Who are YOU in the story of Zacchaeus?

November 6, 2016

a sermon based upon Luke 19:1-10, page 912 in the pew Bible)

by Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister

First Congregational United Church of Christ 201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707


The story of Zacchaeus is a great one for Children & Youth, because kids can connect with being short – being “crowded out” by big people, bullied because they are “littler”. It’s also a good story for playful grown-ups who would just as soon climb a tree as sit in a pew! There may be some of us who identify with Zacchaeus, the little guy.


To be honest, some of us may be more like the folks in the crowd than like little Zacchaeus… quick to put ourselves first, up front, in the way of others. I’m told that in sports stadiums, even though each person has paid good money for a designated seat, most of the people in front of them stand up when the game begins, blocking everybody’s view, unless they also stand up (and stay standing) until half-time, when they can finally sit down to see. There are a lot of big people (grown-ups) in today’s Bible story, who are getting in the way of little Zacchaeus and think nothing of it.  You see, they don’t like him much.


Besides being short, what else do we know about the man out on a limb, up in a tree, when Jesus passed by in Jericho? Well, we are told that Zacchaeus was rich!  I wonder if that’s why Jesus wanted to stay at Zacchaeus’ house? To have a rich guy for a host is nice! Good food, a clean bed, maybe even a few servants, cooks, like Downton Abbey.

Again, some of us may identify with Zacchaeus, because (like him) we’ve got plenty of money. (What do some folks in Alpena say about First Congregational? Yeah…That’s the “rich church” in town. Right?)

Except that the people in Jericho didn’t think that their local rich guy, Zacchaeus, was very nice. They didn’t think that he was “good” enough for Jesus to go there. (!) The Gospel writer Luke tells us that when the crowd saw what Jesus was doing, they all murmured: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”


Now, have you ever wondered how those people knew that little Zack was a sinner? Why was it that they murmured bad things about him, complained and criticized him, and called Zacchaeus a “sinner”?


Maybe there was something that Zacchaeus had done to them that they did not like!? Because that’s how people get a reputation of being a “sinner” – by doing bad things to people, and not much caring about how it hurts others.  I trust none of us have a public reputation like Zacchaeus’s, where others think that we are “unrighteous sinners!”


Because they assumed Zacchaeus was a “sinner”, the crowd probably felt justified in blocking his way, shutting him out from being able to see Jesus when he came through town. Because the crowd thought of Zacchaeus as a “sinner”, they didn’t feel that they had to treat him right, to include him. Are you and I ever like that? Are there people you feel justified in treating as second-class? People who don’t believe like you do, or don’t act like you do, or don’t look like you, such that you feel justified in shunning them? Disrespecting them?  The crowd in Jericho thought that Zacchaeus wasn’t like them

He was a sinner!  They thought that they were better than him.


If so, I wonder what little Zacchaeus had done to the grownups in that town that made them hate him & think such bad things about him.


It is certainly not his name! Even though “Zacchaeus” sounds like a funny name to us, in Hebrew it means “pure” or “justified.” Back in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (when the Jews returned from their Babylonian Exile to rebuild Jerusalem), one of the founding families was named “Zaccai” which means, in Hebrew, “clean” or

“innocent.”1 So why would a man, whose very name means “innocent”, be looked upon as a “guilty” sinner by his neighbors?


Was it because he was small? Short people are easier for bullies to pick on, you know.

1  Ezra 2:9, Neh. 7:14
Did they think God didn’t like Zacchaeus as much as others, because he was stuck being smaller than the average? Big men often feel superior to shorter, smaller ones, even though it is just an optical illusion. “Bigger” is not always better, at least not in things that really matter.  To be bigger & stronger may lead a weak person to bullying.


With this crowd in Jericho, that might be it. You see, they had just done the same thing with a blind man!  Luke 18:35 says that…


As Jesus drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the side of the road, begging. And hearing the crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him: “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those people who were in front of him rebuked him, telling him to be silent!” (Luke 18:35-39)


Jesus surprised the crowd by stopping… asking the man what he wanted… and promptly healed him of his blindness!  He could see!


All Zacchaeus wanted was to SEE Jesus, and the same crowd was holding him back who had held the blind guy back a minute ago!


So, maybe they “picked on” Zacchaeus because he was little. If that’s it, we should remember what happened just one chapter earlier… (Luke 18:15-16) Parents were bringing their children to Jesus that he might touch them.  And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them!


But Jesus turned it around… He called those Moms & Dads with their kids to him, saying “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them!  For to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Hello!!)


