Summary: The story of Zacchaeus reminds us of our fervent need to seek out Jesus above all in our lives, but this story also reminds us that Jesus is looking for us too.
“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 as the Master passed that way, He looked up in the tree./ And He said, “Zacchaeus, you come down. For I’m going to your house today.” How many of us remember singing that song as children? I’m sure that if Lindsey got us going, most of us could join in the singing quite easily. The story of Zacchaeus is a favorite in Sunday Schools and Children’s Church, it is one many of us have grown up with!
It’s interesting that the story of Zacchaeus is told so often, that we even have a song about it, especially considering the fact that the story of Zacchaeus appears only in Luke’s gospel! Because of that, me might think this is a minor story, but even if it is, it has major consequences; far more than can be captured in a short children’s song. And to understand the full power of this story, we have to understand Zacchaeus.
To begin with, Zacchaeus was a chief among tax collectors, which is about the worst thing you could be in the eyes of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time. It was like turning traitor. Zacchaeus was a hated sinner. And I’m sure his parents never would have dreamed that he would turn out the way he did. You know why? Because the name Zacchaeus means “Pure,” or “Righteous.” He was given that name as a baby. His mother and father looked down upon him and thought he was the most precious little fellow in the world, so they named him, “Pure.” They knew and believed that God had great plans for his life so they named him, “Righteous.” And I would imagine that Zacchaeus’ parents probably did the best they could to help him to live into his name. They probably took him to the Temple. They probably taught him about God and maybe the scriptures. They probably loved him very, very much. And through their love and care, I would imagine that Zacchaeus was given just a little glimpse of the kind of love that God has for all people.
But as Zacchaeus began to grow up, he probably found that he was not growing as fast nor as tall as his peers. The word used for “short” in this passage literally means “an adult who has not grown out of a child’s body.” So Zacchaeus was probably quite troubled, perhaps even tormented by this. He probably had what many people refer to as “a Napoleon Complex.” He felt insecure about his size, and therefore felt that he had to prove just how big, and tough, and unafraid he was by other means. He was probably made fun of at school, and perhaps he ended up getting into a lot of fights because of that. Or maybe he just got beat up and led a very lonely, isolated, and ostracized existence. He had been hurt one too many times. So he built walls of protection up between himself and others. And people stayed away. The walls worked. But behind those walls was a desperately lonely and self-hating man who wanted nothing more than to be loved, accepted and understood.
How many of us can relate to Zacchaeus’ predicament? When we see people hiding behind the veil of work, or changing their looks or values just to get some attention, when someone tries to act “tough” or “smart” just to feel a sense of power; let’s remember that beneath those false appearances there is most likely a person who wants desperately to be loved, to be understood, but has been hurt way too many times.
So one night when the Roman occupation came to Zacchaeus with an offer, an offer to be somebody; a job offer as a tax man, Zacchaeus faced a tough, but inevitable decision—whether or not to sell-out to Rome. As a tax collector he would have to pay Rome a certain amount for his territory and then, of course, he would get rich by charging people for more taxes than they really owed. This would mean that Zacchaeus would collect taxes from a widow who wouldn’t have enough to pay and would therefore put her out of her house. Yes, he would have to rob, cheat and steal from many persons. He would also have to give up his religion. He would no longer have access to the Temple. And he would be hated, truly hated; not just shunned or misunderstood, but…BUT… he would be rich and he would have power.
So, Zacchaeus chose riches and power. But he would have something, wouldn’t he? He would hold power; power that he never had before, power over other people’s lives. But this power, this money didn’t make Zacchaeus feel any better about life than he had before. So here we have Zacchaeus; he is rich, but lonely and hated; he is wealthy, but spiritually impoverished, and he knows it. He was still miserable. He still knew that he was lacking that love that his parents first introduced him to as a young child. He knew he was not living the life he had been created to live. He knew that he was not being the person that he really was and was capable of being. He knew he was majoring in the minors, and so he was desperate. Desperate for God.