Summary: This sermon reflects on the transformation of Zacchaeus from taker to giver, from greedy to generosity and seeks to discover how we might apply that same transformation to our lives.
Okay. We can’t read Zacchaeus without doing some short jokes, right? Why do short people get mad so easily? Because they have short tempers! Unfortunately, I crashed into the back of a car at the lights today. A really short guy got out of the car and said, “I’m not happy.”
I said, “Well which one are you then?”
I’m sorry! We can’t be too hard on short people. After all, short people are the only people in the world who are always looking up. Oh, and don’t forget, God only lets things grow until they’re perfect. Some people simply don’t take as long as others. Enough about short people. I only mention it because of the character Luke introduces us to in our Gospel passage today—Zacchaeus. Most of us know Zacchaeus from our Sunday school days from the little song “Zacchaeus was a ‘wee’ little man, and a ‘wee’ little man was he…” Yes, I’ve preached on Zacchaeus since I’ve been the pastor here, and that’s okay because there are so many nuances to this encounter, that we could spend several weeks exploring each one. Today, we look at his transformation. Zacchaeus’ story, while unique to Luke’s Gospel, is not unique at all. It tells the story of personal transformation made possible by a living encounter with Jesus Christ. It illustrates the transforming effects of that encounter. Perhaps we can learn something that will be useful in understanding our own transformation.
Zacchaeus was an unlikely candidate for spiritual transformation, but perhaps that is Luke’s reason for including the story. As Jesus makes his way to Jericho, Luke simply introduces Zacchaeus to us by saying, “There was a man there named Zacchaeus.” When we read our English translations, we fail to catch the irony of the situation, for, if scholars are correct, the Hebrew root for the name Zacchaeus means “pure” or “acquitted one.” So, Luke really stokes the irony when he adds, “He was the chief tax collector in the region.” Tax collectors were local Jews hired by cities and towns to collect taxes for the Romans. Zaccheus was a “chief” tax collector which meant he probably had supervision over a region and a number of tax collectors. Luke’s words “and he was rich” would certainly not go unnoticed by Jews in Jesus’ day. The privilege of collecting taxes was offered at a steep price and those who held that job set tax rates that often exceeded by far any quotas demanded by Rome. While having no authority to confiscate funds or property, they could exact severe penalties by reporting tax delinquency to the Romans. This they often did whether the charges were true or not. Keep in mind also that tax-collectors were notorious for their corruption, and the mere mention of their name aligned them with sinners. And, so here Luke presents a villain who is ironically named. He was anything but pure or blameless in character; he was, in fact, the exact opposite.