Zacchaeus: A journey from greed to wisdom
Hespeler, 5 March, 2017 © Scott McAndless – Lent 1
Luke 19:1-10, Hebrews 13:1-6, Psalm 112
acchaeus was entirely comfortable in that tree. That is one thing that we fail to understand about Zacchaeus in his story in the Gospel of Luke. It says in the gospel that he climbed the tree because he wanted to see Jesus and he was very short – was a wee little man – and was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to see Jesus among the crowds that had gathered in Jericho to see him. And
, sure, that was true enough as far as it went, but it fails to take
into account the fact that, as far as Zacchaeus was concerned, from the
branches of a tree was the perfect vantage point for the kind of encounter with
Jesus that he wanted.
Zacchaeus was, you see, a certain type of a person. He was what you might call an observer of life. He had an insatiable desire to perceive and study and understand whatever he could to the best of his ability. As such he had a very long attention span – could sit and observe the world for hours and never waver in his attentiveness. And so, when he heard that someone as unique and interesting as Jesus of Nazareth was passing through Jericho, of course he was going to arrange to observe him.
And the tree was perfect for him because it allowed him to see everything. The fact that he had to run ahead and wait for Jesus to pass that way was no problem for him as he never lost patience waiting to observe something interesting. But there was another reason why the tree was so ideal. Zacchaeus was an observer but he was a detached observer. He didn’t want to be down there interacting with what was happening. As a matter of fact, he never really felt comfortable in a crowd situation like that where people might touch him or invade his personal space. No, it was just better to observe from a neutral vantage point. The tree was ideal.
And there are people like that, like Zacchaeus, aren’t there? I’ll bet you have known some. They are the great observers of life but they often take a lot of persuasion to go beyond watching and thinking about what they see and actually engage with the world. They are often brilliant, often the very first to come up with new ways of seeing things. But it is often easier for them to observe and think and collect experiences than it is for them to do something with what they learn.
There are also some other traits that are found in such people. Often they are people who are looking for some security in their lives more than anything. This is often because, at some point in their early development, they have gone through a time when they strongly feared that their basic needs were in danger of not being met. They weren’t assured that the food, shelter, clothing, affection or belonging would be there for them. This means that they do not feel entirely safe in this world and so they tend to withdraw from close contact, they hesitate to trust too much and are strongly protective of their personal spaces. They become content to merely observe the world and store up whatever knowledge of the world they discover.
This same sense of insecurity also compels them to store up possessions as a kind of insurance against whatever may happen or go wrong in life. They keep everything and hesitate to throw anything out because it all means something to them and, as they always say, “You never know when you might need it.”
If this particular kind of person has one big problem, therefore, it is avarice. Their root sin is greed. I am not necessarily talking about that in terms of them being stingy with money, though that can be part of it. They are stingy with many things: their knowledge and understanding, their space, their emotions and thoughts. They share none of it easily. And sometimes that can certainly also mean that they are greedy with money.
I would suggest to you that Zacchaeus in this story in Luke’s Gospel is a perfect example of the kind of person that I am talking about here. Not only is he someone who clearly prefers to take an objective vantage point in order to observe and find out things and someone who would rather not mingle with the crowd, he is also described as being very rich and having many possessions, some of which he obtained by defrauding people. I don’t think that it is a big stretch to say that Zacchaeus likely had some issues with greed as well.
So Zacchaeus is a good example of this sort of person, but chances are that you have known such a person yourself. They are wonderful people who have been able to bring much good into this world through their ability to observe and understand. But they, like all people have certain things that they struggle with. In this case, those things seem to be intimacy and greed. The question is what can be done to help such people?
The traditional Christian answer to that question, by the way, has been to blame and to shame. We just tell people that they are wrong to be greedy and to store up possessions. We tell people that they should share with others more freely even if that is hard for them. This has been the traditional moralistic approach of the church to effecting ethical change in people’s lives in general. But I am not sure how successful that strategy has been in really helping people to change. We need a new strategy.
