Pastor of Decatur United Methodist Church
Today I am going to tell you a story. In all honesty, if you grew up in church, if you have been around church much, it’s a story you are probably familiar with. But today I want to tell you the story from a different perspective. This is the story of a man named Zacchaeus; it’s a story Luke writes about in chapter 19.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Over the past few weeks we have talked a lot about tax collectors. You see, Luke, one of the writers of the New Testament employs tax collectors a lot in his stories about Jesus. Jesus is one that spent a lot of time with tax collectors. During the first century, that’s the time that Jesus lived, tax collectors held a much different place in society than they do today. When you pay your taxes today, you probably don’t like it, but the person collecting didn’t set the rates and isn’t out to get. In fact, she or he owes taxes just like you.
But in first century, the tax collector was contract worker for the Roman government. And so the tax collector was told he was supposed to collect a certain amount of money, and since he needed to make a living, he could collect more to put in his pocket. This system without checks and balances, and so you can imagine that these tax collectors abused their position. The only way they made money is if they over charged those from whom they collected. They made money by taking money from the poor Israelites and giving a portion of that to the Roman government. As you can imagine, these people were hated.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. More than that, Luke tells us in verse 2 that he was a chief or ruler among tax collectors. So he is like the head honcho of all tax collectors in the area, so he gets extra.
In the morning Zacchaeus wakes up like he does every morning. Perhaps he walked downstairs, because the night was hot and he and his family had been sleeping on the roof as most of his neighbors were doing. Then he put on his tunic – first century underwear; washed off his face. Perhaps he drank a glass of water or wine—after all it’s estimated that people could have consumed 1 liter of wine a day—and Zacchaeus as a rich man perhaps consumed more.
Perhaps he then ate some bread or dates or figs. Then he finished getting ready. Over his tunic he would a mantel, and outer garment of sort. Then he would tie his belt and lace his sandals. Now Zacchaeus was ready for the day.
Since he was a manager of other tax collectors, he had a staff meeting on this day. Those that worked under him were coming into Jericho bring taxes that had been collected on the previous days and Zacchaeus was meeting with. Perhaps he wanted a status report before he gave his employees the rest of their instructions.
As he prepared for this meeting, he was looking forward to finishing early and taking afternoon nap, because the days had been so hot lately. He had been a little depressed lately. He knew that his job forced him to harm others; to take from others to support his family and his comfortable lifestyle. He was Jewish, but he didn’t feel Jewish anymore. People hated him and he felt like a traitor to and others. And that’s exactly what others thought of him. As he replayed these regrets, he knew he had to put them out of his mind, because he had a job to do. He would just meet with his staff then take the afternoon off.
When he arrived at the meeting place near the community market to glad took the money from workers to turn into the government. This was particularly heavy, so he knew that they had done a good job. But, what widow couldn’t feed herself because of this tax? What child was going to go hungry this month? He put it out of his mind—that wasn’t his concern.
As his deputies were talking about their journeys they mentioned that crowds in the surrounding towns were very excited about man called Jesus. He was healing people and the crowds loved his stories. He seems to really care about all the dirty, poor people. Zacchaeus, he cause some problems for us, because he is coming into Jericho this afternoon.
Zacchaeus guessed that he was going to have to investigate things. This would ruin plans for an afternoon nap.
After the meeting he starts to hear a crowd. He assumes that this the crowd interested in this man named Jesus that deputies told him about. So went to check it out. But couldn’t get into the crowd. It was full. He wanted to see who Jesus was to listen if he was going to cause Zacchaeus any problems. If Jesus was going to be an issue for business, perhaps Zacchaeus would have to talk with governor. Regardless, he wanted to get closer. Then he noticed a sycamore tree.
This how Luke tells the story in chapter 19:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. 2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.
Now a sycamore tree is an easy tree to climb. It’s a very full tree with lots of thick leaves. When I was traveling in Palestine, I learned that in Jericho there is an old sycamore tree that tradition says is the exact tree that Zacchaeus climbed up. I find this hard to believe, but perhaps it is an off spring of the actual tree.
