Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He’s gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I’ve cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”
“You better hurry! He’ll be here any minute!”
“I’m almost finished,” the small man called back to his assistant.
Zacchaeus had been waiting for this moment ever since he first heard that Jesus was coming to Jericho. By the time he made it to the street, though, the sidewalk was packed full of people. It seemed everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the young prophet.
“Excuse me,” Zacchaeus said as he tried to squeeze his way to the front.
“Oh no you don’t! You’re not cutting in front of me, you little cheat!” exclaimed one of his neighbors.
“Yeah! Get to the back where you belong, you scum.” sneered another.
“But I can’t see from back here,” Zacchaeus replied.
“Then why don’t you go buy some stilts with all the money you stole from my dying mother, you miserable excuse of a human being!” cried out another as he threw some rotten fruit at Zacchaeus.
“Yeah, you little thief. Jesus wouldn’t want to be seen with likes of you anyway, you good-for-nothing son-of-a…”
“Come on!” The man’s profanity was cut short by Zacchaeus’ assistant. “You’re going to get yourself killed out here,” he said grabbing Zacchaeus by the arm and dragging him away from the throngs of people.
Just then, the crowd began to erupt.
“He’s entered the town square,” Zacchaeus said to his assistant.
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know yet but I just have to see him. I must! I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“Don’t be so sure, Sir. Maybe Joseph’s right. Maybe he won’t have anything to do with you. Besides, what are you going to say to him? What if he doesn’t believe you?”
As the crowd began to swell, Zacchaeus could just make out glimpses of Jesus. He was walking through the square shaking hands with the people and blessing the children. It was chaos.
“I know…I’ll run up ahead and try to beat the crowd,” Zacchaeus thought. He patted his assistant on the shoulder and said, “I’ve got to try.” So off he ran; down the back alleys and taking every shortcut he knew. But no matter how far ahead he got, people would knock him down or throw trash at him or both. Now he was covered in all kinds of garbage and more than a little bruised. His expensive robes were saturated with rotting food and worse. He was sore all over and smelled like a sewer.
Resolved to just see Jesus, Zacchaeus made it to the other side of the street, by the park, near the orchard. “I’ll just shimmy up this tree,” he thought to himself. “Maybe I can get a good look at him from there. That is, if he comes down this way. Who knows? Maybe he’ll turn on the street before the park and I’ll lose my chance.”
But he didn’t. Jesus continued on the same course through the middle of the square. He was coming to the park! And…what was that…did he just look at Zacchaeus? Was he smiling?
“Great,” Zacchaeus thought. “He’s probably going to throw food at me, too.” But he stayed on the branch, hoping that the tree might deflect anything thrown at him. He knew his community despised him, but surely Jesus was different. Right?
As Zacchaeus sat deep in his thoughts, he didn’t realize that the crowd stopped right by the tree he was in. It wasn’t until Jesus called his name that he came back to the present.
“Zacchaeus!” Jesus called out again.
The crowd was silent. You could have heard a pin drop.
“Yes, Lord?” Zaccheaus replied anxiously.
“Come down,” Jesus said. “I want to stay at your home today.”
Zacchaeus couldn’t believe what he heard. He just sat stunned in the tree.
“What?” he asked a little dumbfounded.
“I want to stay at your home today.”
Zacchaeus dropped out of the tree right in front of Jesus. “You want to come to my house?”
Zacchaeus was so overjoyed, he didn’t know what to do. Finally, he said, “Okay…it’s this way.”
As they walked along, the once silent crowd began to murmur. It sounded like a swarm of bees in the distance. “I can’t believe he’s going to that little jerk’s house,” someone said.
“Maybe he’s a crook, too,” said another.
“Yeah. I heard that one of his closest followers was also a tax collector. He’s probably trying to find some new way to rob us,” said another.
Zacchaeus stopped and turned to Jesus. The whole crowd stopped and fell silent.
“Lord? There’s been something I wanted to say to you…”
Zacchaeus swallowed hard and looked at the crowd. He spied his assistant, who motioned him to continue.
“I’m giving half my possession to the poor,” he said. “And I’m paying four times over to the people I’ve cheated.”
Zacchaeus looked at Jesus.
Jesus looked at Zacchaeus.
Finally, after what felt like forever to Zacchaeus, Jesus put his arm around him and turned to the crowd. “Today, salvation has come to this household because he’s a son of Abraham, too. The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”
With tears in his eyes, Zacchaeus turned and led Jesus up the road to his home.
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.
And when the Savior passed that way
He looked up and said, 'Zacchaeus,
You come down, For I'm going to your house today!
For I'm going to your house today!
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
But a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he.
Everyone who’s ever been to Sunday School as a child has probably heard about Zacchaeus and the song that tells his story. I love that he’s called a “wee little man”—sounds very Irish!
But here’s some facts about Zacchaeus that we probably don’t know (for those of us in the West, anyway): In his book, Stromata, Clement of Alexandria (2nd century CE) stated that Zacchaeus was known to some as “Matthias” (Book IV, Chapter IV) and, therefore, replaced Judas as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1.15ff). And according to the Apostolic Constitutions (4th century CE), Zacchaeus was the first bishop of Caesarea (Book 7, Section 4, Number 46; for more information about Zacchaeus, see the Orthodox Wiki entry here).
I’m fairly certain, however, that the people of Jericho didn’t think too highly of Zacchaeus, what with him being the CEO of a tax collection agency. He was, by his own admission, cheating them. I’m also sure his contemporaries would be shocked to learn that we sing little Sunday School songs about him—“wee little man,” indeed!
So, what do we make of all this? It seems to me that Luke’s contrasting this story of a rich man to that of the rich man in the previous chapter (Luke 18.18-23). In that story, the man left saddened because of his wealth. Here, the rich man was happy. Zacc was so moved by his encounter with Jesus that he said he’d give away half of his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he’s cheated four times over. The first rich man didn’t change; the second man did.
Could it be, then, that Zacchaeus being a “wee little man” refers, not only to his physical height, but also his character? We see from the story that Zacchaeus was a cheat, a thief. He obviously knew how to work the system, to find the loopholes in the tax code so he could swindle people out of the most money possible. He probably didn’t pay any taxes, either. He probably thought that made him smarter than everyone else. And he’d been living that way for so long he thought it was the “natural” way of being. He was “only human,” after all. That’s the way people are.
But then he met Jesus.
And that meeting became a rescue operation. It wasn’t just a brief encounter—a brush with the divine. It was an abiding presence. Jesus asked to come into Zacc’s home; to go to the very deepest places, the most intimate places, of his life. It was there that Jesus rescued Zacc from his un-natural way of being and released him to be truly natural, to be truly human.
To be truly human means one cares for others. Notice Jesus didn’t ask Zacc to give away his possessions or repay the people he cheated (again, compare this to the rich man in the previous chapter). That was Zacc’s decision. That’s what Zacc wanted to do to show that he was a new person living The Way of Jesus.
So when we say we’re “Christians,” that we follow Jesus, can others see it in our actions? Zacchaeus’ life was so changed by Jesus that he went from being a cheat to a companion of Peter’s and ended up becoming a bishop. That’s what following Jesus looks like. It’s not only a change of heart (a private matter) but a change of one’s life through faithful action (a public matter). Can others see that change in us? Have our lives been so rescued by an encounter with Jesus that we’re more concerned for the well-being of others then we are for ourselves?
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC