Hi. My name is Zacchaeus, and through the miracle of time travel I have the honor to be here with you today at Prospect.
Zacchaeus: that’s Z as in zebra, A double-C H A E U S.
(My kids’ names, by the way, are Adam, Mary, and Sam. Simple. Easy to spell. Done.)
The name “Zacchaeus” means “clean” or “innocent.” Ironic, in my case. Maybe my parents hoped I would aspire to these qualities. I was a small kid with arms like twigs—no strength. I was useless for planting and harvesting things—just in the way. Couldn’t carry a bucket of olives without dropping it and spilling everything. Olives all over the place.
But give me a column of numbers and I would have them added in my head before you could finish writing them down. Numbers are my gift, my strength, my talent. And in Jericho, a major trading city where there are lots of taxes and fees added to goods, someone with a head for numbers gained attention. At an early age I was apprenticed to the tax office. I worked hard and rose through the ranks. Somebody figured out right away that I’d be no good going out to actually collect the taxes. Anybody disagrees with me or throws a punch and I’d come apart like balsa wood. So they kept me in the main office, crunching numbers, writing reports. I was good at it, and I started to make money.
At first that money meant my parents didn’t have to worry so much about just getting by. Eventually I was able to move us all into a bigger house. I kind of ignored that it became available when it was repossessed from someone who couldn’t pay their taxes and got shoved out into the street. That was their problem, not mine. It was a house, and I could pay for it. I got married, had a few kids. I made even more money. We added some tile mosaic work on the floors, started collecting expensive vases, ate three times a day.
It’s great to have a nice house when you’re a social pariah. Being a tax collector meant a lot of people wouldn’t talk to me, much less have us over for dinner. You spend a lot of time at home, staring at the nice vases and the pretty mosaic floors.
I started hearing about this itinerant rabbi named Jesus who was preaching and teaching and healing people all over Galilee, even down into Samaria, which is just north of Jericho. This Jesus even ate with prostitutes, and one of his disciples had been a tax collector, like me. Well that got my attention. Because frankly, having a nice house full of lots of nice things felt empty if no one would look at me on the street, if no one would come to my house for dinner. I was disconnected from the people and disconnected from my God.
I had started to volunteer at a food bank, just to feel like I belonged somewhere. The people who came in told stories of being forced off their land by the oppressive taxes coming down from Rome. The oppressive taxes that my officers were forcing them to pay, along with “overage fees” that we extorted to pay our salaries. Our hefty salaries. I really saw for the first time that my comfortable life depended on a whole lot of people not being able to live in their own homes, grow their own grapes and figs and wheat and olives, feed their own families. My soul sank down to my toes. The snubs out on the street had new meaning. The people weren’t just envious. They hated me. They saw me as part of Roman oppression. They knew I was part of the reason they were hungry and homeless. The columns of numbers I was so good at adding up weren’t benign; they told the story of people’s broken dreams, of loss and hardship, hunger and death. My job wasn’t just a job. It had an impact. It had consequences. I was ashamed, but I didn’t know what to do.
When Jesus walked into town, he was thronged. I couldn’t hear him, couldn’t even see him because all those people stood between him and me. All those poor people. But I needed a word from him, too, and I was determined at least to see him walk by.
What was I hoping for? I’m not sure. He represented something for me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Possibility of belonging. Hope of forgiveness and a fresh start. A chance to be seen and heard and valued and even loved in my community. On a larger scale, a way of living in community that didn’t involve oppression. Something needed to change in my life, and I didn’t know how to get there. Maybe he knew.
So as Jesus came into Jericho surrounded by all these people, I ran ahead and, even at my age, I scrambled up a sycamore tree—something I hadn’t done in years.
Did Jesus ask someone who I was? Did he just know? Instead of passing on by, he came and stood at the foot of my tree and called me by name: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
If I had been fretting over not being seen, this was not how I thought it would get resolved. He called me by name. There I was, looking ridiculous up in a tree with my nice clothes. I scrambled down and stood before this man.
The whole crowd had stopped with him. All eyes turned to me, and I saw that they were not friendly. They were burning holes through me. They were glaring. I recognized people from the food bank. I felt so ashamed in front of this wise rabbi. Why would he want to stay with an outcast like me?
Yet I also saw this opportunity for the very redemption for which I was yearning. My mouth opened, and I heard myself say, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Most people tithe, which means they give 10%. I had just pledged 50%. If my vase collection was standing in the way of me being part of this community, it was too expensive at any price. It needed to go. And by paying back four times over, I was following the rules in Leviticus that say if you’ve stolen someone’s sheep, you need to repay it four times over. I was determined to make things right.
Jesus looked at me, in front of all those people. He said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
This house? My house? Or the house of Abraham, meaning all the Jews? I saw the people in the crowd chewing on that one, too. All of us were being invited to see each other, love and accept each other, live in peace in community despite our differences. How challenging is that? Could we do it?
Should I stop being a chief tax collector? Someone else would just take my job. The work would continue. The oppressive system wouldn’t change. Yes, but I would not still be the one doing it. The loss in income would be awful. I wasn’t sure what to do about that, but it felt as if my time working for Rome might be coming to an end.
What I understood was that I had been blocked. I had been blocked from my people, blocked from my God, and Jesus unblocked me. My stuff and my role in this community were standing in the way of connecting with people. And they were standing in the way of me connecting with my God. They were shutting me out.
There are a few points I want to lift up here about connections. First, how are we part of systems that oppress people? I made good money at what I first thought was just a job—no value judgment, no recognition of how I was part of a larger system that was destroying people’s lives. So we can follow the threads that connect us to the larger world and ask about the people on the other end of those threads. Who makes our clothes? Who grows our food? Who bears the burden of dealing with our waste, our pollution? What are their lives like? Do they make decent wages? Can they afford homes, education for their children, health care? Because we are all connected. And if they can’t afford those things, if they are living in oppressive situations, how do we change the systems so that they have decent lives?
Second, are we cut off from our God—or are we part of cutting others off from God? My job became my role in community, and I was disconnected from both the community and from my God. In your age, I hear that people call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They want to connect to God, but they don’t want to do it through the institution of Church. What is that about? How is Church blocking people from God, the way the crowd blocked me from Jesus? As long as there are people, there will be a yearning to connect to the Divine. Are we telling people that we have found a connection that feeds our souls? Are we inviting them to experience the same?
As I said, my name, Zacchaeus, means “innocent” or “clean.” I was neither. It took some time after that encounter with Jesus—time for me to find a new role, a new job; time for the community to come around to accepting me, to accepting that my transformation was for real. I used to make great money, but the cost was my soul. Now the money is okay, but my connection to God and community is priceless.
So I invite you to imagine that you are up in that sycamore tree with me. Jesus comes to the foot of the tree and calls you by name. “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” As you stand before this man and all the people whom you may ever have oppressed, even through systems that just are part of your culture, what does it mean for Jesus to come into your home, come into your heart? What does it mean to be connected to your community and your God? And how can we be part of making that happen? Amen.