At first glance, our story for today does not appear to fit our theme. Our theme, of course, is about unraveling or coming unraveled. We’ve looked at those in exile, how their entire lives became unraveled. We’ve looked at Peter, how he was unraveled by uncertainty. But Zacchaeus? How is he unraveled? To answer that question, we will look closely at the story because it actually contains several levels of unraveling.
The name Zacchaeus means “righteous one,” which was so ironic it would have made the people around him laugh. We are told that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector or toll collector. Writer Stan Duncan points out that “There was a difference in Israel between a Toll-collector, and a Chief Toll-collector. . . . During Jesus’ time, the Imperial era, Rome farmed the collection [of taxes] out to cities, or individuals who paid the tax up front and then got it from the people by whatever means they could. The system was difficult and barely ever profitable. The leaders at the top occasionally made some money at it, but the underlings below usually did not. Because of that, most tax collectors were rootless wanderers who could not make a living any other way.”
But the scripture tells us that Zacchaeus was a CHIEF tax or toll collector, and rich. Remember that in Jesus’ time, wealth was considered a zero-sum game, a limited resource. There is only so much pie to go around, so if I get more, you get less. So by saying that Zacchaeus was rich, the implication is that either he was a thief or the son of a thief. You put the two together—Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was rich so clearly he was a thief who took advantage of his own people when collecting tax for Rome, their oppressor.
Another preacher summarizes this really well. He writes: “Luke describes him as the sort of sleazeball person that we love to hate. He says that Zacchaeus was a ‘chief tax collector.’ That is, he was a Jew who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors. So he was a traitor to the political cause. Luke also says that Zacchaeus was wealthy. And surprise, surprise, how did a Roman tax collector get wealthy? By extortion and embezzlement. By taking advantage of the elderly, by exploiting the working poor, and by taking care of his cronies. There’s an unspoken assumption of corruption here. Zacchaeus is a man who deserves our disdain.”
But here came Jesus, and Zacchaeus was so eager to see him that he ran ahead and climbed a tree in order to see above the crowds. These actions were completely undignified, especially for a rich man, so we see the first thread begin to unravel. Perhaps he isn’t exactly who we thought he was or perhaps we are about to witness a change. We also have to wonder: What had he heard about Jesus that made Zacchaeus so eager to see him? Was he just curious? Did he want to know who was riling up the Pharisees so much? After all, the Pharisees were very disdainful of tax collectors, so the enemy of my enemy is at least worth climbing a tree to see. Surely his goal was to see, not to be seen.
But he WAS seen—and not just as some random guy in a tree. Jesus saw him and called him by name. Jesus was from out of town; there’s no reason to think they knew one another. Yet Jesus called him by name, and then invited himself to dinner. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Of course the people in the crowd were neither impressed nor pleased. They began mumbling and muttering about Jesus going to the house of a sinner, which is a common theme in Luke’s Gospel.
But before they even got to Zacchaeus’s house, Zacchaeus was transformed by the encounter. He proclaimed, “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.” How did this man go from being worthy of disdain to being worthy of praise and emulation so quickly? What could prompt him to give away more than half his money?
Maybe it was as simple as being seen. Maybe it was as simple as being called by name. Maybe it was as simple as being considered worthy of spending time with. These may sound like small things, but they aren’t—not if you don’t have them. If you aren’t seen, if you aren’t recognized, if you aren’t ever invited—whether you’re 8 or 80—it hurts. It’s lonely.
That’s one of the reasons I am most worried about those of you who live alone, or who live with people who don’t really see you. Church may be the one place you are touched, the one place you are seen, the one place you feel like you are considered worthy. And without our weekly gatherings, you may be missing that recognition of your humanity, of your blessedness. Now, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t stare into the camera too much because it’s a little too intense at this distance. But this time it’s intentional. I want you to know that I see you. I see your tears. I see your brave face. I see your loneliness. I see you. And I love you and this church loves you and God loves you. And you are so worthy.
So now the question is: how do we help one another be seen, when we are worshiping digitally, when we are not gathering in our sacred space together? One way is to participate in our Zoom gatherings. During our fellowship time today we will have some specific conversation starters. If it’s a small group we’ll stay together; if it’s a larger group, we’ll break into smaller ones. Another way is to participate in some small, social-distanced gatherings we are planning. See your Weekly Word newsletter for details. Although we are not planning on Sunday morning worship in the sanctuary for quite some time, we will be offering some outdoor worship opportunities this summer, and possibly indoors with strict safety precautions and not on Sunday mornings. This will depend on the virus trends in our area; so stay tuned. But more importantly, there are ways you can reach out now to help others. Has somebody from church been on your mind? Give them a call or drop them a note. The emails and notes I have received from some of you have meant the world to me. Support one another that same way. Let’s help one another be seen.
Of course, Zacchaeus being seen didn’t end with him just feeling better about himself. It resulted in him making restitution. It changed his attitudes and perspectives. His encounter with Jesus changed his priorities and his wallet. So if we are Zacchaeus, and we recognize that we are seen and we are loved, how do we move from being seen to being generous? from being loved to being just? It has been said that justice is what love looks like in public. Our being loved needs to result in our loving the world.
Everything I’ve said up to this point comes from a traditional understanding of this scripture. But it is not the only understanding. The New Revised Standard Version, which is scholarly and fairly reliable in its translation, quotes Zacchaeus as saying, “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.” “I will.” It’s a future tense. But the Greek phrase translated here is not in future tense. It is in present tense. The more accurate translation may very well be that he ALREADY gave half his possessions to the poor and ALREADY paid back four times the amount if he found out he had treated someone unfairly. If that is true, then Zacchaeus wasn’t “a sinner who converts but a saint who surprises.” The crowd saw his money and his occupation and they thought they know who he was—a cheat and a scoundrel. But maybe he inherited that money and was doing his best to live honorably with it by sharing with the poor. Maybe he didn’t go around flaunting his charity. Maybe the ones in need of transformation were the community members who judged and belittled him. “So maybe the story is not about a sinner who shocks us by repenting, but about the crowd that demonizes a person it doesn’t like with all sorts of false assumptions.”
Now that’s quite the unraveling of the story, isn’t it? So maybe Zacchaeus’s greed needed to come unraveled, and maybe the people’s judgment did. Look again at Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’s statement: Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” He too. He too is part of the community. Because the people finally saw him for who he really was, they could welcome him back into the community. Maybe this isn’t a repentance story. Maybe it’s a miracle story, which almost always result in the people who had been excluded now being welcomed. All are welcome. So come. Come as you are.