At that time, Jesus was passing through Jericho. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
A man gets his car towed. Has to walk three miles in cold to find the parking lot where they towed his car. He pays the fine. And then the clerk pockets the cash. The man says, “now let me have my car, I paid the fine. “
And the clerk says, “I didn’t get any money from you. You owe me $200.”
The man protests: “I just paid you.”
“I don’t recall getting any money from you. You owe $200 or you can’t have your car back.”
The guy has to pay another $200 and hope that he can get his car back now.
That is what it was like to be around Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a really bad man. Let’s be clear about that. The Romans set a tax, but Zacchaeus could collect as much as he wanted and keep the difference. And so he exploited people ruthlessly. People had to sell their children into slavery to pay sometimes.
The irony is in his name: Zacchaeus means “the pure one!!” Zakach means pure, like pure as snow, clean. The only thing pure about this guy is that he is pure evil.
When we meet Zacchaeus in the world, we hate him. We want him to suffer. We hope that he’s going to get what’s coming to him. In our hearts we hope that the corrupt get caught, put in jail. Seeing them punished is like seeing a stain come out of your clothes.
Delight at the judgment of sinners is not a mindset that comes out of love. If I love the victims of injustice I have to also love the perpetrators of injustice. When I enjoy the torment of an enemy, this is because it give me, and only me, a benefit.
The gleeful feeling of knowing that I am correct in saying that person has done something evil, the joy that I feel from that derives from the fact that for a moment I can forget how wicked I am. It’s like opium for my conscience. I feel guilt-free by comparison.
In our society, this manifests itself, for example, we complain about people who benefit from government programs. We are gleeful when a politician from the other side of the political divide gets publicly shamed, caught doing something wrong, thrown out of office, maybe even sent to jail. We consume the news that is produced by vultures who call themselves journalists. They destroy the lives of not only politicians but also the lives of their families, their children, because we pay them to do it. We want more and more. We are insatiable.
But look what happens when Zacchaeus is found by Christ: the whole of society benefits. Zacchaeus gave everything he had back to the people he had robbed. Society is healed when the sinner becomes a member of the family of Christ. When sinners repent, they are not oppressing you anymore.
Watching our enemies suffer is like having a sweet in our mouth. We just want to savor the flavor. We deny ourselves the benefit of being in communion with them. We pass up on the opportunity to have them as brothers. Ultimately, we are not sitting at the table with Christ when it is beneath us to associate with Zacchaeus.
Jesus picks Zacchaeus out of the whole crowd and wants to have dinner with him. The syccamore tree is like an oak or walnut tree. It’s big and tall, and people planted it along the road to give shade. Zacchaeus is a little man in a big tree.
I wonder if Jesus picked him out because it was such a miracle that an evil guy like this wanted to know what Jesus was saying and doing. So many of the evil-doers that Jesus encountered did not want to listen to him.
Perhaps Jesus stopped to talk to him because Zacchaeus didn’t mind climbing a tree like a little boy – didn’t mind the humiliation of his short stature being put on display – in order to get to the true God. Jesus responds to us when we aren’t afraid to ask for help. When we know that we are week and he is strong. When we rely on Christ, we are become our true selves – the pure ones.
Dostoyevsky writes about another bad man in one of his books. This bad man is a drunkard who drank away all his money and left his wife and kids to die in poverty. And this drunkard – this deadbeat – says this on his death bed:
“Then Christ will say to us, Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved! And he will say to us, Vile creatures, you are in the image of the beast and you bear his mark. All the same, you come too!
“And the wise and prudent will say, Lord, why are you welcoming them? And he will say, O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy.
“And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet, and burst into sobs, and then we shall understand everything, everything! Lord, your kingdom come!”
What Jesus gave Zacchaeus was the gift of being free to love his neighbor and seek out relationship. That’s what freedom is for. Freedom is being free enough to admit all truth about all the darkness in our hearts that keeps us from Jesus.
Freedom is being able to admit that we only look like pious Christians, but inside we are pagans full of sin and hatred and misery. Freedom is being able to admit we are terrified that Jesus will not love us.
When we embrace the truth that this freedom gives us, we are free to love other people. Freedom is the assurance that God is with me and will not abandon me. God is dwelling in my house when I repent. God is near me, and so I can find the courage to reach out to do good for the poor.
If you have money, like Zacchaeus, the best gift God ever gave you is the people you can help with that money.
Let’s stop judging each other. Let’s stop seeing the sinner in each other, and instead look at the sinner inside ourselves. Climb up the tree, and look for Jesus.
And when the sinner inside me finds Jesus, Jesus is not going to judge that sinner. He is going to wash that sinner and make him whiter than snow. The sinner that comes to Jesus becomes a shining light of love.
We fear the sinners around us, and we think we have to judge them, hate them, oppose them, because we fear the sinner inside of ourselves. But Jesus can change what is inside us when we admit to him that we need help.
Lord Jesus Christ, my God, I am nothing without you. I am the most despicable man, the most unlovable, the most selfish, the most damnable, the most detestable, pathetic man without you. Without your calling, without the life you give me to live, my life is meaningless and nothing. Help me to be like you so that I can truly become a man. Help me to love like you so that I can truly find friendship and fellowship. Help me to give so that I can receive eternal life.