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.”
—Luke 19:5 +INPFSS+
One of my good friends in Illinois has two daughters. His wife, Megan, was explaining to them where they were headed on one Saturday morning. She said, “We’re going to stop at the office, then a place called Ikea.” To which their oldest daughter, Rosie, replied, “Oh, that little man who is so tiny.”
Of course, meaning Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus. A figure beloved by first-graders everywhere. But have we really learned the lesson of Zaccheus? Have we heard what the Holy Spirit is trying to teach us by having this particular story written down as we have it in Luke's gospel?
I want to point out four things about this encounter that Zaccheus had with Jesus. Four details. Four ways in which the story of Zaccheus is here to teach us this morning.
The first is the earnestness of Zaccheus. He really wants to meet Jesus. He figures out where he's going to be. He runs there and scampers up a tree. He doesn't want to miss this. He wants to see this man that he no doubt had been hearing about for some time. He doesn't care if he might look a little silly – because he would have looked a bit silly, up in a tree. He just goes for it. And the Lord Jesus stops by him and calls him down and changes his life forever. As with all the actions of God – Jesus did this out of his own grace and mercy, but still, in some way, we could say that Zaccheus was rewarded for his earnestness. It's good to ask ourselves: Are we this earnest? If I heard that Jesus was stopping by, would I drop everything and go to try and be with him?
I'd like to think I would, but then I realize: Wait, Jesus is always here. He comes to us each and every week in the Blessed Sacrament. He is there waiting to be heard in the Holy Pages of the Bible. He is ready to talk with me in prayer, any moment of every day. But do I seek him out? Am I hungry and zealous and protective of the chance I have to be with him? These are good questions to ask ourselves, and we can be inspired by Zaccheus, by his earnestness.
Obviously there is the the big difference between us and Zaccheus – that Zaccheus could see Jesus with his eyes, and we can't. But this is not quite so big a difference as it might seem. Because, to see Jesus, the man, with one's eyes, was not to see who he really was. He looked like an ordinary dude, but only faith, then as now, could see beyond his flesh, to the fact that he is also the Son of God. And as God, though he is invisible to us now, to our sense, he is still very much here with us. Among us. In this room. In your homes. Wherever we are. He is with us. But in the same way there were doubtless citizens of Jericho who missed out on seeing Jesus, because they didn't stop and turn and go and see him. Just so today – we can miss him, miss out on the most important encounter we could ever have.
The second thing, which I think functions sort of like an allegory in this story, is that Zaccheus climbed a tree to see Jesus. He needed some assistance. A prop.
I think this reveals something that is true in many of our stories, in our trying to come to God – we rely on something to get us there.
For some it's intellectual argumentation. Apologetics. And their own strong mind.
For others it's the comforting rituals of the Church, and the stability of tradition.
For some it's the beauty of nature, and the joy found in natural things.
For other's it's the feelings they get when they pray or when they do this or that Christian activity.
There are many “sycamore trees” out there that God commonly leaves around for us, as means by which we might catch a glimpse of him. And they are truly a gift of God. And they do work, for a season, as helps to get to God.
But all of these things – that help at first – so often actually become things which keep us from really encountering the risen Lord.
When Jesus passes Zaccheus, he stops and first thing invites him to come down the tree he had just climbed up. He doesn't need the tree anymore, because Jesus is right there in front of him. If he'd have stayed in the tree, he wouldn't have actually gotten to meet Jesus face to face. He must come down. He must let go of his prop. He must be willing to meet Jesus on his own terms.
I believe perhaps the Lord is asking this of some of you here today: To stop clinging to the prop that you think will take you to Jesus, but actually to put it down. To just stand there, “face to face” as it were, with the invisible God.
But why. Why should we be inspired to do these two things? Why seek God earnestly. Why lay aside things we think might take us to him? It seems like such a tenuous task. So open-ended and unknown. Why might we go there?
The answer is the third thing I want to unpack this morning: The character of Jesus that we see revealed in his exchange with Zaccheus.
We learn so much about Jesus' loving heart towards all of us in this story.
