Wee Little Man: Crowding out Jesus
The story of Zacchaeus comes to us just after the story of the rich young ruler in Luke’s gospel.
In fact, it seems to be an answer to the questions Jesus’s disciples pose after encountering the rich young man, “Who can be saved?”
And the implied question in that story is, “Can a rich person be saved?”
“Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
So it is no coincidence that right after that story, Luke introduces us to Zacchaeus.
We don’t know a whole lot about Zacchaeus.
Yes, he was a wee little man, and yes, he was a rich tax collector, but why did he want to see Jesus so badly?
Why go through the trouble of climbing a tree?
Luke gives us no answers as to Zacchaeus’s motivation that day.
It was this longing desire to see Jesus, however, that made Zacchaeus drastically different from the rich young ruler.
When the young man came before Jesus, he boasted that he had fulfilled every law and commandment.
“You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’
” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.”
“You forgot one, though”, says Jesus.
Did you catch it?
The commandments, you see, are divided into two main sections: four commandments about God and six commandments about neighbor.
Jesus lists five out of six commandments about neighbor: no adultery, no murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, honor your father and mother, and do not covet.
Don’t covet, do not harbor a longing or desire for your neighbor’s possessions.
This was what the rich young man was lacking!
And this is why Jesus tells him, “Sell all that you own and give it to the poor.”
Money and material possessions had come between the rich young man and Jesus.
The young man desired money and material things.
Not Zacchaeus though!
Luke tells us that Zacchaeus desired only one thing: to see Jesus.
Unfortunately, there was something else that had come between Zacchaeus and Jesus: the crowd!
Because Zacchaeus, as we well know, was a wee little man.
For the young man, money was what kept him from seeing Jesus.
For Zacchaeus, it was the crowd.
This theme of seeing runs throughout the story of Zacchaeus.
In the Greek, nearly every sentence from v 1-10 involves a verb of seeing, searching, or looking.
Having our eyes on Jesus is of the utmost importance, then.
Like Zacchaeus, we should want nothing more than to see who Jesus is.
To understand him, to know him, to have our eyes and heart set on him.
Yet nothing comes between us and Jesus more than these two things: money and crowds.
This is especially true as we enter a season of noise and business and consumerism in America.
The Holidays are already upon us, and everywhere we look something else wants our attention.
I was, in fact, just lamenting the other day the fate of Halloween.
Halloween began as a Christian holiday (holiday, by the way, is itself a word that comes from the Christian “holy day”, but has been largely secularized now.)
Halloween, at one time, was a Christian holy day that was adapted from pagan practices.
It is also known as “All Hallow’s Eve”, and it was a day where we would celebrate the Saints Triumphant, i.e. the saints who have passed on to glory ahead of us.
Gradually, however, the secular world turned this holy day into a holiday, and now Halloween is largely associated with witches and demons, and things that go bump in the night.
More than that, it’s associated with the industry that makes money off of it!
Americans are expected to spend $490 million on costumes for their pets this year.
Between candy, costumes, and decorations, Americans spent 9.1 billion dollars on Halloween last year.
And what is, perhaps, saddest of all, is the way that we’ve divorced Halloween even from social good.
At the very least, Halloween could at one time have been said to bring communities together.
Families would go door to door, meeting and talking with neighbors as children collected their candy.
Now, even that has been shifted into the corporate world, as trick-or-treaters go to businesses instead.
But Halloween isn’t the only holiday vying for our attention this year.
Christmas has become more and more consumeristic each year, with the emphasis shifting farther away from a celebration of Christ’s incarnation, and more and more toward an excuse to splurge on luxuries and to balance the books of big corporations.
Even Thanksgiving, ironically, is quickly moving from a time where families reunite and give thanks for what they already have, into simply “Black Friday’s Eve”.
I say all of this not to discourage you, or to dissuade you from participating in these holidays (I, myself, am a very huge fan of Halloween, and of course I love Christmas and Advent).
We should be aware, however, of the many ways that crowds and money try to captivate us during this time of year, and in doing so, to turn our desire from Jesus to the world.
Climbing the Sycamore: Intentional Seeking
Zacchaeus has more to say than that, however.
Because though the crowds were a nuisance, they would not stop Zacchaeus from seeing the Lord, even if he had to climb upon a sycamore!
After all, when we truly long for something, when our hearts are really set on something, no crowds nor money, nor any worldly thing can stop us from seeking it out.
This, again, shows a stark contrast between Zacchaeus and the rich young ruler.
When faced with difficulty, the rich young man gave up and went home.
Surely, this shows that the kingdom of God was not really what the young man wanted, or else he would have found a way to move beyond the obstacle of money.
Zacchaeus, however, did not let the crowds stop him.
He found a way to reach what he wanted most: Jesus.
This is certainly a hard word for many of us to hear.
Suddenly, this is not a cute story about a small man climbing a tree.
It is a convicting question from Jesus: “Why haven’t you climbed a sycamore to see me?
Why aren’t you in that tree?” Can we truly say, as Zacchaeus can, that we desire Jesus?
Not when we allow crowds and money to block our view!
“I wanted to come to church but something came up...” “I was going to read scripture this morning, but I just ran out of time...” “I tried to pray last night, but I just had too much on my mind....” “We were going to come to Sunday school, but, but, but ,but, but....” “I was going to follow Jesus, but I became sad, because I was very rich.”
“I was going to follow Jesus today, but money and crowds got in the way.”
Do you truly desire Jesus?
Do you really want to see and know the Lord?
Then nothing will stand in your way.
If money, you will give it all away, every last cent.
If crowds, then you’ll learn to climb.
But if you don’t desire Jesus, well, “You’ll know a tree by its fruits”.
Invitation: Joyous Obedience and Penance
This, I admit, is a far more convicting passage than the cute little song would suggest.
And it only gets harder.
Yes, it gets harder, because after he had climbed up that tree, Jesus called him right back down.
The text says, “Jesus looked up and said to him,
“Zacchaeus, hurry down, for I must stay in your house today.”
And he hurried down and welcomed him rejoicing.”
When we see Jesus, he calls us to joyful obedience.
When we see Jesus, he calls us to come down from our high places.
And, when we see Jesus, he calls us to repentance.
Zacchaeus, after all, was chief tax collector.
He was not a good man, he was cheat and a thief.
He took from the poor and gave to the rich, and often took far more than was necessary.
When we see Jesus, those kind of things won’t stay in the dark for long.
He’ll bring them out into the light where we must confront them.
Of course, repentance is a known part of the Christian life.
But so many of us think of repentance as a sordid, sad affair.
Repentance is something we mope about, something we think of as a burden.
Zacchaeus, however, doesn’t seem burdened at all!
He hurries down from the tree and welcomes Christ with rejoicing, with celebration.
And when his past sins are brought to light, Zacchaeus shows no hesitation: “I will sell half of all I own and give it to the poor, and If I have extorted anything from anyone, I will repay it fourfold.”
That is not the attitude or action of a man who is miserable.
No, Zacchaeus repents with joy.
And we, too, are called to repent with joy.