Many (or maybe even most) of us here know the story we heard in our Gospel lesson just a few seconds ago because it’s one of the most popular Bible stories out there. It even comes with its own theme song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” The scene opens on a short and kind of bad man who miraculously has a change of heart. Jesus ends up staying at his house, and then Zacchaeus gives away most all of his fortune because God is good. The end. The kids will love it!
But the drama runs deeper than that. Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector. He was the chief of the tax collectors. This is a guy who got started in an entry-level position and decided to make his way to the top, no matter what. Except this wasn’t something as innocent as a tech startup or a fast-food franchise. This was tax-collecting. In occupied Judea.
Tax-collecting was not a nice job, to put it simply. It was actually one of the worst jobs and was typically occupied by the worst people, people who enjoyed taking money from their neighbors and giving it to Rome and then demanding a little extra for themselves. Zacchaeus would have been repulsive to his fellow Jews. He would have been banned from the local synagogue.
St. Luke doesn’t tell us much about him, but I think it’s fair to say that Zacchaeus was almost certainly estranged from friend and family alike, going home to a dark and empty house, night after night, never lacking in money but always penniless when it came to what is actually good and beautiful about life.
Zacchaeus had given his life and, arguably, his soul to a corrupt system, and the maze of deceit and pain that was his past and present would forever prevent him from getting out unscathed. He was in too deep. There would be no happy ending for Zacchaeus.
Or so everyone thought. Everyone, that is, but Jesus.
Jesus had just entered Jericho and was passing through. His face was turned toward Jerusalem and the fate that awaited him there, and yet he had business in Jericho regardless. Nothing Jesus ever did was without purpose. He chose to go through Jericho for a reason; and that reason was staring down at him from a sycamore tree.
You see, Zacchaeus had been seeking to see Jesus — why we don’t know — but couldn’t because he was short and the crowd wasn’t going to budge for such a nasty guy. And so Zacchaeus climbed a tree, not minding, it seems, how foolish he looked. Such was his desire to see our Lord. “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’”
The whole crowd heard it and still couldn’t believe their ears. Jesus, stay at his house? Didn’t this wandering rabbi know just by looking at Zacchaeus that he was a scoundrel and a cheat and an enemy of Israel? And yet he would dine at his table. The idea was preposterous. Infuriating.
And it meant the world to Zacchaeus.
After all these years of people crossing the street just to avoid him, suddenly there’s this man — this Jesus — who did not look away when their eyes met, who called out to him as though Zacchaeus was a brother or a friend. In an instant, his world was changed forever.
And we have to wonder: What happened in that brief exchange that could transform a sinner’s life so utterly? What happened in the span of a dozen words, that Zacchaeus might go from tax collector to an emblem of generosity?
What happened but the grace of God! There was no justifying Jesus’ actions based on Zacchaeus’ character. This was just a bad guy in a tree. There was no hint that he had been getting right with God or that he had some latent aptitude for good deeds. No. Zacchaeus was the chief of the tax collectors and remained the chief of the tax collectors when Jesus called out to him. Such is the mercy of God, who seeks out and saves the lost because that’s just who he is and what he does.
Observe the gracious kindness of our Savior: “The innocent associates with the guilty, the fountain of justice with . . . injustice.” Having entered Zacchaeus’ house, the Life of the world turns on the lights and dispels the darkness of sin, suffering no stain from the greed and pride gathered there, but dispersing all of it by the bright beam of his righteousness (paraphrased, John Chrysostom).
In just one glance, Jesus knew what Zacchaeus had done; and he was still willing to walk into his home and abide there. And so it is with us today. Jesus knows all that we have done, all that we have thought. He knows what we have kept back. He knows what we have hoarded. And yet he loves us regardless, even when the heart he sees looks as shriveled and stubborn as a miser counting his piles of gold, coin by coin.
To us he says: “I must stay in your house today.” And every day. Jesus would open the doors of our hearts and enter in. He would sweep out the cobwebs and flick on the lights and make a home for himself within us, so that we might behold the Lamb of God and be saved. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
We never deserved such a gift. God in his justice could have decided to have nothing to do with us. And yet he does, choosing us over and over again, even when we fail. Even when we fall.
This is a truth that we need to remind ourselves of again and again — because it’s easy to forget. We so often doubt God’s love, thinking that God doesn’t care about me, or, if I just try hard enough, God will accept me. Those are both versions of the same lie that Jesus refutes by walking through Zacchaeus’ front door. God loves us. Full stop. No matter who we are or what we’ve done, Jesus would die a thousand deaths just to save a tax-collector. Or a prostitute. Or a Pharisee. Or you. Or me. Jesus gave of his own Body and Blood so that imperfect people might one day gaze upon perfection, not from up a tree or from behind some tall guy in a crowd. But face-to-face, as a friend or a family member.
St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus into his house. But I have to wonder: How much greater, then, is our Savior’s joy when he finds what was lost and brings it home. AMEN.