“He—Jesus that is–entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.”
The story is vintage Sunday school material, illustrated in bright colors for generations of children. We even sang a song about the little man who wanted “to see who Jesus was”:
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 popularity of the Zacchaeus story among children derives no doubt from the shared experience of not being able to see in a crowd of adults and having to be boosted. Children can identify with the little man who had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus.
And the story is an appealing one–no doubt about it. No one ever enjoyed a charming story more than the evangelist Luke. But, as always, charm cloaks a more somber reality. What is essential about Zacchaeus is not that he is vertically challenged. What matters to Luke he is the chief tax collector of Jericho, a collaborator in the pay of the Roman government, and therefore in the eyes the Jewish community of which he was a part a moral leper. His name in Hebrew means—ironically– “the pure and innocent one,” but to his neighbors, Zacchaeus was a dirt bag, a quisling, a pimple, a low-down crook. And the respectable people of Jericho would certainly have cut him dead, as a matter of duty as well as preference. They certainly would never have been caught dead eating with him, no matter how good a table he kept. But not Jesus.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus openly dines with tax collectors. In this the story of Zacchaeus is like the story of the calling of Levi (5:27-32). Again Jesus surrounds himself with notorious sinners and dines with them. And whenever he does this it deeply offends the righteous, because for observant Jews of his time, eating with someone created the closest social bond. It was more than bad manners. It was an acknowledgement of kinship with those who had forfeited the right to consider themselves Jews. It offered forgiveness to those who should not be forgiven. It offered friendship to the friendless.
But that was Jesus. In his own words he came “to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5:32). But his life style was almost certainly also a matter of personal preference. Jesus would never have been comfortable at a Tea Party in The Villages. He had the Spirit of the Living God in him, and that wayward Spirit forced him to break through the barriers of false respectability.
Of course, it was dangerous behavior, and his intentional carelessness would eventually get him crucified between two crooks. In the meantime, however, his brilliant nonconformity made him a celebrity, a kind of punk star. And Zacchaeus was delighted, to say the very least, to be noticed by the famous rabbi. He scrambled down from the sycamore tree and welcomed him with great joy.
Luke makes a point of saying so. In his gospel joy is always the sign of the Kingdom of God breaking into a sad and soiled world. Luke’s gospel is surrounded with joy. Angels bid joy to the shepherds (2:10), and the disciples return to Jerusalem after the ascension “with great joy” (24:52). But the joy of Zacchaeus stands in marked contrast with the attitude of everyone else present. They started to grumble and say, “He has gone to be a guest of one who is a sinner.” They were law-abiding folks there in Jericho, weren’t they? They were scandalized and deeply threated by such unruly behavior.
But aren’t we also, beloved? Aren’t their disapproving murmurs sometimes ours? Aren’t we also sometimes scandalized by the people Jesus, the friend of sinners, hangs out with. Dangerous looking people with bad teeth and weird tattoos. We may love Jesus, the embodiment of the beautiful and the good, but we shy away from his friends he keeps in low places.
But the effect of Jesus’ presence there at his table has on Zacchaeus is nothing short of miraculous. In a very real way this is a miracle story, a story of a healing as marvelous as the cleansing of lepers or the raising of the dead. It is an exorcism of sorts. Zacchaeus is a man set free from the demonic oppression of his past.
No one who hasn’t lived in a small town can fully appreciate Zaccheaus’ position there in Jericho. (Small town life has often been idealized, beloved, but not by me.) He certainly possessed a measure of wealth and a degree of power, but then at the same time everyone had his number. He was the chief tax collector, the most detestable of the detested. He had been put in his proper place, and everything in a small town is designed to keep you in the place where you have been put. He may have lived there his whole life, but in Jericho Zacchaeus was the eternal outsider. In a small town some people are on the inside, and others are on the outside, and the gulf that is set between them is infinite. If you are on the right side, Bob’s your uncle. If you are on the wrong side, you will be imprisoned by your reputation and confined by your past for as long as you live.
