Singing Zacchaeus

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house…”

Luke 19:1-10

October 28, 2022, Words By: Joel Kiekintveld, Image By: Unknown

Made Flesh

In the summer of 2005 my wife said to me, “If our church is going to keep talking about reaching out to Dimond Estates, someone ought to live there. I think we should sell our house and move into the trailer park.” My response was, “Why would I sell a perfectly good house and move into a trailer? Don’t ever talk to me about this again!” In the end, after a lot more discussion, we moved into a doublewide in Dimond Estates in 2006. 

Often that first summer I would wake up and the first thought in my mind was, “Shit, I live in a trailer.” My experience of moving into the trailer park mirrors the story of Zacchaeus in a couple of interesting ways.

I learned the story of Zacchaeus, as did many of you, from a Sunday school song. Sing it with me,

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And 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 said, ‘Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house today!
For I’m going to your house today!’

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
But a happy man was he
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he.

I have fond memories of that song. However, as an adult I’ve noticed something. The song only tells part of the Zacchaeus story. It leaves out the final three verses (Luke 19:7 – 10). I find this very interesting. 

When we end the story where the song ends, we are left with a spiritual narrative that concludes with Jesus having dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. Yet, stopping at verse seven does more than give Sunday school teachers a chance to ask children to imagine having dinner with Jesus, it reveals something buried deep inside many of us. When we stop the story early, Zacchaeus (and all of us by extension), get the relationship with Jesus without any real consequences. In the Sunday school sing-a-long version of the lectionary text for this week there is no cost of discipleship.

When we give the text the Paul Harvey treatment, and look at “the rest of the story,” the ending has a different implication. In Luke 19:8-10, we read that as they are having dinner Zacchaeus stands up and says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Notice what happens here. Zacchaeus has an interaction with Jesus and knows that this demands an action. Zacchaeus comes to believe in a rather short time what it takes many of us a lifetime to realize — following Jesus means giving up something. The second thing that takes place is that Jesus only mentions salvation after Zacchaeus’ bold proclamation.

The reason I woke up every day for the first summer we lived in the trailer park and wrestled with the reality of where I lived was because I had been taught, by my culture and a theology that mirrored the Zacchaeus song, that if I worked hard God would bless me. In reality, that meant I could follow Jesus and never have to give up anything. It even went beyond that teaching to promote the idea that I could expect God to give me more. Yet, this doesn’t jive well with the ending of the Zacchaeus story. No wonder the song stops where it does.

It is likely that in giving away half of what he had and repaying those he cheated four times what he took, Zacchaeus’ life took a downwardly-mobile turn. It seems that the moral of the story is that following Jesus is going to cost you, and cost you a lot. Yet, I still find myself daily wanting to follow Jesus and not give up anything. I’m not the hero in this story. 

Allow me to take this one step further. My neighborhood, and the entire city of Anchorage, sits on the traditional lands of the Dena’ina Athabaskan people. The Dena’ina people were cheated out of their land. People that look like me (white), from the same place as me (Europe), stole this place and made it their own. Another way to read the Zacchaeus story is that reparations are part of the gospel. The definition of reparations is “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” This is exactly what Zacchaeus was doing. If reparations are part of the gospel, it’s no wonder that those like me, who benefit daily from the legacy of colonialism, stop singing the story before the end. The story of Zacchaeus seems to demand from us a consideration of reparations, and that might be a cost many Christians, including me, are not willing to count.

In this week’s text we have a choice. Zacchaeus can be a man that comes down from a tree and has dinner with Jesus and stops there, or a man that responds to Jesus’ lowering of himself to the level of a tax collector by choosing to be downwardly mobile himself – even embracing reparations. It all depends on if you sing the song, or read the text. So which version of the story is speaking to you this week, the song or the whole text? Be careful which you choose, it might cost you!

Dwelling Among Us

Do you prefer to read or sing the story of Zacchaeus?
What does the struggle to count the cost of following Jesus look like for you?

About The Author

Joel Kiekintveld