I was three, maybe four when I learned the art of a joke. Perhaps I’d just heard the lyrics wrong, or perhaps I was just trying to get the laugh. I’ve slept since then. Anyway, my mom taught the children’s choir a song, and this is how I remembered it:
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! Mama’s MAD!’
In Hebrew, Zacchaeus means “pure” or “innocent.” These are two things that are rarely associated with tax collectors. In Jesus’ day, they were generally hated by the Jews because they were seen as working for the Roman Empire, which spilled Jewish blood on the streets when Rome didn’t get what they thought they deserved. Traitor doesn’t even begin to cover it in Jewish eyes, but they were justified in their emotions. It was either pay or die. I don’t think the Romans had jails for tax evasion. They were… unnecessary.
That is why this story carries such shock. Jesus asks Zacchaeus to come down because he intended to stay at his house. In modern day, this is perhaps as shocking as Pope Francis inviting Donald Trump for tea. Or, at least, it seemed that way to onlookers. Jesus saw something in Zacchaeus’ heart that no one else did, or perhaps would have even attempted. This story is much less about surface issues and more about the willingness to look at someone’s heart rather than their rough exterior. The Jews in the crowd had the collective gasp of not believing that Jesus would stay at the house of such a sinner, and Zacchaeus ended up dedicating his life to furthering Christ’s work in the world.
In effect, what you see is not what you get, especially if you are unwilling to look.
Zacchaeus stood in his house and told Jesus that he would give half of his wealth to the poor, and repay anyone he had wronged four times as much. I would try to tie this to a modern day example, but in this case, I believe Zacchaeus has no equal. The poor and the disenfranchised would never have seen that much money, nothing but shock registering on their faces as they received such a gift.
The story I believe is that Zacchaeus took a job from the Romans, and through Jesus, realized what he was doing to his own people. He was not a Roman at heart, and in that moment, he had the AHA! realization that he was supporting a government in which he could not believe. The Roman Empire had made him rich, but it hadn’t made him fulfilled.
It took Jesus to guide him through the process, but the Gospel does not record what Jesus said to Zacchaeus directly. It records the “evil tax collector’s” response. Jesus’ personality has never dictated a high and mighty approach, but one of soft power. If I had to take a guess, it went something like this… You are never going to get what you want in terms of fulfillment without taking a long look at yourself. What do you want, Zacchaeus? Do you agree with the way that the Romans are slaughtering your own people? Is that your story? Remember, you are writing it. No matter what Jesus said, after the conversation Zacchaeus lived up to his name. He became so pure of heart, it was later written that Zacchaeus became a Disciple, replacing Judas after the Ascension.
I have to believe that the first action to create inertia was the want so great it became a need to talk to Jesus. What did it take to get him to climb up the tree in the first place?
My guess is that he knew he was short, and it had nothing to do with height. I have no doubt that Zacchaeus was raised with the belief that wealth showed favor with God, an idea that persists today, and Jesus’ message fucked up his program… Strong words to illustrate an even stronger conversion. Jesus’ message was inverted to everything he’d ever heard. It broke his heart open to think that he’d gotten it all wrong. In his ever-analytical mind, God gave him things because he loved him… when in reality, it would show more favor to God to take that wealth and pay it forward.
In terms of equal airtime, other theologians believe that Zacchaeus and Jesus did not have a private conversation. They never made it to the house before Zacchaeus started proclaiming his willingness to give; he was just trying to appease the crowd of Jews in front of him… that he is not so much turning over a new leaf, but lifting up an old one. Falling back on an old tape that says “save face.” His actions in public were not an indicator of future behavior, but what he said in the moment to avoid getting his ass kicked… and not because he was undeserving.
In hearing this story, you can call forth classic images of conversion and redemption, or you can write Zacchaeus off as troubled and confused when the people from which he had to collect money were standing there in the midst of trying to make a life choice.
I have a feeling it depends on you. What you put into the story with your own life choices directly effects what you will take from it.
Here is what I see:
I see the Christ accepting the marginalized on both sides of the equation, advocating for “the least of them” AND willing to stay in someone’s house that was universally despised. Jesus is coloring outside the lines on both sides of the (SpongeBob SquarePants) book. Our invitation is to join him.
Surely you have family, friends, acquaintances that fit the mold of falling beyond your margins, or perhaps are cemented in your preconceived notions. Instead of trying to disccern how to treat either, you avoid. It’s just easier that way.
But it’s not fulfilling.
Fulfillment is removing the boundary altogether, seeing past what you thought you believed into what is happening presently. The essence of who you are is not tied up in one moment or one mistake. People can and do change, but often not at your insistence. On their own.
The best we can do as partners, friends, family… even just as members of the same human race is to ask people where they want to go and what you can do to help them get there… because no one truly changes when others see their flaws. They change when they see their own. It is not our job to create change for other people, but to facilitate alleviating their needs when expressed.
In order for true change to occur, you need to ask yourself what it will take to get you to climb the tree in the first place.