Short people got reason to live after all

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., October 30, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 19:1–10

It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember from childhood. The church my family attended until I was seven years old is a complete blank to me. I can’t recall the name of my Sunday School teacher or a single thing I did there. I do, however, remember three very important lessons from those days. One, Jesus loves me. Two, the animals went in two by two. And three, Zacchaeus was a wee little man.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never had the joy of singing the “bible song” about the little dude, or, like me, couldn’t quite believe your memory when it was jogged, here are the lyrics, sung to something not unlike the tune of “Old King Cole”:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see;

And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
Zacchaeus you come down
For I’m going to your house today.

The author’s no Bob Dylan, and I feel like there’s something missing in this version of Luke’s gospel, but, you know, there’s no better way to remember something than to set it to music. And so even today, even this very morning, children all over America are learning that Zaccheus was a wee little man.

Poor Zacchaeus.

So the guy was short. Do we have to go to “wee little man”? I keep wanting to say it in a bad imitation of a brogue, as if he were a leprechaun. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life being referred to as a “wee little man.” (Imagine being referred to as a “wee little man” two thousand years after you’re dead!)

Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to imagine it. Even in Luke, “short” seems to have been his identifying characteristic, and given that human nature sadly hasn’t changed much in two thousand years, I suspect that he may have been mercilessly made fun of for his lack of stature in life as well as in death. It happens. Children will mercilessly make fun of one another for pretty much anything, given the chance. So will adults, for that matter.

If you’re Zacchaeus, if people greet you with “hey shorty” or look over your head, pretending not to see you, if they always pick you last for dodgeball games and pass you over for promotions… if, in short, nobody ever seems to take you seriously… Well, what do you do? You could learn to laugh them off. You might choose to believe your mother when she told you the other kids were just envious. You might meekly curb your ambition, accepting that you would never command the respect of your tall friends.

Zacchaeus didn’t do that.

Zacchaeus became a tax collector.

We know what tax collectors were in first century Israel. Agents of the occupation. Traitors to their people. Flanked by Roman soldiers, they collected taxes from hard-working Jews and, to provide for themselves, tacked on whatever bonus they liked. Since Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector, we can assume he provided for himself quite well indeed…. at the expense of those rotten little so-and-sos who never took him seriously.

Oh, they’ll take me seriously now, all right.

Zacchaeus was not only a wee little man. He was a mean little man. If being short held him back, he could always get meaner.

Zacchaeus got revenge.

But revenge has a way of being unsatisfying, especially revenge for a lifetime of perceived slights. You can’t make up for lousy self-esteem by beating up on other people. However much Zacchaeus smirked at his former tormentors, however rich he got, the pretty wife, the big house, the fancy car, the mistress… he wasn’t happy. He wasn’t satisfied. Something gnawed at him.

The worse he feels, the more he takes. And the more he takes, the worse he feels.

Nobody made fun of him now, at least not to his face. They respected him. They feared him. Maybe they even envied him. But nobody loved him. Not even the wife and the mistress, who he knows deep down only liked him for his money.

It gnaws at him.

He keeps hearing about this guy Jesus who comes around sometimes and has dinner with tax collectors. Nobody eats with a tax collector unless they want something from him. Probably Jesus is on the take, too. I mean, isn’t everybody? But then this other guy who used to work for Zacchaeus, this Levi, quits his job and starts following Jesus around writing down everything he says. He comes around the office sometimes all moony-eyed like a teenager in love and says he wants to be called Matthew now. Kind of embarrassing, really.

Still… when Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is passing through he thinks… well… let’s just see. Let’s see if this guy’s for real.

But everybody wants to see Jesus, and there are crowds lining the street. And now Zacchaeus has a problem. If he wants to see Jesus, just get one good look at the guy, he’s going to have to push through the crowd to the front. He could do that. People will let him through. He’s an important guy. But he can’t be seen here. It would blow his game. People won’t take him seriously if they think he’s out running after messiahs.

So he climbs the tree. It’s been a long time since he climbed a tree, but for once being small helps. And he waits, hidden, he thinks, by branches and leaves. Nobody will see him there.

Until Jesus walks by and sees him.

And I mean… sees him. He looks at Zacchaeus and sees, not a tax collector, not a wee little man, not a funny dude in a tree… but a guy who’s hiding. A man who’s afraid to be seen. A man who’s ashamed of what he looks like and what he’s done and who he is and what he’s become.

And for all that… Jesus looks at him with love.

Can you imagine how Zacchaeus feels in that moment?

Can you imagine what it would be like to be seen that way? To be seen with God’s love through human eyes?

