with Tony W. Cartledge
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Little Big Man
One of the more inane songs many of us learned as children was about Zacchaeus. We might not have been able to spell his name, but we could sing “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 so forth.
That led me, as a child, to imagine Zacchaeus as some sort of leprechaun, smaller and more odd than he really was. Zacchaeus was famously “short in stature,” but no leprechaun, and not one to be overlooked. In Jericho, Zacchaeus was a big man … and his encounter with Jesus led to a big change in his life.
In Luke’s version of the gospel story, chapter 19 brings to an end Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. Like other pilgrims from Galilee, Jesus would have followed a road that wound down through the Jordan rift valley and passed through the city of Jericho, some 25 miles east of and several thousand feet lower in elevation than Jerusalem. Jericho was a verdant oasis in the midst of a hot and barren area not far from the upper end of the Dead Sea. Any traveler in the region would make for Jericho to rest, restock, and replenish water supplies, so it became an important juncture on ancient trade routes.
Today Jericho is part of the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian city with limited self-government under Israeli auspices. Visitors to the city must pass through security checkpoints with armed guards. In Jesus’ day, Romans were the occupiers, and visitors were required to stop at a tollbooth. To finance their occupation and enrich the empire, the Romans exacted tolls on the transport of goods from one district to another (Matt. 9:9; Luke 5:27), and Jericho was on the border between Perea and Judea.
While soldiers may have helped with enforcement, the Romans out- sourced the actual collection of taxes to local Jews, granting franchises to the highest bidders. The “chief tax collector” for a given region could then hire other agents to operate the toll stations. The Romans charged tariffs as high as 25 percent of their value on some goods, to which agents could add additional fees to profit themselves.
Can you guess who were the least popular people in town? Jews typically hated the Romans and resented their occupation, so fellow Hebrews who cooperated with the oppressors for personal gain were ostracized as despicable sellouts.
But Jesus did not snub them or steer clear. He chose a tax collector named Matthew (whom Luke calls Levi) to be one of his disciples (Luke 5:27). He praised a penitent tax collector as a model for humble prayer (Luke 18:10-13). And, he took special interest in the diminutive but wealthy taxman who enters our story today: Jesus took the initiative in reaching out to Zacchaeus, possibly the most hated man in Jericho.
Zacchaeus’ name is derived from a Hebrew word that means “pure” or “innocent,” but his reputation was anything but. He was the last person one would expect to be looking for Jesus, but the text says he was anxious to see the famous Teacher (vv. 2-3). Zacchaeus was long on wealth, short in stature, and lost — lost in his social isolation, lost in his business dealings, lost in his sinful lifestyle. Was he looking for a way out, searching for a new life? If so, no one knew — no one but Jesus.
Try to visualize the scene. Zacchaeus wears robes that are not just stylish and colorful, but clean. His sandals are hardly worn. Chains of gold grace his neck beneath curly, well-tended hair. His stubby fingers sport expensive rings. He smells good, but no one wants to come within 10 feet of him.
News traveled fast in Jericho, even without cellular phones. Jesus was coming. He had already healed a blind beggar on the outskirts of town. Men, women, and children had come out to see him. Local citizens and traveling pilgrims were pressing against the beleaguered disciples, straining for a touch, a word, a glimpse of the man who had magic in his hands and sunlight in his words.
Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, too, but he wasn’t tall enough to peer over the crowd and he knew the people would never let him through. They might, in fact, use the opportunity to throw a few convenient elbows his way, or to trip him, or to grab the gold from around his neck. But Zacchaeus did not get rich without being resourceful: he ran ahead of the moving crowd and climbed into a roadside sycamore tree.
Now, look at Jesus, clad in a simple peasant’s robe, covered with dust, making his way though the crowd. He walks with purpose, yet slowly enough for the people to see him, to hear him, to reach out their hands for a Hebrew high five.
Like thousands of other pilgrims from Galilee, he is traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover season. The others are going to celebrate. Jesus is going to die. The Palm Sunday road lies before him, Gethsemane is around the corner, and the shadow of a cross looms over it all.