So I would like us to climb up in our own sycamore tree and objectively observe what Jesus does for Zacchaeus in this story. It is quite clear that, when Zacchaeus meets Jesus, it does make a difference. He is a man transformed by the time Jesus leaves town. So what is Jesus’ secret and is it possible that Jesus’ approach may be just the kind of thing that people like Zacchaeus need to reach the fullness of who they were always meant to be?
It is interesting to note that Jesus’ approach is not to attack Zacchaeus over his greed or tendency to store up personal possessions. Jesus does target something else – he targets Zacchaeus’ tendency to isolate himself in order to observe. Jesus comes to the place where Zacchaeus has set himself up in his nice safe tree and looks right up at what he thought was his perfect hiding place and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Do you realize what that feels like for someone like Zacchaeus? Jesus has just invited himself into Zacchaeus’ personal space, his sanctum and the place where he keeps all of the possessions that make him feel safe. Jesus just barges in, and invites himself into all of this. It must have made Zacchaeus feel very vulnerable and off his guard. But Jesus also knew that there was no way that Zacchaeus could refuse and that the discomfort was necessary. Zacchaeus would always opt for protection and safety unless the issue was forced. Jesus needed to get in.
But once Jesus had broken through Zacchaeus’ layers of protection, something amazing happened. Something almost unprecedented in all the ministry of Jesus. We are not told the whole story and we kind of have to fill in the details. It says that Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus, which likely means that he brought him into his private space, fed him and put him up for the night or even for a few nights. Luke sort of jumps over that part of the story and only reports on the reaction that the time Jesus spent with him provoked in the town: “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’” All of that part of the story gets skipped, nevertheless, it seems clear that Jesus must have spent at least some time when he had Zacchaeus’ undivided attention.
And what did Jesus do with that time? Well, that’s obvious. He did what he always did – he talked to him about the kingdom of God. He probably told him stories and parables to explain what the kingdom was like and, when Zacchaeus asked him what someone had to do in order to be part of that kingdom, Jesus probably said something like what he said to other people in similar circumstances: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
And Jesus, generally speaking, didn’t have a lot of success in asking that kind of level of response to the kingdom of God from people. When he said it to a rich, young ruler, for example, the young man just turned and walked away in shock, unable to even grasp what Jesus was saying.
But here is where we see what is special and unique about Zacchaeus. Remember that Zacchaeus was an observer – someone who had incredible focus and was always ready to learn from whatever he observed. He was someone who was always ready to absorb new knowledge like a sponge. He now applied those talents to observing this Jesus who stood before him. And the result was that Zacchaeus was able to absorb what Jesus was really trying to say probably better than any other individual in the gospel story.
In other words, Zacchaeus got the message of Jesus better than anybody else I can think of in the entire gospel story. He indicates that by saying to Jesus, “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.” Those are the words of someone who has understood what the kingdom of God is actually about better than all the priests, all the disciples and all the scribes you can find in the entire Bible. Zacchaeus got the message that they all missed.
And so the wonderful gift of these extraordinary people who are like Zacchaeus is this: they can observe and absorb truth from what they observe to a degree that eludes most of us. Once you break through to them and get past the protections that they have ringed themselves with, you find a person who is able to listen, pay heed and absorb like few others can. We live in an age when the art of listening often seems all but forgotten. What a marvel a person like Zacchaeus is in such a world.
We live in a world filled with greed, driven by greed and often destroyed by greed. Of course, our God doesn’t love greed and what it can do to people. But God is compassionate and willing to understand us. He doesn’t just condemn the sin, he seeks to heal the underlying problem. That is why, in the Letter to the Hebrews, the message of God is not merely, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” God is always willing to speak to our heart and remind us why we don’t have to seek security by storing up an abundance of things. And so the writer of the Hebrews goes on: “for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’”
God comes to you as you are, understands what drives you and is committed enough to break through your defences and speak to your heart. We see Jesus doing that very thing for Zacchaeus; he will do it for all of us. If only we could all be as ready as Zacchaeus was to really attend to what God has to say to us.