So Zacchaeus climbs up into this tree, wanting to hear wants going on and not wanting to be seen. He is on fact finding mission to figure out if this Jesus guy is a problem.
Then, Luke tells us what happens next in verse 5:
5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” 6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
The man who was trying to stay hidden. The man was looking to see if Jesus would cause him any issues. The man who crowd hates. The man most unlike Jesus. The man trapped in his own guilt and shame.
And Jesus sees him, looks to him, and says get down—I’m staying at your house today. Zacchaeus, who was wanting to figure this Jesus out is now going to host him. Zacchaeus isn’t looking for salvation, Zacchaeus is looking to follow Jesus, Zacchaeus isn’t looking anything more out of life. He’s just curious. Zacchaeus is motivated in this exchange out curiosity; Jesus is motivated out of love.
Jesus sees Zacchaeus as one who needs grace. Jesus sees Zacchaeus as one who needs love.
The crowds are astounded at Jesus’ actions. They are upset that Jesus is going to spend time with this hated man.
It’s easy to see why the crowd is upset. It’s easy to see their frustration and anger. In life it seems like an injustice because bad things happen to good people, and too often the seemingly bad people seem to prosper. People that work hard can’t seem to get ahead and people that seem to scam the system see to prosper.
Though we have our ideas of right and wrong. The truth is, in many ways, we all are like Zacchaeus. The prophet Isaiah talks human condition and says in chapter 64:6 -- We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (NRSV)
Just as Zacchaeus, we don’t realize this about ourselves. We try to get ahead in life, but because we’ve become unclean all the supposedly righteous things we do are pointless—Isaiah says, “like a filthy cloth.”
Thinking about this seems rather abstract, but I think it is a very real thing too. Think about how much you try to get better. Think about how much effort you put into changing things. I think about someone struggling in addiction. The people I know have the best intentions of fixing their addition—they try and try and try, but all of their efforts are gone and they can’t break free.
The very language of the 12 steps of recovery assumes this basic fact. Step one says that “We admit that we are powerless over out addiction or compulsion and our lives have become unmanageable.” Even the apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament talks about how this is true in his. He says in a letter he wrote to the Romans, “ I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate” (Romans 7:15 CEB).
Does this sound familiar? Does this prison that locks us into the hurt of our bad decisions sound familiar? I think it must. I know it’s familiar in my life. I know it’s familiar in the lives of those who wrote the Bible. I know it’s familiar in the lives of countless people throughout time and around the world.
What hope can we have because we are like Zacchaeus—sinners?
For me the hope is that Jesus didn’t allow Zacchaeus hide in that tree. The last thing Zacchaeus wanted was to be seen by the crowd or Jesus. But Jesus didn’t allow him to hide. Instead Jesus, propelled by love, displays God’s relentless desire for Zacchaeus; God’s relentless desire for humanity.
In the days when we are locked in this struggle. In the days when you can’t imagine a way out; in the days when you don’t even want a way out; Jesus is relentlessly pursuing you. Jesus is calling you to stop hiding. Jesus is calling your name and saying he plans to stay at your house. From this, there is no hiding.
As we close, I realize that I didn’t finish this story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Not only did Jesus pursue him, but when Zacchaeus encounter Jesus his life was transformed. And in verse 9&10, Jesus shares this good news with these words:
“Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 The Human One[a] came to seek and save the lost.”
You know, as respectable (or in some cases, not so respectable) people, we like to think that we have to work hard to get something good. We tend to think that our survival is dependent on our actions.
But the reality is, we can’t do anything to earn life or earn God’s love. God loves us. God is calling to us. God has come to rescue you and to free you from your dysfunction and hurt. You don’t have to be perfect; God doesn’t need you to be perfect. God just wants you to hear God’s call. God wants to stay with you today, will you let God in?
Decatur United Methodist Church
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