“He was seeking to see Jesus but on account of the crowd he could not….”
This week’s Gospel text is a narrative some people grew up singing in Sunday School:
“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…”
The lyrics focus on the smallness of his physical stature, a fact that presumably forced him to climb a tree to fulfill his desire to see Jesus-a desire borrowed from the crowd around him. The problem was, as the boss of the hated tax collectors, he was the disdain of the very crowd whose desire he shared. Thus he “climbs,” a manipulative act that has become his normative pattern of life, in attempt to forcefully get “above” those around him.
Zacchaeus, driven by desire, wants to see Jesus, but his line of sight is impaired. From what we know about tax collectors, physical attributes were likely the least of his concerns. While Zacchaeus looks down from his perch above, Jesus looks up from below. He calls Zacchaeus by name and invites himself over for dinner. As often happens in the Gospel narrative (think Emmaus Road), the supposed “guest” becomes, in actuality, the “host.” And this shift in roles is embraced at great cost. Jesus transforms from the celebrity the crowd gathers to “see” into the their scapegoated object of disdain (“And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.'”)
At great personal expense, Jesus publicly expresses an urgent need to dine with the hated tax collector-to enter relationship exactly where the corrupt opportunist is perched. Invitation into home was invitation into life. There is no need for a preliminary action on Zacchaeus’ part. Jesus simply stops, looks up to Zacchaeus, and publicly declares him friend instead of foe; his time of isolation, shame and seeing the other as rival is no more. Jesus “must” stay at his house this day.
Salvation comes to Zacchaeus and his response, bathed in unexpected vulnerability, is beautifully captured in verse 8. His actions reveal the tangible effects of Jesus’ transformational declaration and loving presence. He is free from the rivalry of “needing to climb” and is invaded by liberating joy.
“Zacchaeus received him joyfully…and stood and said to the Lord, Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
The contrast to last week’s lectionary text is striking. Instead of a Pharisee looking down in judgment upon a tax collector, we have Jesus literally looking up in mercy at a tax collector. Instead of a tax collector going to God’s house seeking salvation, we see Jesus going to the home of the tax collector, proclaiming salvation through the sacredness of his presence. Jesus doesn’t point Zacchaeus to a way of salvation, his invitation makes it clear that He himself IS salvation.
That same invitation is extended to us all-to climb down from our perches of rivalry and violence seeded by misplaced crowd desire. Those desires indeed make us “wee little men and women.” From that precarious perch, Jesus catches our eye and publicly calls us to “hurry down.” He introduces us to a liberated vision of life untethered to popular crowd desire, manipulative posturing and eventual scapegoating.
The “wee little man,” through encounter with Jesus, is transformed and “re-narrated” into a new reality that is anything but “wee” and “little.” Such is the invitation to us all.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative