“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 . . .”
Many of us learned this little song as children to help us remember the story of Zacchaeus. What else do we know about Zacchaeus? Was there anything more to this story, besides Jesus inviting himself to dinner?
It isn’t until we grow up that we realize the true significance of this story — the amazing transformation that took place in Zacchaeus’ life that most people would have thought was impossible. When we look more closely at this story, what we see is the amazing power of grace in this experience of unexpected transformation.
In the story of Zacchaeus, what so often gets lost is the surprise — Zacchaeus’s dramatic and immediate transformation — and the grace at the heart of this surprising turn.
Zacchaeus is a guy who’s easy to despise. He’s the poster child of contemptibility — a guy whom theologian Frederick Buechner colorfully described as “a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job” because of how he cheated and lied and got rich by taking advantage of others. (“Peculiar Treasures,” Harper: San Francisco, 1979)
For Zacchaeus — and most anyone around — the first surprise in this story was that Jesus would want to have dinner with him. We, of course, now know very well that Jesus was always “eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners,” as Luke tells us over and over again. Even though none of them realized it at the time, for Jesus to invite himself to dinner in Zacchaeus’ home was actually pretty normal for Jesus.
In scripture, sharing a meal is almost always a sign of reconciliation, and this is exactly where we find the unexpected grace of this story. Zacchaeus says “yes” to a meal with Jesus, even though he knows he doesn’t deserve any sort of grace. What was he thinking?
First of all, for Zacchaeus to have even climbed a tree in the first place to get a better look at this itinerant preacher from Podunk Nazareth is pretty remarkable in and of itself. Why would he do something so undignified for a man of his position in first century Palestine?
And then, the transformation of Zacchaeus is another thing no one saw coming. Zacchaeus makes an astounding commitment to restore fourfold what he has taken and give half of everything left to the poor. In Jericho, a very wealthy region, this was no small matter. The financial impact of this transformation was significant, to say the least.
So what made Zacchaeus climb that tree — and then say “yes” to Jesus’ invitation? This had to have been kind of humiliating, given the context and what everyone thought about him. Was it Zacchaeus’ curiosity that made him climb that tree? Did he yearn for grace — but didn’t think he deserved it? Maybe Zacchaeus’ attitude was, “Why not? I’ll give it a try and see what happens.”
On a personal level, I think there’s a part of all of us that is like that. What if we, like Zacchaeus, think we’re beyond God’s love? What if we think of God as some angry monster in the sky, out to get us?
Of all the people in Jericho, Zacchaeus was a guy who really didn’t deserve any consideration. As far as a lot of people were probably concerned, he deserved to be hanged.
Of course, we have no way of knowing what Zacchaeus really thought he deserved, but the important thing is he didn’t say no to Jesus’ invitation. He didn’t say, “I’m not good enough.”
When Jesus stopped and told him to “come down out of that tree,” Zacchaeus “came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.”
Of course, everyone around them then began to grumble because Jesus was going to go “be the guest of the sinner.”
Clearly, Jesus knew what he was doing. And what’s more, I think Zacchaeus stands for all the other characters in the Bible who were, to use Beuchner’s words, peculiar in some way — yet you couldn’t help feeling they were somehow treasures.
Why do you think that is? It seems that these people were valued less for who they were and what the world made of them than what they had inside of them when they were at their best — who they were to become.
This story of Zacchaeus calls several questions to mind. The more personal one, of course, is what are you willing to do to seek out Jesus? What Zacchaeus did in this story was very undignified. Would you be able to come down out of your tree and respond to Jesus’ invitation as Zacchaeus did? And what would your response look like? What would that mean to you? What kind of transformation could it bring to your life?
At its heart, grace always leads to transformation — in fact you could say that grace IS transformation. I look forward to exploring with you the possibilities this kind of transformation could hold this Sunday in traditional worship as we celebrate Palm Sunday and continue our Listen for Grace Lenten worship series, with “Grace is Transformation.”
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster
Luke 19:1-10 Common English Bible (CEB)
A rich tax collector
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”