Readings Habakkuk 1 and 2 and Luke 19.1-10
The story of Zacchaeus is one which appeals to children, not least because they can easily visualise the small man who climbed up a sycamore tree. Children are often fascinated by ‘height’ and take pleasure in charting their own growth.
I measured the height of the children, then retold the story using the biggest children as the crowd and the smallest as Z, the wee tax collector.
Politics and Economics
We hosted the Lanka presbytery here yesterday and one quite heated discussion was regarding the relationship between religion and politics. Should the Church be involved was the question. In my view there are three answers to that question. They are, “yes, Yes and YES!”
The account of Zacchaeus is only contained in the gospel of Luke, but is one of the best-known stories about Jesus. The incident is set in Jericho, which was a great centre for trade and therefore also a place of considerable wealth. As a consequence Jericho was highly lucrative in terms of the taxes that could be raised there. The Romans made particular efforts to ensure that this was maximised, which doubtless caused local resentment.
It is in this context that we assess Zacchaeus, whose name translates as ‘pure’. From the perspective of the Jewish people in Jericho that name would have been a misnomer. As a tax-collector Zacchaeus was to all intents and purposes an agent of the Roman state and thus considered to be a collaborator and a traitor. Moreover, the Roman system of taxation actively encouraged such tax-collectors to feather their own nests. The fact that Zacchaeus had accumulated considerable personal wealth was an obvious sign of his self-interest and corruption.
Whatever his faults, Zacchaeus had a great openness. He was clearly curious when Jesus arrived in Jericho. We can only speculate about his reasons for wanting to know who Jesus was. Did he wonder whether Jesus’ business was taxable, or did he actually feel a spiritual yearning? It would have been dangerous for Zacchaeus, who was so disliked, to have mingled with the crowd and in any case the gospel records that he was short in stature and thus unable to see above the people’s heads. For this reason Zacchaeus secured his famous vantage point by scaling a sycamore tree.
This set the scene for the personal encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus. The sycamore tree which had enabled Zacchaeus to see also meant that he was lifted up and able to be seen. Curiously Jesus addressed Zacchaeus by name, apparently already knowing who he was. He caused murmurs of dissatisfaction within the crowd when He announced to Zacchaeus, ‘I must stay at your house this day’. The gospel records that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Him.
For Zacchaeus this encounter with Jesus was to be transforming. His life had previously been focused on the accumulation of personal wealth, but he immediately pledged to give half of his possessions to the poor. Moreover, Zacchaeus pledged to provide fourfold restitution to any whom he had defrauded. In so doing Zacchaeus was doing far more than was required under the Torah. This was a free and heartfelt response from a man who had been found by Jesus. It is symbolic that the meaning of his own name was then fulfilled: Zacchaeus, ‘the pure’ had also found his true self, discovering God’s intentions for his life.
The story is a revelation for us today, that tall or small, rich or poor, God has a purpose for us if we will respond to his call. Rest assured, like Zacchaeus he knows our name and is calling…
Thanks be to God. Amen