Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem when he passed through Jericho. The city lay at the intersection of major trade roads and was a beehive of commercial activity. In the Roman province of Judea, it was one of the top markets for toll collecting. The Roman system was simple and effective: the right to collect taxes was auctioned off to the highest bidder, then the bidder paid the governor and hired locals to collect tolls at bridges and gates. In Jericho, Zacchaeus had won the auction. He was rich, and just about everybody assumed he had built his wealth by collecting considerably more than what he had paid the governor. Some would call that corruption, others would call it Roman efficiency.
People saw men like Zacchaeus as a traitors since they collaborated with the Roman occupiers, and everybody in Jericho knew that that fancy house of his had been paid out of their own pockets. Little wonder that he wasn’t very popular; people shunned him, ignored him when they could. And the day Jesus came to town, they could.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and the streets were packed with people. Zacchaeus wanted to see who this Jesus was, but he was a short fellow, and nobody was going to let him through. I imagine him staring at a wall of people, lined up shoulder to shoulder, with barely a crack between them. I wonder if he tried. Perhaps he tapped somebody’s elbow, “Excuse me? May I?” Perhaps he tried to squeeze through or stretch his legs and neck standing on the tip of his toes. He really wanted to see who this Jesus was, and eventually he ran down the street a bit and climbed a tree. You have to like the fellow. Sure, he was rich, and in Luke news about the rich is consistently bleak: They are the ones sent away empty when the hungry are filled with good things. They are the fools who can only think of building bigger barns after a good year. They are the gluttons feasting daily who don’t seem to see Lazarus starving at the door. The last time Jesus had looked into the eyes of a rich man, he said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” But there was more to Zacchaeus than his wealth. It’s not like he could enjoy life strolling in the sunshine of his fortune and the warmth of people’s respect and admiration. He lived in Jericho, but he wasn’t at home there. He had few if any friends. That wall of bodies he tried to squeeze through? It likely was something he faced every day, one way or another.
Why did he want to see who this Jesus was? It had to be more than just curiosity. No grown man runs down the street and climbs a tree like a little boy merely out of curiosity. Zacchaeus was rich, but he was cut off from the life of the community like he didn’t even exist.
Why did he want to see who this Jesus was? He had heard people talk about the prophet from Galilee. He had heard them call him a friend of tax collectors and sinners, and they said it with disdain in their voices, but to him it sounded like the promise of a different kind of life. He was sitting up in that tree because he had been wondering, if it could be true: acceptance, belonging, friendship even, for somebody like himself.
You’ve sat in that tree, haven’t you? Some of you may have been sitting in that tree for quite some time, wondering who this Jesus is who heals and forgives men and women, accepts them for who they are, and calls them to follow him. You want to see him, you really want to see him. That’s when that wonderful moment happens in the story: Jesus came to the place and looked up and saw Zacchaeus and didn’t turn away and move on, but stopped and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And hurry he did, he practically fell out of the tree and welcomed Jesus with great joy. Or was it Jesus who welcomed him with great joy? The pronouns in the text are beautifully ambiguous, and of course the welcome was mutual and the joy complete, because either had been seeking to see, and ultimately be with, the other. And off they went, side by side, the crook and the Christ, walking together to the welcome table where the guest is the host and wee little Zac the child at home.
Now you’d think that such joy would be uncontainable and infectious, and that the whole crowd would follow the two on their way to the table of gladness and delight, but no, the old labels don’t come off that easily. All who saw it, Luke tells us, began to grumble. Grumble is the perfect word here, this blend of growl and rumble, this muted complaining that can’t quite bring itself to speak up, but remains a mumbled growl, more like thunder underground than speech. All who saw it began to grumble, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” This had been a constant in Jesus’ ministry, practically from day one. Back in Galilee, Jesus had seen Levi, sitting at the tax booth, and said to him, “Follow me.” And Levi got up and followed him. And then there was a great banquet at Levi’s house, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. There was joy in the house, but some who were watching, grumbled, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Lk 5:27-30). You may have noticed that in those early days the grumblers were still talking to Jesus, rather than about him. Later, when Jesus was already on his way to Jerusalem, a similar scene: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus, but again, some who where watching, grumbled, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Lk 15:1-2). In Luke, whenever people are watching Jesus and grumbling it’s about the same thing—he just can’t stay away from sinners! The grumblers are watching, but they can’t see what’s happening between Jesus and the men and women he calls, forgives, or shares meals with. The grumblers can’t see that Jesus embodies the mercy of God, and so they remain convinced that if somebody like Zacchaeus deserved any attention, it should be a stern demand like, “Get down from that tree, Zac; you better straighten out your life or I’ll come and do it for you!” The grumblers can’t see how liberating and transformative God’s mercy is.
Having heard the complaints, Zacchaeus stood up and made the most astonishing statement: “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.” Touched by the healing mercy of God, Zacchaeus committed himself to doing justice by the sharing of his wealth with the poor and by making reparations to the individuals he had betrayed. When Jesus looked at him, when they saw each other face to face, Zacchaeus found himself immersed in God’s boundless grace and his life became part of its redemptive flow. It was as though he jumped off the tree into a river called Jesus, and before long the current of love that embraced and carried him became visible in his actions. Jesus of course clapped his hands for joy and shouted, “Today salvation has come to this house!” forever hoping that such exuberant joy that is shared by the angels in heaven would be contagious until the last grumbler left on earth would begin to dance a little.
Salvation came to the house of Zacchaeus, and he was freed to be who he was made and meant to be: a member of God’s household. That day the Empire lost one of its most successful players, and the kingdom of God gained one.
Zacchaeus is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Zakkai, and in Hebrew the name sounds like clean, innocent, righteous. This is who the man truly is, even when all the grumblers can see are labels like sinner or taxman. Jesus knows we are made for righteousness, which is another way of saying we are made for relationship with God, with one another, and with all of creation – the joy of heaven made complete on earth. Which is another way of saying we are made for life in communion, here and now and forever.
Jericho was Jesus’ final stop before he entered Jerusalem. His words to Zacchaeus are like a headline for his entire mission: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Thanks be to God.