Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
We love the story of Zaccheaus. And by we, I mean the church. We tell Z’s story to children in Sunday school, we use it in VBS curricula, and we even have a nice little song that conveys the whole thing:
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 as the Savior came that way he looked up in the tree / And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, cause we’re going to your house today.
The song, and the ways we tell the story, make Zaccheaus out to be this smaller than life character (pun intended) who just wanted to catch a glimpse of heaven on earth, and how God in Christ chose him to be the vehicle of an internal transformation, particularly as it regards money.
But one of the things we miss, or downright ignore, is how horrible Zaccheaus was. He was a tax collector, someone who stole from his fellow Israelites and kept a fat portion for himself before passing the rest of the money up the chain. He was a traitor to his people, and to his God, and he stood for everything that was wrong during the time of Jesus.
And Jesus picks this no good dirty rotten scoundrel out from the tree and says, “Hey, let’s get something to eat.”
And, in a way that could only happen in the Gospel, Zacchaeus reacts to this strange man with an even strange proclamation. After a couple sandwiches, and a glass of lemonade on the front porch, Zacchaeus says, “Wow, the only way I know how to respond to you is to give back half of my wealth to the poor and pay back the people I cheated four time over.”
And Jesus responds, “Now that’s what salvation looks like! Let’s have a party!”
It’s a confounding story, and one that we often water down. Zacchaeus doesn’t deserve to be in the presence of God and God shows up for lunch. Zacchaeus has swindled countless people and Jesus has the gall to give him salvation.
And yet, his story is precisely why we can call the Good News good.
We are happy with a Jesus who forgives the tame sins of the nearly righteous. We are content to hear about the need to love one another a little bit more. But it’s another thing entirely to encounter the radical nature of Jesus’ proclamation of grace. Jesus’ willingness to cancel sins, big sins, is downright scandalous.
Which is why we sing of Zacchaeus but keep him at a distance. For, to approach the wee little man is to admit the truth of who we are and whose we are: Sinners in the hands of a loving God.
All of us are like Zacchaeus. We all hurt people close to us, we all ignore the needs of strangers, and we all focus on our wants, needs, and desires at the expense of others. We distance ourselves from true unabashed goodness, though we don’t mind taking a peek from the vantage point of a tree (or a pew). But be warned! All it takes is a glimpse for the Lord to see us and say, “Want to grab some lunch?”
And the rest, as they say, is Gospel.