Jesus knows this, and yet he also knows that life is lived in the present tense. He does not overlook the opportunities of today for the worry of tomorrow. On this day, Jesus sees possibility perched like a peacock in a sycamore tree. As the movable mob approached Zacchaeus, the locals may have spit in his direction, but Jesus stopped, letting the disciples trip over their own importance as the crowd swirled about him.
Jesus stopped and looked up, and that one moment was a perfect picture of what Jesus was about: countless others had looked down on Zacchaeus as a traitor who was lower than pond scum. But now Jesus, the only man who truly had a right to sit in judgment on others, stopped and looked up at him. It may have been a long time since anyone had looked at Zacchaeus without anger, had looked into his eyes, had looked beyond his reputation.
When Jesus looked at Zacchaeus, he saw through the fancy robes and the glittering gold. He saw a small man with big hurts, a wealthy man who was lost in his sin, but longing for the light.
And so Jesus stood there beneath the tree and perhaps he smiled, and he called out “Zacchaeus!” How did Jesus know the man’s name? Had someone pointed him out as a great sinner? Had he heard someone curse Zacchaeus by name? The crowed hushed and waited for Jesus to call the publican on the carpet for his many sins, but they were deeply disappointed.
In so many words, Jesus said “Zacchaeus! Come on down from there. I need to stop by your house and stay for a while” (v. 5).
Lost and found(vv. 6-10)
Zacchaeus was delighted to welcome Jesus into his home (v. 6), but his neighbors were less pleased. The same people who had wanted to be close to Jesus were angry that he wanted to be close to Zacchaeus. “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (v. 7).
Jesus neither slowed down nor sought to justify himself. Surrounded by the flock of Israel, he had eyes only for the lost sheep that was about to be found. We can imagine Jesus laying a hand on the little man’s shoulder, chatting and laughing all the way home.
We don’t know what they talked about around the table in the tax collector’s sumptuous home or for how long, though Jesus’ presence alone spoke volumes. Did Jesus confront Zacchaeus with his sin, or simply listen as a broken man poured out his heart?
Whatever it was that Jesus said or didn’t say, the experience set Zacchaeus free from his inner turmoil, his anger, his driving psychological need to get back at the world. Zacchaeus was changed, and he was never the same again.
Out of gratitude for the acceptance Jesus had shown him, and in testimony of a new faith that wanted to atone in some way for past wrongs, the short man stood tall and promised to give away half of what he owned to the poor. Furthermore, he said, “if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (v. 8).
Noting the outward evidence of the man’s inner faith, Jesus remarked “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham” (v. 9) — not just a Jew, but a person of faith. Then, to all in the house and to any nosy neighbors who might have been listening at the window, Jesus added “for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save what was lost” (v. 10).
Jesus often referred to himself as “the Son of Man” as a way of identifying with those he came to seek, including us. Marcus Borg, in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, wrote that he spent the first 40 years of his life thinking that following Jesus meant having enough faith, and sometimes that was hard. Finally, he realized that Christianity is not about faith, but about a relationship with the same Spirit that empowered Christ, the one who came to seek and save the lost.
We all have a bit of Zacchaeus in us, and know what it is like to feel lost. Do you count yourself among those whom Jesus has found? What changes have meeting Jesus prompted you to make?
Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for October 30, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Luke 19:1-10
We strive to be better and better; to get ahead of those around us so that honor and prestige can be lavishly placed upon us. Our children are no different. They want to be the best. They want the best grades. They want to have the job that everyone else wants to have. But as they do this they don’t always think about what they’re doing to the people around them to get to these places. Sometimes when they get there, they look around for all those people that would have been following them, and they realize that they are alone. Help your youth realize that they are called to be who they were created to be, nothing less and nothing greater. When they live into this, they will have all the honor and awards lavishly placed upon them.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Prince Ali” from Aladdin via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Luke 19:1-10
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