Now Zacchaeus was being put down & put off by the people just as the children had been. (!) He was being disrespected just like the blind man had been. (!) Maybe the crowd had forgotten those lessons. Was it something inherent in those people in Jericho that they could be so obtuse, so self-centered, such bullies… and think nothing of it?


Or is it something in human nature that all of us must wrestle with… the willingness to block someone else’s paths, to put others down… taking advantage for ourselves even though to do so means leaving others dis-advantaged?  Who are we like in this story…?


Or… was it something else that made them turn their backs on Zacchaeus, and give him the cold shoulder, block his way, and call him a “sinner”?  Grumble about him & complain that Jesus went with him.

Was it because Zacchaeus was “rich” and most of them were not?

You know, it’s a sad fact that many people look with envy on the good fortune of people who are wealthier than they are. They get a little jealous, when their neighbor has a better car or bigger house or newer technology, than they can afford. I hope that isn’t who we are in the story, but there is a lot of envy & anger toward the rich in America.


So, maybe they disliked Zacchaeus because he was so rich. Or, more likely, it’s because of how he had gotten rich. That’s the real rub!


We don’t feel so put-off by Sam Walton’s millions, for example, since he built his fortune using “Made in America” factory-goods in a streamlined yet expansive retail company named “Wal-Mart.” His was a rags-to-riches “entrepreneurial” American business “success story”.


Sam Walton’s heirs, however, pursued a different business model.

In order to always offer Walmart’s customers the “lowest price”, they forced American companies to produce their goods in third-world countries where labor costs were very low and safety & environmental regulations were all-but non-existent.  People began to resent corporate profits made that way. And when profits accrued because a store’s local “payroll” relied on minimum-wage and part-time employees… with no health benefits nor pension… One can see why the seeds of a Bernie-Sanders-type revolt was in the making. It was the late great William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who said: “People revolt when their living conditions become revolting.”


We don’t begrudge Bill Gates his billions for having invented Microsoft programming for our computers, or the late Steve Jobs’ innovative Apple Corporation. But we do resent EpiPen’s monopoly- pricing scheme; we resent VW’s emission-standard manipulation, and oil industry strong-arm tactics along the pipeline routes and their high prices. Yes, Zacchaeus was wealthy, but like so many rich people (then and now), that alone is not an indicator of one’s moral standards. To be rich does not make a man a “sinner” any more than being bigger than others makes them better. To have wealth (plenty of income) is not a bad thing if it is honestly earned and wisely used for the common good.


Well, Luke tells us exactly how Zacchaeus made his money: he was a chief tax-collector. To be a “chief” means that Zacchaeus had other tax-gatherers and toll-collectors and accountants who reported to him. Jesus’ follower Levi-Matthew had been a tax collector.2 It’s very possible that Zacchaeus may have been his boss – the regional director.


Apparently Zacchaeus had heard a lot about Jesus and wanted to see him for himself.  Unfortunately, two things got in his way…


First, he was short!  His small stature was a natural hindrance.


Second, the crowd (as we mentioned already) was not about to make way for him. They didn’t like Zacchaeus, even though he was a fairly high government official. Frankly, they didn’t like the fact that he had the right and the authority to take taxes and tithes and tolls and other fees from them… and distribute the money to civil and religious rulers.


Tax-collectors were Jews who had contracted their services to the government, or to the Temple, as a “collection agency.” As a Jew, who worked for the Arab King Herod or for the Roman Caesar to collect the taxes and tributes due them, Zacchaeus lived at the intersection of power and unpopularity. He was seen as a collaborator with the foreign over- lords who occupied the Holy Land with ruthlessness and military might.
2  Luke 5:27-32; Matthew 9:9-13

To be a “tax collector” was considered a prime example of what it meant in Judea to be a sinner. The fact that Jesus included them in his movement — and even ate meals with them in their homes — had already scandalized a great many of the Jewish nationalists who wanted the Roman Empire gone and a new Jewish King on the throne in Jerusalem. But Zacchaeus and his team of tax-collectors helped finance the Empire!


I suspect their coming was not unlike the unpleasantness we associate with the Internal Revenue Service around April 15th! Times change, but the general unwillingness people have to paying their taxes

— looking for every available loop-hole and deduction, such that even multi-millionaires can avoid paying them — stays the same!


Imagine how it feels today when the bank sends a marshal to evict a tenant who has failed to pay the landlord, or an officer from the bank to foreclose on a loan. How does it feel to have a collection agent repossess someone’s TV or car?


Well, that unpleasant job in Jesus’ day was called a “tax collector.” They collected tolls and tribute, per capita dues, penalties, fines & fees, Temple “tithes”, as well as taxes for the various layers of government.

