Our text this morning from Luke is one we may have first heard as early as our time in toddler’s Sunday school classes or children’s choir.
When faced with such familiar texts, we may be tempted to read quickly and rush pass— to not take time needed to look under linguistic stones and up in trees for a different perspective or new meaning. We can be tempted to think we’ve heard everything about the scripture that we need to know in order to understand how the nature of God is revealed in passage. This is a dangerous practice and one we should try to avoid at all cost. Instead we should try to challenge ourselves to climb trees, to look at the familiar text from a different perspective. The challenge for us is to imagine we are hearing these familiar texts for first time, with expectant ears and hearts ready to be changed and challenged. Friends, I challenge you to hear something new in our familiar text from Luke 19:1-10.
Luke 19:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB)
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. 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.”
8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
9 Jesus said to him, “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.”
Once again who Jesus chooses to have a meal with causes the crowd surrounding Christ to grumble. After all, tax collectors are hated. Without question the taxation system which Zacchaeus is a part by virtue of profession and association is corrupt and socially abusive. No wonder the crowd grumbled, Zacchaeus worked in a system run by the oppressive and corrupt Roman occupiers. It can be easy to hold people to the stereotypes we’ve casted them in or to former versions of themselves that they’ve long out grown.
If you were in the crowd that day, would you grumble? I say this not to be too harsh on the crowd, because who knows, I would have probably grumbled to. The crowd struggles to see the whole picture- to see that Zacchaeus is so desperate to see Jesus, that he climbed a tree, which is not a dignified action, in order to see salvation in Christ. The crowd is so confused about Jesus stopping to single out one, that they grumble about Jesus getting too cozy with an “evil” tax collector, who may only be evil because of their harsh stereotypes. Jesus interacts with another lost sheep and the crowd grumbles. Who do we grumble about and who are the ones which Jesus hangs out with that baffle us? Who have we villainized in our minds? Are there people who we may keep from seeing Jesus?
The name Zacchaeus even translates into “clean, pure, or innocent,” but the crowd only saw Zacchaeus as a chief tax collector and therefore automatically assumed Zacchaeus is just an evil character. However, a closer look at the text tells us otherwise. The verb didōmi used in the Greek is in present indicative action form—translating closest to I give, as in he is already doing so. Zacchaeus is already giving half his possessions to the poor, more than what is required. Not that Zacchaeus is the perfect representative of humankind. Even though Zacchaeus gives and donates half his wealth, he still participates in an evil system that he is likely not going to challenge or change, but being a tax collector is also his job and how he survives.
Where the crowd meets Zacchaeus with grumbling, Jesus meets him with grace. Jesus made time for one person while on the way to redeem all. What amazes and surprises me about this text is Jesus had the eyes and mindset to look up. He took time to stop. To notice. To see Zacchaeus for more than who he was. To invite himself into the home of a tax collector. An invitation that Zacchaeus joyfully accepts, (if Jesus invited himself over to my house, I’d want to tidy up first.” To call up and say, “Zacchaeus, YOU come down.”
Theologian and professor, Karoline Lewis writes about the importance of being individually spotted and called down to be among Jesus. She observes, “Never underestimate the power of “you,” especially in the second person singular. We know how “you” feels. Like you are the only person in the world. Like someone is paying attention. Like someone means it and means what they say. And, what “you” feels like when you hear it from God.” Our text today creates a pause for us to accept the smallness of our human vision. God sees so much more than I see when I look at people. God’s eyes for people are richer, fuller, non-bleary, and grace-filled.
Today, we celebrate Remembrance Sunday, or All Saint’s Sunday. We take pause and remember people who showed us a little more about what following Jesus looks like. We remember the saints we love who have passed away over the last year as well as those who are our spiritual heroes, like a few of my favorites, Rachel Held Evans, Harriet Tubman, and Mister Rogers. In our scripture, Jesus’ vision of who Zacchaeus is goes past the grumbling crowd’s stereotypes and gets to the heart of what Jesus notices about the chief tax collector. A favorite “Mister” Fred Rogers quote speaks to this. Rogers says, “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing–that when we look for what’s best in a person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does all the time. So in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something sacred.”
Sometimes, however, we seem to forget this about the driver who cut us off on interstate 81 in the morning. Or the ones who have political signs in their yards promoting candidates we may not agree with, and those we don’t necessarily see eye to eye with about politics. And yes, even those whose theology we do not agree with. Those who we quickly stereotype. The neighbor across the street or on the other side of the globe with a different culture and religion, and the person whose life experience is so vastly different from mine that I simply cannot understand, no matter how hard I try. Lest we forget, each one of these is created in the divine image.
But friends, Jesus shows us what this looks like. Jesus reveals ways to shatter long held and ill-casted stereotypes we imprison people to. Jesus shows us a better way and how we might start striving to begin practicing holy appreciation.
Where others saw someone they considered a shady tax collector; Jesus saw Zacchaeus.
Where neighbors defined a woman by her questionable reputation; Jesus saw a spiritually thirsty person.
Where society saw a rag tag group of fishy smelling fishermen; Jesus saw friends and companions.
Where society calls diseased lepers unclean people who needed to be cast aside; Jesus saw people in need of love and healing.
Where others see lonely outcasts, and those who society may deem as too different to be fully accepted; Jesus sees people who should be welcomed at the table and have a place in God’s family.
Where people see others only through limited lenses and casted stereotypes; Jesus sees the whole person.
Where we only see people’s flaws as reasons to grumble; Jesus offers grace.
Where we may see a disgraceful sinner; Jesus sees a potential saint.
Jesus stops and takes time to notice the individual. Even as Jesus passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, where he would be put on trial and put to death, Jesus takes time to look up, to see Zacchaeus as a person and not a villain casted stereotype, and to take time to visit Zacchaeus’ home. Time after time, throughout scripture, Jesus ignores labels and addresses the person. Including us. Despite the things we have done or not done, Jesus loves us. Jesus sees beyond our flaws and those parts of ourselves that we don’t like very much. Jesus likes Zacchaeus and us just the way we are. The challenge for us is to cease our grumbling and see individuals as Christ does.
Friends, how can we begin to do the hard and humbling work of truly seeing and noticing others as God sees them? Can we begin to see potential saints where before we only saw disgraced sinners? This is a difficult challenge but it is certainly one worth taking. Will you join?
To close, here’s an excerpt from Mexican theologian Magdalena Garcia’s reflections on Zacchaeus: “And so a question remains for us to ponder;
Who are the real despicable people, we wonder:
The ones who honestly perform a hideous task?
Or the ones who hide meanness behind a pious mask?” Amen.