First of all – how completely unfazed he is by what a sinner Zaccheus is. Remember what I said last week about Tax Collectors! This man is one of the worst of the worst. And yet our Lord longed to be with him. Made a special effort to seek him out. To meet his request. To honor his earnestness in looking for himself. What this shows us is that our Lord Jesus loves sinners. He loves you and me. He's not a stern, perfectionistic father, who only gives affection when we perform. Not at all. He's gentle, and not easily offended, and happy to get his feet a little dirty hanging out with riff raff.
On the one hand, this can make us a little uncomfortable. It made some in the crowds uncomfortable when he reached out to Zaccheus in this way. Verse 7: And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” This Jesus who isn't afraid of sinners, and isn't ashamed of them. But comes to be with them. Wants to eat in their houses. This can only be bad news if you don't think of yourself as a sinner! Like last week's sermon, Not realizing what sinners we are is about the biggest blunder we can make. The problem with the crowd grumbling outside of Zaccheus house is that they don't realize they're just like Zaccheus!
But thanks to the Holy Spirit, most of us here know, deep down, that we are sinners. That we have done horrible things, and just might be horrible people. If you know this to be true about yourself – then I have good news for you: Jesus wants to be with you. He wants to – verse 5 – stay at your house today. He wants to be a part of your daily life. Today. And always. He doesn't just want to be with you for the hour on Sunday mornings. Or the brief moments at the beginning or end of the day when you pray to him. He wants to be a part of ordinary life. Wants to share in our joys, and for us to recognize the gifts he has given us that we get to benefit from. Wants to share his wisdom in our decision making. Wants to be a source of strength and patience when we're doing the same house-chore for the millionth time. Wants to free us from the anxieties we carry around. Wants to be a part of our family life. And our sports life. And our computer life, and our hobby life. 2000 years ago he wanted to have dinner with Zaccheus. Today, he wants to stay at your house.
What a loving God we have! What a kind heart he has. Think of the gap he is bridging when he condescends to our level like this. He – who is all pure, and all good, and all holy – wants to fellowship with messy, sinful us. We can never say that Christianity is a religion for those who can live a life that impresses others. Christianity is for the hot messes, the screw-ups, & the broken. Those who are neck deep in the bad-things. Verse 10: The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. I hope you take comfort from this – I certainly do!
And this brings us to the fourth and last thing I wish to illuminate about the story of Zaccheus – that is, what the effect of God's character – his heart that seeks sinners – the effect his character has on our character.
I just love this encounter between Jesus and Zaccheus. Jesus comes into his house, and just from the sheer fact of being with Jesus – Zaccheus changes his whole life. Luke the Gospel-writer gives us no other details by which we could understand it. Zaccheus doesn't – like the rich young ruler – ask Jesus what he must do, in order to be a Christian. He isn't given instructions about what his life should look like. He's not told off for what he's patently doing wrong. He just eats a meal with Jesus, and chats with him.
And Zaccheus can't help himself. He's so overwhelmed with the sincere love he must have seen in the eyes of this man. The depths of his goodness, and good will towards him. That he just melts down.
The way Luke tells it, it's almost like it comes out of left-field. Jesus and Zaccheus are talking at the table, with the other guests, and he just stands up – verse 8:
Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
Zaccheus just wanted to do the right and blessed thing, in response to the loving character of Jesus. He wants to make things right. He has defrauded people in the past – he will now make it better. Because his heart is now brimming full with this new-found love. This fatherly, brotherly affection, that fills every one of his buckets. He doesn't need the money anymore – because he has found the pearl of great price. He doesn't need to rob others anymore, because his heart has changed and he wants to bless, instead of curse his neighbors.
And so we see Zaccheus' love of God effortlessly spilling over into two things: repentance – that is, turning from past sins, and doing what is right, and into loving his neighbors. What a brilliant portrait of Christian conversion. What a thing to aspire to! For me this image – of happy Zaccheus emptying his pockets to make things right with those he taxed, is both a challenge and a call.
It's a challenge because I'm not really like that. Not all the way. Which means I must not have fully come to grips with the love the Savior has for me. But in this is the call: I want that. I hope you want that. I hope we all come to see – with the eyes of the heart – the loving face of Jesus, that overthrows our life so much that we become radical in our reconciling, gentle, generous living. That our life and our character would only make sense as being a result of encountering the Jesus who has truly come to live in our house today.