The Gospel today is of the familiar and endearing story of Zacchaeus, a man too short to see Jesus, who climbs a tree, encounters Jesus, and is changed. The danger with familiar stories is that they are familiar and we can miss remarkable qualities. Perhaps it is well that we look afresh and search for the symbolic in the ordinary details.
1. Shortsighted Sinner – Zacchaeus was physically short, and so, could not see the Lord. But let me ask you, do you think that Luke has told us this merely to indicate his physical stature? Well, I’m a preacher and I’m counting on the fact that there is more at work here than a physical description. I suspect it is also a moral description. Zacchaeus cannot see the Lord because of the blindness sin brings. It is his moral stature that is the real cause of his inability to see the Lord. Consider some of the following texts from scripture that link sin to a kind of blindness:
- My iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see. (Ps 40:12)
- I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD (Zeph 1:17)
- They know not, nor do they discern; for God has shut their eyes; so that they cannot see, and their minds so that they cannot understand (Is 44:18)
- Because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous, now they grope through the streets like men who are blind (Lam 4:13)
- Unless one is born again by water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
- Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God. (Matt 5:8)
So sin brings blindness, an inability to see the Lord. Now Zacchaeus has fallen short through sin and hence he cannot see Jesus. “How has he sinned?” You might say. Well, he is the chief tax collector of Jericho. Tax collectors were wicked men, I tell you no lie. The Romans recruited the mobsters of that day to collect taxes. These were bad guys. They ruffed people up and extorted money from them. The Romans permitted them to charge beyond the tax as their “cut” of the deal. They were corrupt, they exploited the poor and schmoozed the powerful. These were men who were both feared and hated, and for good reason. They were, to a man, wicked and unjust. Zacchaeus was not just any Tax Collector, he was Chief Tax collector. He was a mafia boss, a Don, a “Godfather.” Got the picture? Zacchaeus isn’t just physically short. He’s the lowest of the low, he doesn’t measure up morally, he comes up short in terms of justice, he’s a financial giant, but a moral midget. Zacchaeus is a shrimp, well short of a full moral deck. That he cannot see the Lord is not just a physical problem, it is a moral one.
Now I am not picking on Zacchaeus. For the truth be told we are all Zacchaeus, Zacchaeus is us. You say, “Wait a minute, I’m not that bad.” Maybe not but you’re not that good either. In fact we’re a lot closer to being like Zacchaeus that to being like Jesus. The fact that we are not yet ready to look on the face of the Lord is demonstrable by the fact that we’re still here. We’re not ready and not righteous enough to look upon the unveiled face of God. How will Zacchaeus ever hope to see the Lord? How will we? Let’s read on.
2. Saving Sycamore– Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus. So must we. And the only tree that can really help us to see the Lord is the tree of the Cross. Zacchaeus has to cling to the wood of that old sycamore to climb it, and we too must cling to the wood of the old rugged cross. Only by the wood of cross and power of Jesus’ blood can we ever hope to climb high enough to see the Lord. There is an old Latin chant that says, Dulce lignum, dulce clavos, dulce pondus sustinet (sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight (that is) sustained). So Zacchaeus foreshadows for us the righteous that comes from the cross by climbing a tree and being able to get a glimpse of Jesus.
3. Sanctifying Savior– Jesus stops by that tree, for we always meet Jesus at the cross. And there at that tree, that cross, he invites Zacchaeus into a saving and transformative relationship. It is not a surprise that Jesus invites himself for what amounts to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. Though dinner is not mentioned here, it was just a basic aspect of Jewish hospitality. But remember, it is Jesus who ultimately serves the meal. Consider these texts:
- Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
- And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).
- As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. (Luke 24:28-30)
Yes, Zacchaeus has now begun to see the Lord, and the Lord invites him into a Holy Communion, a relationship and a liturgy that will begin to transform him. And Zacchaeus is us. We too have begun to see the Lord through the power of the Cross to cast out our blindness and the Lord draws us to sacred Communion with him. The liturgy and Holy Communion are essential for this, as the Lord invites himself to our house, that is to say, our soul and our parishes.
4. Started Surrender – Zacchaeus is experiencing the start of a transformative relationship. But this is just the start. Note that Zacchaeus promises to return four-fold the money he has extorted and also to give half his money to the poor. Now there’s an old song that says, “I surrender all….” but Zacchaeus isn’t quite there yet, and, probably most of us aren’t either. Eventually Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. But in time. For now he needs to stay near the cross to see and continue to allow Jesus to have communion with him. One day all will be surrendered.
So here is the start for Zacchaeus and us. The best is yet to come. You might say, that the Gospel ends here to make a long story short 🙂
This sermon is recorded in mp3 here: http://frpope.com/audio/31%20C.mp3
This song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea heard my desparing cry and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, love lifted me!”