Reading: Luke 19:1-10
Tomorrow, finally, after years of work, long hours of interview transcribing, hundreds of thousands of words, numerous edits and a viva, I finally get to wear the floppy hat and Harry Potter gown as I attend my PhD graduation in London. And I’m mostly looking forward to it. For graduation ceremonies can sometimes be long, drawn out affairs but I know that my Dad and granddad, who are both coming along will enjoy themselves. Perhaps my granddad especially as he says he’s ‘been hanging on to see this’. Mind you, he said that about my ordination. And my sister’s first child. And her wedding. My undergrad graduation. And the millennium celebrations…Yes, for a while now, my 94 year old granddad has repeated the same line that he’s hanging on for whatever the next big event is.
And, whilst I dearly love my granddad and enjoy speaking with him, he does repeat himself a fair bit. It was a well-known truth at my sending church that if you spent more than a few seconds with me and my granddad over coffee after church, you were guaranteed to hear the heart-warming story of how, when I was born, and my granddad went to see his tiny grandson, his only grandson, in hospital for the first time, he looked at me and, with the sense of pride that only a grandfather can have, he thought – Philip looks just like Dumbo, with huge, flapping ears. Beautiful, isn’t it? I never get tired of hearing that.
But it isn’t just with me he’ll do this for he seems to remember and identify most of my friends by one aspect of their physical appearance. And it’s not done in a mean way, he simply remembers, identifies and explicitly names my friends by their hair colour, clothing, height…so every single time one of my good friends, now in her late thirties with three kids, a mortgage etc, when he sees her, he will tell her how small she is…as if she’s never noticed before. “Aren’t you small?”, the old sweet-talker will begin. For she is forever known to him as Philip’s little friend.
Well, if you think that’s a little unfair or annoying, spare a thought for poor old Zacchaeus – a notorious tax collector, skilled climber, an inspirational man who turned his life around and had dinner with the son of God and yet…for many of us…he is identified by his height and the words ‘Zacchaeus was a very little man and a very little man was he’. And in his day, ‘very little man’ wasn’t the only label that Zacchaeus had to contend with. In fact, at the beginning of his story, Zacchaeus is defined by his gender, his profession, and his wealth. As Jesus was passing through Jericho, Luke tells us, ‘A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich’.
And such labels aren’t insignificant. Any reader of Luke’s day would have read a lot into this description of Zacchaeus. Chief tax collector – well, everyone knew about them. The chief tax collectors were the ones contracted by Roman officials to collect the taxes, tariffs and tolls from their fellow Jews. They were hated by their neighbours for their complicity with Israel’s oppressors and were assumed to be dishonest, taking a bit of money on the side for themselves. And we’re told that Zacchaeus was a rich one…almost assuring us of his financial corruption and signalling to Luke’s readers that Zacchaeus is in for a bumpy ride for so far the rich have not fared all that well in their encounters with Jesus.
In the previous chapter we encountered the rich young ruler whom Jesus loved but whom left Jesus disappointed for he was told to sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor. ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus pronounced. And there was his teaching in his parables and sermons – ‘woe to you who are rich’ etc – the reader knows exactly what to expect. Zacchaeus is going to get it in the neck!
But just when we think we’ve got this Jesus pegged; just when we think we can work out how he’s going to act; what he’s going to say…he throws yet another curveball;
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Say what? Jesus – the itinerant miracle-worker; the prophet from Nazareth who has crowds of people following him and begging him to come round for dinner invites himself to the house of this corrupt, Roman-loving chief tax collecting outcast?! It’s no surprise, then, for us to learn that ‘All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner’. Maybe that even included the disciples. Either way, Jesus’ actions were anything but crowd pleasing. Memorable, perhaps, but for Zacchaeus’ neighbours, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. So why then should we remember this Zacchaeus? Why should we recall his story and be reminded that Zacchaeus was so much more than a very little man?
Well first, let us remember Zacchaeus as rich chief tax collector, despised and outcast. Like so many others whose lives were transformed by Jesus, society had given up on Zacchaeus. Like the bleeding woman; the lepers; those said to be possessed by demons…Zacchaeus was deemed unclean; unwanted by those he lived alongside, in a situation which reminds us that even the rich can be outcasts, both then and now. His profession defined him; his wealth condemned him. And yet…and yet Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was. Whilst the religious of the day looked down on him, quite literally, Zacchaeus nonetheless sought to encounter this Jesus. The place was crowded, he was far too unpopular to get to the front and far too short to see over them. But he did not give up.
So Zaccheaus humbled himself, embarrassed himself by first running ahead – something that no upstanding Jewish man would ever do in public, and then, and then climbing a tree! If the thought of Lord Sugar running and climbing a tree to catch a glimpse of some celebrity today sounds ridiculous then it was all the more so in first century Palestine for no self-respecting man would do such a thing. But Zacchaeus did. Zacchaeus, already mocked and scorned by all those around him did not worry about society’s norms or what others might think for he truly wanted to see who Jesus really was; to encounter him. And when Jesus called him down by name, Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus into his home and life.
In remembering Zacchaeus the tax collector, we remember all our sisters and brothers throughout the centuries who have sought Christ. We remember all those who were told that they were not good enough, that they did not fit in, that perhaps even the Church turned her back on, who still continued to seek him. We remember the many different ways that people met with Christ – some seeking to touch the hem of his cloak in a crowd, some who came at night, some called by day, some who embarrassed themselves by climbing a tree just to sneak a peek at him.
This Wednesday evening, those of us who are free will meet to discuss some of the possible future models of church, and as we do so, we must keep in mind that not everyone comes to church, comes to encounter Christ in the same way, that the traditional Sunday morning church service isn’t accessible for everyone, and together we might seek ways of encouraging others to encounter Christ in a mode that might work for them. And so, we remember Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector
Let us also remember Zacchaeus, as the son of Abraham. At the start of Zacchaeus’ story, he is defined by his gender, his profession, his wealth and yet, when Jesus looks up to see him in that tree and when Jesus hears his words of repentance, such labels are insignificant for Jesus looks beyond the markers and prejudices of society to see the real person. Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name and declares that he too is a son of Abraham.
In remembering Zacchaeus, the son of Abraham, we remember that broken as we may be, we too are the daughters and sons of Abraham. We remember that, in our baptism, in our being immersed with Christ, we have been adopted into the family of God. We remember that God has called each of us by name to follow him, and that gender, wealth, profession or status no longer define us for our identity is in Christ. So we remember Zacchaeus, chief tax collector and son of Abraham.
And finally, we remember Jesus, the Son of Man who came to seek out and save the lost. The story of Zacchaeus reminds us that as much as we might strive to encounter God, God has loved us and sought us first. God the Father, Abba, who seeks out his prodigal sons and daughters; God the Son who took on earthly flesh to make known God’s saving love for all; God the Spirit, who strengthens, transforms and liberates old and young, individuals and communities today.
Two thousand years ago, in Jericho, Jesus looked at Zacchaeus, called him by name, spent time with him and dined with him. In remembering the Son of man who came to seek and save the lost, we remember the story at the centre of all our stories. We remember that he has come to seek us and save us, looking on us with love and inviting us to eat with him. So as we gather once again for Communion we literally re-member, regather as a community of different nationalities, denominations and status; yet a family united with Christ in baptism; invited to dine with him in Communion; expected to work alongside him and pray through him in order to transform this world in God’s name. Amen.