Summary: Jesus reaches out to the smallest and the evilest among us with a very personal invitation. He calls us by name. He invites himself over. He desires nothing less than a radically changed life, submitted to him, and all for our good!
When a Little Guy Meets a Big God
Today’s passage is a very popular children’s Bible story, but it’s a lot more than that. It reveals the very heart of God: one who pursues each one of us to bring us into a loving personal relationship with him.
I want to walk us through what I consider to be four important parts of the story: first, in thinking about Zacchaeus, how low he was, and second, how high he strived. Third, when it comes to Jesus, a personal invite, and fourth, a changed life. So let’s begin with Zacchaeus,
1. How low he was. Zacchaeus is famous for being a short man. Perhaps he got ribbed growing up, “Zacchaeus, you ought to be a Rabbi. At least your sermons would be short!” Or, “I feel sorry for short people. When it rains they are the last to know.” Zacchaeus was “vertically challenged,” “height-impaired.” But when I say he was low, I’m not talking about his physical stature. Zacchaeus was despised among his own people. Back then tax collectors made their living by charging more than they had to for the occupying force and lining their pockets with the difference: kind of an authorized extortion system. Their salary could be as high as their ability to pressure their fellow citizens. The locals considered them traitors and cheats, scoundrels out of reach of retribution. And Zacchaeus was not only an IRS agent; he was head of the department, the “chief tax collector.” The end result was that Zacchaeus was filthy rich ... and greatly despised ... and very lonely ... and very lost. How low he was, but also consider...
2. How high he strived. The good thing about Zacchaeus is that he got curious. When Veterans are bound by their PTSD symptoms, we ask them to get curious, to grow in curiosity about some of the thoughts they have concerning their trauma, why it happened and what it means for the world today. As they become curious, and begin putting some of their long-held beliefs to the test, they discover some of those thoughts haven’t been so accurate or so helpful after all. “Maybe I couldn’t save my buddy, no matter how hard I wanted to.” Or, “Maybe it wasn’t my fault; maybe there was nothing I could do to prevent it.” Curiosity may have killed the cat but it has saved many a Veteran’s life.
Curiosity saved Zacchaeus’s life, too. Verse 3 says, “He wanted to see who Jesus was.” What a great goal us! But be careful; it could change your life! Zacchaeus undoubtedly had heard of this famous rabbi who was healing people and preaching to the masses in the countryside, who had recently raised Lazarus from the dead just fifteen miles away. Now Zacchaeus wanted to check out Jesus firsthand. And he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way, not even his vertical challenges. Zacchaeus decided to climb a tree.
For the botanists among us, I’d like to point out that the sycamore-fig in today’s story is not of the American or European variety, but more from the mulberry family. These trees were often planted close to roadsides and had big, low limbs, easy to climb. Zacchaeus was highly motivated because he was putting himself out there in the public eye. It would have been embarrassing for people to see him in such a desperate state, being a public official and all. But he didn’t let his pride get in the way, which leads us to part 3 ...
3. A personal invite. Basically Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. Sound rude? Not if you’re a VIP. Imagine someone very important—an athlete or politician or famous author or actor you respect—and they come up to you in the crowd and say, “Hey, do you mind if I come over to your house today?” After you recover from fainting, you would be thrilled, albeit a bit nervous.
So here was Jesus, the “Time magazine Man of the Year,” inviting himself over to Zacchaeus’s house. And Jesus put some urgency into the invitation. Verse 5 says, “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’” Jesus was quite emphatic. There was no choice. It was God the Father’s will that the two get together that day. Did you know this is the only place in scripture where Jesus did this—invite himself over like that?
Isn’t it ironic that we talk about how we finally found the Lord, but in reality, long before, God was seeking us out. In this story, Zacchaeus thought he was looking for Jesus, but even more so Jesus was looking for him!
And how did Jesus know Zacchaeus’s name? Do you ever wonder about that? Maybe Zacchaeus’ reputation was the talk of the town. Or perhaps God revealed it to Jesus. Could it be that the God of the heavens knows every details of our lives, even when we forget to talk to him?