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.
This past Monday was tax day here in the United States. Let me set a contemporary context for Zacchaeus. Suppose an IRS agent shows up on your door, presents you with a tax bill for $1,000, and then says, “But, you have to pay my collection commission, so the total will be $1,250.” Zacchaeus would be that guy, and he was in charge of other tax collectors, in Jericho, which was a center of the tax collecting community. It would be like he was the IRS agency chief in the Austin, Texas office.
But this sinner is soon found to be in a seeking mode. How and when he heard about Jesus we don’t know. What kind of report sparked his desire to see Jesus is also unknown. However, what we read paints an ironic and somewhat comical picture. Zacchaeus was obviously well-known in the area (v.7) at least by reputation. His position and wealth would have placed him on the highest rung of societal status of Jericho. But, this “big” man in society was lacking in physical stature. He who often looked down at people from his pinnacle of societal power could not see Jesus over the crowd. Although left unstated, I cannot help but conclude that some desperate spiritual need could have forced a man of his status to take up the humiliating posture of an adolescent tree-climber.
Luke’s irony continues as Jesus stops under this sycamore tree and calls Zacchaeus to come
down. With all eyes drawn to this despised tax-collector, the potential for a prophetic rebuke was possible (and perhaps even anticipated by the crowd). But Jesus does not berate him, or add to his obviously humiliating posture. Instead Jesus honors him by calling him by name and declaring his intent to be a guest at his house.
For all that we know about Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus, there is still something missing from the story. It somehow seems incomplete. Except for the peoples’ complaint that Jesus was going as a guest to the home of a sinner, Luke says nothing about what happened next. Instead we find Zacchaeus stopping and saying to the Lord, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Somehow, perhaps while fellowshipping with Jesus in his home, the taker was transformed into a giver. The greedy cheat who defrauded people was transformed into a man with a benevolent and just heart. Zacchaeus even adopts the spirit of the Law when he commits to making restitution for past sins. Nothing can account for this dramatic change, except the transforming power of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.