But Jesus went through small-town Jericho like a dose of salts. And by his willingness to accept his hospitality he gives the crooked little tax collector a new lease on life. “Today,” Jesus says, “salvation has come to this house.” It is a true miracle. The oppressive power of the past is broken. By the mere presence of Jesus at his table Zacchaeus is, in the only meaningful sense, born again.
I took our daughter Elisabeth out for Chinese food a couple weeks ago. We’ve have been going on these father-daughter dates for more than twenty years now, since she was a little girl. It was a big deal then, and although she is now all grown up, we both still have a pretty good time together. We have a lot in common. We share an appreciation of Chinese food in the moo-goo-gai-pan category. Nothing too fancy. We both like drinking tea out of little cups. And we both enjoy the ritual of the fortune cookies, the last act of a Chinese meal out, and in some ways the best.
Elisabeth opened her fortune cookie first. It said: “Your flamboyant personality will soon bring you a new hobby,” or something like that. We laughed and I remarked that fortune cookie fortunes are much more complicated and ambiguous than they used to be. When I was young they were more straightforward and encouraging. These days they can be snide, and sometimes positively surly. I blame the growing economic and political power of China. Now that they own the world, they don’t have to be so polite.
“Now open yours,” Elisabeth said. So then I opened my cookie and found—well, I found nothing. Literally. It was empty. No lucky lotto numbers. No handy Chinese phrase. No fortune. Nothing whatsoever. We sat there for a long moment in stunned silence, staring at the broken pieces of cookie. And then Elisabeth, ever the soul of tact, said, “I think I may call a taxi to take me home.”
Well, she didn’t, and we both got home in one piece. Nevertheless I was a bit shaken up by the experience–more than I liked to admit. I try not to be superstitious, but there my upbringing gets in the way. My mother particularly had strong peasant belief in signs and omens. When something odd happened, she believed they meant something–usually something sinister. And to my mother an empty fortune cookie would have seemed like a very bad omen indeed. At best alarming. At worst an indication that might now be high time bring your last will and testament up to date.
So I held my breath, but nothing has happened. Weeks have passed, and given time to reflect, I have decided that maybe an empty fortune cookie, properly considered, might not really be such a bad omen after all–if it really was an omen at all and not a simple error in manufacturing. After all, the meaning of any sign is always subject to our interpretation of it. It signifies what we say it signifies. Right? So does an empty fortune cookie really mean a vacant future or does it mean a future filled with possibility? Does it mean death or life? It depends on how you choose to construe it. Maybe a blank future, yours to fill, is the greatest blessing imaginable, and a future that is already decided and enclosed in a hard cookie shell is the greatest curse.
Consider Zacchaeus the chief tax collector in our gospel story. Had he gone out for a Chinese dinner there in Jericho, he might certainly have gotten a fortune cookie that said something mean like: “Your resemblance to a muppet will prevent you from ever being taken seriously.” But it would more likely to have said something much nastier along the line of “Prepare to meet thy God, scum-bag.” As chief tax collector he would certainly have had threats upon his life. Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were always accompanied by armed Roman soldiers, as much for their protection as to terrorize and shake down the populace. So his fortune cookie might have said something like: “You may laugh now, but just wait until you get home.”
Zacchaeus was in many ways a prisoner. His wealth would have offered some consolation, but he was imprisoned as much by his own bad opinion of himself as by the hatred of his neighbors. As “a son of Abraham,” he was alienated from his own people and his own religion. As a collaborator with the pagan occupation, he was a traitor to his own nation and his own faith. He was a Jew who was not a Jew. He must have known that all he had to look forward to was series of bad fortune cookies leading to the worse cookie of all. We are never completely aware how really desperate our situation was, beloved, until it is altered. But we all sense it, beloved. We all feel our lives slipping away.
