Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a 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. 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." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "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 to save the lost."
ne of the first songs that I remember learning in Sunday school was “Zacchaeus was a Wee Little Man.” I’m sure that most of you are familiar with it. If you aren’t, then I’m sure that one of our Sunday school students could happily teach it to you. I think it may even have hand motions that go with it, but it has been so long that I can’t remember what they were.
It’s a fun song, with a bright tune. It is a happy song with lyrics that paint a picture of Jesus encountering a short, little man. Zacchaeus was so small that he could not see Jesus over the shoulders of those who stood in front of him. Zacchaeus was so excited to see Jesus that he would not let his short stature standing in the way, and so he climbed a nearby tree to get a better view. Then, in a somewhat patronizing turn of events, Jesus sees him, calls him down, and then goes with Zacchaeus to dinner. It’s a happy little ending to a happy little song about a feel-good story in scripture.
The problem with the song is that it wears a rut in our imagination. We have a hard time reading this story any other way than it is presented to us in the song. Even as I read it this morning, you may have been hearing the song play in your head. I know that I did. But there are other ways to read it. This tale is so much more than a feel-good Bible story.
For one, Zacchaeus may or may not have been short. This is because the word that most commonly gets translated as “diminutive” in the translation of the Bible, actually means “diminished.” Was Zacchaeus a wee little man? Maybe, but not necessarily, because being diminished refers to a lot more than one’s height.
Zacchaeus was a man diminished. He was the Chief Tax Collector, a position that should have come with some level of prestige, some level of standing in the community. But for Zacchaeus it did not. We know this much from the text; the community despised him. They shoved him to the back of the crowd. They wouldn’t look at him or acknowledge him. They openly grumbled about him as if he weren’t there, as if he couldn’t hear their words.
When we really look at the text, we get the impression that Zacchaeus had very few friends. He was forced to climb a tree, a humiliating act, because it was his only escape from the shoves, and the jabs, and the dirty looks from the people below. He was forced to climb a tree because it was the only way he would be afford a view of the scene unfolding in front of him. Zacchaeus was a man diminished in status. He was a man diminished in the eyes of his own community.
When we allow ourselves to read the text like this, unencumbered by children’s songs and freed from the ruts in our imaginations, then we see that this is not a happy story about a comical short person. It is a story about broken relationships. It is a story about alienation. It is a story about shame and humiliation.
All of that changed the day that Jesus came to town. A crowd had gathered around to hear him teach, for word had spread ahead of Jesus’ arrival. Zacchaeus had been pushed to the very back, where nobody would notice him, where nobody would see him. But the Lord saw him.
The Lord saw him straining his neck as high as it would go at the back of the crowd. The Lord saw Zacchaeus there, at the edge of his own community, an outcast among his neighbors. The Lord saw him filled with shame and despair. The Lord saw all that Zacchaeus had done, the good and the bad—after all, who among us is without fault? The Lord saw him, a child of Abraham, perched high up in the tree overhead.
Yes, the Lord saw him, and called out, “Zacchaeus, come down from that tree.” And he did. Zacchaeus, the man diminished in the eyes of all who saw him, stood before Jesus and was diminished no more. Zacchaeus stood before Jesus in the full stature of a child of God.
This is the Good News of the Gospel this morning. Jesus sees us. Jesus sees us even when we feel that nobody else sees us. Jesus sees us even when we are too ashamed to be seen. Jesus sees us when we feel overlooked, invisible to the rest of the world.
But it is more than Jesus seeing us. Jesus seeks us out too; even as he sought Zacchaeus amidst the crowd. Jesus seeks us out, starting at our baptism and indeed for our whole life. He seeks us when we are lost. He seeks us when we are alone. He seeks us when we are most broken and unsure of ourselves.
And Jesus calls us to stand in our full stature as children of God. Jesus calls us to enter the Kingdom of God, being built in our midst. Jesus calls us to dine with him at the banquet feast. So my friends, let us come and break bread together, at the table of the one who has always sought us our, the one who calls each of us by name.
Preached by Adam Yates