Zacchaeus! Come down!

Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus, but ends up discover who Jesus is for himself.

Full Text: 


Luke 19:1-10

Since this is Reformation Sunday andFirst Communion, I have decided to set aside my series on Revelation for a week.

I’d like instead to talk about the gospel reading from Luke 19. It is the story of Zacchaeus. It is both well-known and well-loved. We are captivated by the little man who climbs the tree in order to see Jesus over the crowd. Generations ofSunday School childrenhave learned to sing, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.”

But often with Bible stories that are well-known, we mistakenly think that we know them well. So I’d like to take another look:

Jesus is passing through Jericho . He is just about to arrive inJerusalemfor the last week of his life. There is a man there named Zacchaeus. He is a tax collector and he is very rich. This means that he is likely the most hated man in town. He is not only a cheat; he is a traitor. He cooperates with the Roman oppressors. He has betrayed his brothers and sisters ofIsrael. He has turned his back on his faithandhe is getting rich on it!

To top it all off he is short. He wants to see who Jesus is, so he must climb a tree. Most commentators say that, in climbing the tree, he risks humiliation just to see Jesus. But, as a storyteller, I would rather say, “He’s up a tree.” He’s cornered. He’s trapped, not only because he has climbed a tree, but because of the way he lives.

Jesus approaches him and says three things: “Hurry! Come down! I must stay at your house today!”

Hurry!– This is a matter of urgency. It will not wait. Tomorrow will be too late. Today is the day. Hurry!

Come down!– This is not just a cute little man who is caught up in a tree. This is a man who needs humility. He needs to come back to earth. He has been living at a distance from his brothers and sisters. He has been living at a distance from God. Most of all, though, I think he has been living at a distance from himself. He needs to come back to earth.

How does he do that? By being honest. I heard a wonderful quote this week. “You can’t make yourself humble, but you can make yourself honest.” Honesty is what makes us humble. Honesty is what reconnects us with life. Honesty is what brings us back to earth.

Zacchaeus may risk humiliation by climbing a tree. I think he is risking humiliation simply by being in public, by showing his face. What he needs is humbling. What he needs is honesty about his life. Come down!

I must stay at your house today!– Jesus makes the first move. He approaches this man that everyone else disdains. Maybe that’s the only way he can come down from the tree – with Jesus help and protection. Then he invites himself over to Zacchaeus’s house. Before Zacchaeus can hurry, before he can come down, Jesus announces what he plans to do. He sees Zacchaeus. He approaches Zacchaeus. He enters Zacchaeus’s world in a most intimate way. I must stay with you today!

So Zacchaeus hurries. He comes down. And he welcomes Jesus into his home. And, in that encounter, Zacchaeus’s life is turned around!

He says, “Master, I will give away half of what I own to the poor and, if I have cheated anybody, I will pay back four times what I owe them.”

Now again some commentators, I think, don’t understand the actions of Zacchaeus. They say, “He says he will do it, but he hasn’t really done anything yet. Only when he does those things will we know he is truly repentant.” These commentators, unfortunately, are part of the grumbling crowd. “How can Jesus consort with people like him? We’ll only believe he has changed when we see it with our own eyes.”

They miss the point. This is the joyful response of faith! And it is in stark contrast to the story of another rich man that Jesus told only a chapter earlier. A rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him that, if that’s what he wants then he should obey the laws of Moses. The rich man says he has been faithful in doing so ever since he was a boy. So, Jesus says, “You only have to do one more thing then – sell everything you have, give the money to the poor and, come, follow me.” But he does not react with joy. He does not follow Jesus. He goes away – sad.

Zacchaeus, who has been unfaithful for most of his life, does what the one who is faithful is unable to do. He gives up his old life. He gives himself away completely. And he does so – not grudgingly, not sadly – but with joy.

I don’t know whatMartin Lutherthought of Zacchaeus. I’m sure he wrote something about this story – wrote about every gospel story, everyNew Testament bookat least once – but I have not read it. But Luther knew the experience of encountering Jesus and responding in joy to the new life that Jesus offered.

Luther was trapped. He was up a tree. He was struggling with his own unworthiness before God. He knew God was righteous. He knew God was holy. And he was convinced that God must be angry at him for being so unrighteous.

He entered a monastery and became a monk. He fasted. He prayed to the saints. He went on pilgrimage to the holy city of Rome . Nothing worked. Luther was still a troubled soul.

As a last resort, his spiritual director sent him to the university to study the Bible. And, in studying the Bible, Luther found Jesus. He found the love and compassion and forgiveness of God in Jesus when he studied the Bible.

Jesus, in effect, said to Luther, “Hurry! Come down! I must stay at your house today!” Jesus came to his house. And Luther found joy and hope and peace that he could scarcely believe. For Jesus didn’t come for the righteous. He came to seek and to save sinners.

Today, Jesus comes to our house. Even more, today he comes to your house. He comes to you as you really are – the down-to-earth, real you. He comes to offer himself to you in Word and Sacrament, in Message and Meal. He offers himself in the form of bread and wine. He offers himself with the words of promise – given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.

And what can we do but respond with joy?