Then, as now, the relentless claims of government on an ever-greater portion of the people’s income was driving the tax-paying public crazy! Every person in the Empire had to pay taxes, and someone had to do the dirty work of collecting them! That was Zacchaeus’s job. However, to see one of these “collaborators” grow rich from their high government position fueled the resentment and frustration of the crowd in those days.


Certainly some of that anti-tax mood tainted Zacchaeus’ reputation.

Even if the purpose of the collection were admirable – such as this week, Tuesday: we will vote on assessing millage for special education services in the public schools (which will cost two million dollars over the next 10 years); and we’ll vote to renew the surcharge on our phones

– impose a fee on ourselves, or not – to pay for 9-1-1 emergency call- center costs.  Nobody wants to raise taxes and nobody likes a tax audit!


Beyond all the bad feelings such work naturally caused, Tax Collectors in Jesus’ day were vested with special “police powers” in order to force compliance.


If they worked for the Roman Governor, or for King Herod, those police powers included papers of search and seizure, powers of arbitrary arrest and confinement in debtor’s prison until the debt was paid-off by one’s family. Ordinary citizens feared them!                           Nationalists & religious zealots hated them, thinking that by collecting taxes & tribute, they were traitors to the cause!


Those special powers which made the tax collector’s job easier infuriated the public. Again, this is not unlike our legendary fear of the IRS auditors in America! In Judea, the tax collector was ostracized (if not actually abused), given no respect and was, by definition, a “sinner.”


Zacchaeus was of small stature physically, but far more debilitating he was considered less than nobody in the community, even though he was a chief tax-collector and he was rich.  Zacchaeus was shunned.


Like the blind man who had been sitting at the roadside, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. His desire to see the Savior was so strong, that he tossed all dignity aside and he RAN — he ran on ahead of where the procession was going — and he climbed a tree! It would take more than mere “curiosity” to get a grown man — a rich man like Zacchaeus — to display such urgency as to run in public and to climb a tree.


He probably didn’t think that Jesus would notice him … a guy out on a limb, up in a tree.  But wouldn’t you?  If you saw a grown man, with money bags on his belt, up in a tree… wouldn’t you ask somebody: “Who’s that?” I can imagine Jesus asking around: “Who’s the guy up in the tree? What’s up with that!?”  And they’d say: “That’s Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector.  Everyone hates him.  He’s a sinner, you know.”


And that’s all Jesus would have to know, to take advantage of the moment… and make it into a “teachable” moment. “Zacchaeus, come down!  I’m going to your house to be your dinner guest tonight!”


Say, what!??  Doesn’t he know that Zacchaeus is a sinner?

Didn’t we tell him that he’s a tax collector? Why (for heaven’s sake) would Jesus go to HIS house for supper?


Can you answer that?


Right…because Jesus was “a friend of tax collectors & sinners!” He didn’t let social stereotypes and public rejection deter him from making a positive impact in someone’s life through a personal relationship… regardless of what the neighbors thought!


The social exclusion that Zacchaeus endured was like painting a “bull’s eye” for Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation and salvation. Luke tells us as much in the concluding “punch-line” to the story, when Jesus states plainly: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost!” Zacchaeus was a prime candidate for just such a salvation, and Jesus knew it.  The dinner party was a whopping success!


Zacchaeus revealed his true character in the latter part of the story. He stood and said to the Lord (and to the other on-lookers in his home): “Behold, Lord: I give one-half of my goods to the poor.” Not just a “tithe” — not ten percent — but 50%! That’s true character! The outcast one appears to be more observant, in the end, than the crowd had been in rejecting him.  Zacchaeus, we discover, is in fact generous!


And because he knew that tax collectors were regarded as legal extortionists, greedy defrauders and collaborators, he said further: If I have defrauded anyone of anything [show me! And] I’ll repay it four- times over.” That statement shows BIG character in a man of SMALL stature. I think the crowd may have misjudged him all along. (Holding negative stereotypes about groups of people tends to do that, you know.)


Could you do as Zack did: give away ½ of your assets?Zacchaeus tells Jesus about his generosity toward the poor in the “present tense”… In other words, it’s what he does, now, already; not something he is promising to do in the future. In addition to that, would you offer to make restitution to someone who is in your debt four times more than you needed to?  Talk about a gesture of reconciliation!  It’s awesome.


This is a story of justice and generosity… entirely unexpected and un-earned. But isn’t that just like Jesus? He churns up the crowd, making us aware of our own shortcomings, and brings glory to God.


May he do so among us.    Amen.


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