Then Jesus invites himself to dinner. He smiles, and he says, kindly, cheerfully, as if greeting an old friend, “Zacchaeus! What are you doing climbing trees, bro? Did you forget I’m staying at your house tonight?”

Now what’s Zacchaeus going to do?

We know what he did. He climbed down out of the tree and said, yes, Jesus, yes, of course, I remember, and, look, I’m going to give half my money to the poor and pay back fourfold everybody I cheated!

Kind of a radical conversion, there. Luke invites us to see this as a straight-up miracle. But it’s a miracle of ministry.

If Jesus had told him what a sinner he was—if he had given him the kind of blunt lecture he typically gave the Pharisees—would Zacchaeus have come down out of the tree?

I don’t think so. Zacchaeus knew perfectly well he was a sinner. That’s why he was there. He didn’t need to be reminded of it. He was already ashamed. All that would have done was to turn the crowd against him and make him dig in harder.

If Jesus had come to him in private and looked at him hard and sweetly invited himself to dinner, would Zacchaeus have accepted?

Maybe. But that core of hope Jesus was trying to reach was covered by layers and layers of scar tissue. Zacchaeus by this point has got to be a deeply cynical man. He might well just laugh Jesus off.

In public, he doesn’t have a choice.

He has to come down out of that tree. Because otherwise, he looks like an idiot. Jesus has already called him out; everybody knows he’s there. His cover is blown.

Zacchaeus’ problem… his besetting sin, the thing that keeps tripping him up at every turn… is his pride. Or else it’s his lack of pride, but self-hatred is just pride inverted; it comes from the same place and leads to the same end.

Jesus knows that. Jesus brings love to this meeting, and Zacchaeus brings… pride. So that’s what Jesus uses. He uses Zacchaeus’ pride, his deepest sin, the thing that controls him, to turn his heart.

When Zacchaeus comes down out of that tree, I think, quite honestly, he’s babbling. He’s got that teenager-in-love aspect he made fun of Levi for. He’s been seen. He’s been loved. Suddenly anything is possible. He’s unbelievably grateful. He’s willing in that moment to do just about anything for Jesus.

And then Luke moves on to the next story, and Zacchaeus lives happily ever after, right?

Church tradition holds that after Christ’s resurrection Zacchaeus became a leader in the young church and ultimately a bishop. He even died peacefully, unlike a lot of early Christians. So there was a happy ending for Zacchaeus, even in this world.

In the meantime, he’s going to need some help.

Tomorrow is going to be a little harder.

Tomorrow when he tells his wife how he’s giving away half their stuff. “You did what?

Tomorrow when he sells the fancy car for, like, half of what it’s worth, and his mistress runs off with one of those lawyers Jesus is always harping on.

Tomorrow when he goes back to work at the tax office and has to find a way to be the sort of guy he wants to be for Jesus’s sake while still doing his crummy job.

Tomorrow when people still look askance at him and he feels that old resentment and anger and hatred swelling up.

Tomorrow when he’s worn out and miserable and alone and wonders if Jesus really was what he seemed to be.

Tomorrow when he’s still human, after all.

Tomorrow when the only thing more painful than going through with what he promised… would be the embarrassment of backing out.

Because Zacchaeus has a new reputation, thanks to Jesus. He’s the tax collector who reformed. That mean nasty tax-collector thing he used to hide behind? That’s gone. Nobody’s going to buy that anymore.

Pride is not a great reason for staying on the straight and narrow. God would rather have our love and devotion. But he knows we’re weak. And so sometimes he gives us a plan B.

If, as if so often the case, our best intentions and our worst impulses are so tangled up together that we can’t tell which is which… if even God himself doesn’t want to separate the wheat from the tares before the harvest lest he destroy the whole field… then, for the time being, he’ll let them support each other.

That’s the grace of an incarnate God.

That is the grace of a God who’s willing to come down in the muck and mud of the world to save us.

That is the grace of a God who loves us enough to leave the flock and go and find us and do whatever it takes to bring us home.

Note well what Jesus says after Zacchaeus offers his public sacrifice of alms and restitution. Salvation has come to this house, because he too is a child of Abraham. Not “Salvation has come to this house because Zacchaeus has seen the light and atoned for his sins.” Not “Salvation has come to this house because Zacchaeus gave a bunch of money to the poor.” Salvation didn’t come because of anything Zacchaeus did. He was saved because he was one of Jesus’ flock from the beginning.

Simply because God loved him.

God loves us too. If we, like Zacchaeus, need a plan B to stay in the fold, God will give us one. If we need an extra reason to keep following Jesus when Jesus is long out of sight, he will give us one.

He may not make it easy. He didn’t make it easy for Zacchaeus. But he won’t leave us wee little people entirely on our own.