So was that why he clambered up into the sycamore tree, making himself look absurd? Sycamores have a short trunk and wide lateral branches making them easy to climb. So why did he do it, a man in his position? Why did he make himself absurd? Was he feel an acute need for redemption and release, or just by child-like curiosity? All we are told was then suddenly Jesus looked and saw him, ridiculously perched in the branches, he said: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
And there is no indication in the story how Jesus knew him by name. But for St. Luke the heart of the sinner always lies open and naked to the Lord. In Luke’s gospel Jesus demonstrates a special concern for the outcasts, the morally and bodily damaged, the physically and spiritually imprisoned. He recognizes such people as his own before he lays eyes on them, and he goes out of his way to break bread with them, to the horror of the respectable members of his society.
In the Gospel of Luke the Pharisees and their scribes are always on the edges of the feast, looking on, making clucking sounds of disapproval. But that doesn’t matter. The laughter drowns out their grumbling. We disciples sometimes grumble too, beloved, but the Kingdom of God moves forward with or without our leave.
And then in the middle of dinner Zaccheaus stands up to make an announcement. He will give away half of his wealth and make fourfold reimbursement to those he has cheated. In doing so he is going well beyond the law of restitution in Exodus 22:3-12. It a generous but rather vulgar response, but he was a vulgar little man, after all. Money had always driven his life heretofore, so it is not so surprising that now his repentance takes a monetary form.
But the vulgarity of it hardly matters. It is the right response for Zacchaeus. People with money need to start with money. All of us who want to follow Jesus need to start with letting go of the thing we are hanging onto more tightly. For Luke detachment from earthly things is the first step in the direction of the Kingdom of God. And Jesus also made an announcement, a sort of toast to the host: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”
It was the fortune cookie fortune that canceled all the others. In a single stroke Jesus wiped Zacchaeus’ slate clean and opened the way to limitless possibility. And he did this not by any human authority or permission but by what the writer of Hebrews calls “the power of an indestructible life.” (Hebrews 7:16). So Zacchaeus’ was now free to choose his own future. But Luke doesn’t tell us what he did with his freedom. What became of him after Jesus had passed on his way, going to Jerusalem and the cross. The only clue we have is that we know his name, and the evangelists seldom give us the name of anyone whom Jesus encountered who was not later a member of the early church. Orthodox tradition says that after the Ascension, St. Zacchaeus traveled with the Apostle Peter, who appointed him Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, where he died in peace.
Well, undoubtedly is was not as simple as it sounds. But a couple things we can say with absolute certainty. On the road to sainthood Zacchaeus still had his past to contend with. He still wouldn’t have been elected Homecoming King of Jericho, that’s for darn certain. Small towns have a collective memory, and they never, never forget–much less forgive. They resist change. For one thing, they don’t believe in it. And they don’t care for people who are different, and after his encounter with Jesus Zacchaeus was more different, not less. Because following Jesus always makes our lives more complicated, more ambiguous, not less so. That’s how it works.
The making of a saint, whether we start out as a Pharisee or as a tax collector, has got to be a complicated, difficult process. It is always accompanied by pain–but also by joy. Joy is the name of the new kind of life that begins when we encounter Jesus Christ. Joy is a difficult thing to explain, because it is certainly is not the same thing as happiness. It is so subtle a thing, so far down, down, down in our hearts, that we are not always even aware of having it. But it is there, to draw upon, to surprise and astonish us at unexpected moments. And it does not change when our circumstances change, because our joy rests upon the decision of God in Jesus Christ that henceforth we are all right. It is the sign our his presence with us.
When I was two years old my parents got a collie dog they named Sylvester. They didn’t get him to take care of me, but that’s how it worked out. Sylvester followed me where ever I wandered. And since the ranch we lived on was at the edge of the wilderness, I got lost time and again. But all my mother had to do was look for Sylvester, and there she would find me, tangled up in the barbed wire and unable to tear myself loose. He was the shepherd of little boys. It was business. When my brother came along, years later, it was the same for him. Sylvester followed him everywhere.
And so does our joy. It follows us everywhere, to the grave and beyond it. It is the sign of Christ’s presence with us. It is our future, the contents of our empty fortune cookie. It takes are our fear, lights our way, and makes it possible for us to do the things we need to do before we’re too dead to do them.