Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
November 4, 2007; Ordinary 31C
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 give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I 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.’
All week long I have been walking around singing a song you probably know: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man…” It’s so sad that this is what we remember about Zacchaeus two thousand years later—that he was so short he had to climb a tree to see Jesus. I wonder if what you all will remember about me twenty years from now is that I’m short enough that I need an extra platform in the pulpit so I can stand in here without looking like a child. I would like to think that “short” is not my memorable, song-worthy defining characteristic!
For a short man, Zacchaeus seems to be pretty well-known—at least, people think they know all about him. He’s a tax collector, which means he collaborates with the oppressor, so that must mean that he doesn’t care about his people and that he is power-hungry. He’s rich, so that must mean that he is corrupt. Basically, he’s a sinner. He’s a short-in-stature sinner. What else do we need to know?
Jericho was a fairly large, bustling city. The scene that day might have been rather like a parade—people lining the streets, calling out to Jesus, begging for healing, grasping at his clothes, hoping and praying that will be enough. Parade routes tend to be crowded—I have spent more than my fair share of parades trying to peek through the people to see floats and marching bands—and this road was no exception. Zacchaeus didn’t arrive in time to get a good seat, to spread out his lawn chair and cooler, so he’s peeking through. But it’s not enough—he doesn’t want just a glimpse, he doesn’t want to peek, he wants to see. Something about Jesus has captured his imagination and piqued his curiosity, something has touched him deep enough inside that he is willing to go for a jog and climb a tree. He disregards his status, his nice clothes, his image (which is already tarnished anyway), and runs through the crowd toward the tallest tree he can find. He works pretty hard just to see who Jesus is.
You know those people who stand in line all night to see a new movie, who camp out for concert tickets, who line the red carpet at a movie opening? Zacchaeus is like these hardcore fans, except that they’re not waiting to see the Son of God, and except that Zacchaeus doesn’t even know who Jesus is yet. He knows Jesus is popular, he’s probably heard some teachings, but he couldn’t pick Jesus out of a line-up. He wants to know more, to see this man he’s heard about, and he’s willing to go out on a limb to do it.
I imagine that he’s just gotten up there when Jesus approaches, stops, and calls up the tree to invite himself over. Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone were to invite themselves over to my house on the way out the door at the end of this service, my response would not be the same as Zacchaeus. I might fudge a little, suggest dinner instead of lunch, say “what about tomorrow night?” or remind them that there’s a luncheon at noon that none of us should really miss. My house, especially on days when I preach, is a disaster area. Today there are Operation Christmas Child boxes all over my living room floor, Vegetarian Times magazines all over the dining room table, and unhealthy snacks all over my kitchen. I’m not ready to have people over! And if Jesus invited himself over, well, I’d be in trouble. It’s a good thing that “cleanliness is next to godliness” doesn’t actually come from the Bible.
But Zacchaeus doesn’t miss a beat. He climbs down from the tree and is happy—happy!—to welcome Jesus into his home. Zacchaeus is a wealthy man, so his hospitality is probably very excellent. It’s likely that his house is well-cared for, or maybe that he sends a runner ahead to warn his wife that a Very Important Guest is coming for dinner. It’s likely that he has the best wine and wonderful food to offer. Jesus really knows how to pick his hosts! A sinner, to be sure, but a sinner who understands hospitality.
While Jesus is busy inviting himself over to dinner, the crowd is busy grumbling about his choice of host. I mean, we’ve already established that everyone knows everything there is to know about Zacchaeus. He’s the bad guy in the story, right? Well…maybe, but maybe not. How often crowds act on their assumptions! They assume that because Zacchaeus is rich, he must be corrupt. They assume that because he is a tax-collector, collaborating with the Romans, he must have renounced his Jewish heritage. Zacchaeus hears their grumbling and takes the opportunity to point out that he gives to charity and he makes restitution when he finds fraud—he defends himself against the very inhospitable crowd and their assumption that they know him. “They don’t know me,” is what Zacchaeus says to Jesus.
But Jesus knows. Jesus looked up into the tree, and he knew. He knew that Zacchaeus wanted to see him. He knew that Zacchaeus was willing to risk his status, his appearance, and even his life to see. Climbing a tree can be a dangerous thing, after all—limbs break, people fall, and with 1st century doctors … Where the crowd sees a swindler, Jesus sees a seeker. Where the crowd sees a thief, Jesus sees a good host. Where the crowd sees a collaborator, only as good as a gentile, Jesus sees a beloved child of God, one of the chosen people.
It is in this moment, with just a few words, that Jesus turns from guest to host. While trespassing on Zacchaeus’ excellent hospitality, he turns the tables. Zacchaeus can offer great food and drink, but Jesus offers him this: “salvation has come to this house, for he too is a Son of Abraham.” Jesus offers him his very self—salvation, wholeness, right here, in Zacchaeus’ own house. Jesus offers him restoration to his community. Jesus offers him his true identity as a Son of Abraham. Not just bread, not just wine, but his very self. Jesus issued an invitation—he invited himself over for dinner. But he issued another invitation—an invitation to wholeness, an invitation to his table, an invitation to know your full identity as a child of God.
And right here is where my own assumptions about Zacchaeus and about Jesus have obscured the point: sure, Zacchaeus may have had a nice house and a housekeeper and a great cook—he may have been ready for guests on a moment’s notice. But that doesn’t matter. Jesus knows when he invites himself over that our houses may not be in order, that we haven’t swept or washed the dishes or hidden the sugary snacks. Jesus does the inviting and the hosting—whether we’re ready or not. There’s no dress code on this invitation, just “RSVP.”
Jesus has invited himself over to our house, and he is the one who has set this table with the finest feast. This is an invitation that, for all our riches, we cannot afford to pass up. Instead, like Zacchaeus, let us welcome, and be welcomed, with joy.
May it be so.