeus that he is a son of Abraham. He’s family! This is a different kind of good news than the usual interpretation of this story. However, I think this understanding of the text is worthy of our consideration.
If we look at the story of Zacchaeus in this way, there are two lessons to be learned. The first is to be careful of judging others. Not everyone is as they appear. We may not be aware of it, but sometimes our prejudices and preconceived notions keep others from seeing Jesus. The second lesson is when we feel judged, when we’ve been told by others that God hates us, it has an effect on our souls. It causes us to lose our way, to feel like we are less than God’s beloved. However, the good news of our gospel lesson is that Jesus will do whatever it takes to restore our relationship with God, and proclaim that we are beloved children of God. This is the kind of good news we often need to hear! AMEN
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck
Thanks to David Lose for his commentary on this text. I researched his research and think he’s right on the mark with this story!