So, I’m about to break one of the primary rules laid down by my preaching professor in seminary: “never sing from the pulpit.” But he also said that, “In preaching, nothing is always… and nothing is never.” So here goes:
There was a man in Jericho called Zacchaeus.
There was a man in Jericho called Zacchaeus.
Now the Hebrews, they were tall, but Zacchaeus, he was small,
Yet the Lord loved Zacchaeus, better than them all.
The Lord went walking one day through Jericho town,
And the people began to gather from miles around.
But Zacchaeus, he couldn’t see, so he climbed a Sycamore tree,
And the Lord looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down.”
“Zacchaeus,” by the Medical Mission Sisters. It appears on their album Joy is Like the Rain (1966). You can listen to the Sisters’ recording of the song here.
Those are just the first two verses. The song goes on to tell the rest of the story we heard in our Gospel lesson today, pretty faithfully, I think. If you can find me a steel (drum) band, maybe I’ll sing you the rest of the song one day. But the reason I sang the first bit today was to point out a theological problem that occurs at the end of the first verse: “Now the Hebrews, they were tall, but Zacchaeus, he was small. Yet the Lord loved Zacchaeus better than them all.” Sure, it’s kind of catchy, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with putting words in Jesus’ mouth. And I’m not sure I’m comfortable placing limits on God’s love, which happens when we view that love in comparative terms. We humans may love some people more than we love others; sometimes we even love one or more of our children more than we love the others, but that’s a human thing. That’s not God’s way. There is nothing explicit in this parable indicating that Jesus was playing favorites that day in Jericho when he invited himself to come stay with Zacchaeus.
Surely, Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus. Jericho was a large and prosperous city, only about fifteen miles east of Jerusalem, as the crow flies. As Jericho’s chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was despised by fellow Jews for his role in a provincial government that did not always seem to have the best interests of the people at heart. On the other hand, Zacchaeus likely had associates, and perhaps even a few friends, among the intelligentsia and ruling elite of the place. For some weeks, Jesus, accompanied by large crowds of people, had been traveling throughout the region preaching, teaching and healing. The news of his ministry was beginning to spread… and he had just healed a blind man (Mark named him as Bartimaeus) on his way in to town. So Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus, but he didn’t know him. He’d heard the stories, but Zacchaeus wanted to see (for himself) who Jesus was. Only, despite all of his wealth and connections, Zacchaeus had a problem that prevented him from seeing who Jesus was: he was too short. But that didn’t stop him. He laid aside his pride, his fear of being ridiculed… of messing up his fancy clothes… of falling and hurting himself… and perhaps even his fear of somehow being disappointed with what he might see and he climbed a tree… so that he could see who Jesus was. That’s faith, my friends! And Zacchaeus saw something in Jesus that he had been searching for all of his life… through all of his grasping for wealth, all of the friendships that he made based upon one sort of quid pro quo or another… all of the walls he had built around himself to ensure his own survival in a dog-eat-dog world. All of those things suddenly became meaningless when Jesus looked Zacchaeus in the eye, seeing him, warts and all, and said, “Come down. I’m staying with you, today. Giddy-up!” He didn’t say, “follow me.” No. Jesus said, “I’m coming with you.” And Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into his house.
Of course, there was some grumbling. We humans have a tendency to love, and perceive love, in competitive terms: “I’m so much better than he is… shouldn’t God love me that much more, and pay me that much more attention? But those are our ways, not God’s ways. God’s love is big enough to encompass the whole of creation… saints, sinners and everyone in between. And that’s a good thing because where would most of us be if God’s love was finite… or if God nitpicked who was and was not worthy of love and forgiveness? Be careful what you ask for. But here’s the thing: you’ll notice, or at least I hope you noticed, that Jesus didn’t scold the grumblers. He just went about his work of bringing salvation to Zacchaeus and his household. The grumblers might see salvation on another day, but this day belonged to Zacchaeus. And Zacchaeus reveled in it. Like a snake peeling its skin, Zacchaeus began to peel away at the things that were keeping him from living his life for God: all of his ill-gotten wealth, personal associations that were based upon greed and envy, his propensity to lie, cheat and steal… whatever it took to feather his own nest… because he couldn’t bring himself to trust in God’s Providence. Zacchaeus was able to begin laying all of these things aside because he had seen who Jesus was. Such a gift…
So how about you? What “shortages” are there in your life that make it hard for you to see who Jesus is? Is it a shortage of prayer? Many of us say our prayers a bit perfunctorily, just to get it done, and fail to listen for a response. And prayer is mostly listening, you know. Are we sometimes short on courage? Do we hesitate to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” because we’re afraid of what the answer might be, and of what that might require of us? Ignorance is bliss, right? Or is it trust we’re short on? The willingness to rest in the blessed assurance that God is God… and we are not… and we don’t have to be. Whenever we’re tempted to try and take responsibility for our own providence, sometimes in opposition to God’s movement and purpose in our lives, all we’re really doing is clinging to the chains that bind us to the earth, when we were formed by our Creator to soar. We suffer from so many “shortages” in our lives… and most are self-inflicted.
It’s shortages like these that cause us to retreat to the back of the crowd, grumbling about life’s inequities. It’s shortages like these that prevent us from giving up our earthly idols… those things we keep in our lives to make up for the absence of God… instead of fixing our hope on what lasts. It’s shortages like these that keep us from seeing who Jesus is. Zacchaeus had his big day, and yours may be right around the corner. But it won’t happen until you figure out what is keeping you from seeing, and I mean really seeing, who Jesus is… and then welcoming him into your home. It won’t be easy. Most of us will need to do some metaphorical “tree-climbing” in order to make ourselves ready for that day. Like Zacchaeus, we’ll have to give up some of our pride, roll up our sleeves and take some risks. And we’ll need to be prepared to give up some things that we hold very dear: worldly security, associations that are not in accordance with God’s will for our lives, and idols… lots of them.
So Zacchaeus was short. We’re all “short” in our own ways, are we not? But salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house when Jesus invited himself to dinner unexpectedly one day and Zacchaeus was able to turn from his sins and say, “Yes!” without holding anything back. When your day comes, will you be as well prepared?