Picture the scene.
Jesus, walking on the streets of Jericho, surrounded by his disciples and talking with them as they go. Perhaps they are talking about the Law, or maybe of the Psalmist; Jesus, humming these lines softly as he listens to their questions:
“Oh God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)
Maybe Jesus’ answers cannot be heard over the calls of “Rabbi,” hands of all sizes reaching out, shoulders jostling one another, all to get close to him to ask for his healing touch. The crowd, like a wave, pushes Jesus onward. Men shout, laugh, and whisper among themselves while women push children along, hoping that the Rabbi will settle somewhere close, somewhere they can settle their own little handfuls and hear the teachings of a holy man known to look at – to look at and to see – and speak to women like themselves. It is hot; the air is humid; and the smells of sweat, wildflowers, and all manner of animals fill the air, sticking to everyone’s skin. Zacchaeus, sitting on the roof of his house, hears only confused shouting at first. But slowly, as the crowd approaches, he realizes what he hears: “Yeshua! Yeshua!” In an instant he knows that this Yeshua is not some ordinary Rabbi from Nazareth but a powerful miracle working teacher who was upsetting the order of things everywhere he went. “This time,” he thinks “I must see him for myself!” But when he runs down from the roof, he realizes that the crowd, which seemed from that height a small challenge to overcome, is indeed a massive moving swarm of bodies packed so tightly that it is impossible to get through. And this is where our story begins: suddenly filled with desperation, and seeing in an instant only one undignified solution, Zacchaeus runs ahead. Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector, runs up ahead and climbs up, with the children and men much younger than himself, and grabs a precarious seat on the limb of a sycamore tree.
In keeping with its practice, the Bible doesn’t tell us very much about Zacchaeus. We know that he is a tax collector, and we can infer from his repentance at the end of the scene that he was far from honorable. We can also infer from the story that his extortive and corrupt practices were well known by the people; he certainly wasn’t the most popular guy in town. But that’s it. That’s all we know. Well, that, and he was a shorty. Not in the cute way or the Wawa hoagie sorta way, but in the other-men-might-think-he’s-a-child way, which certainly completes the humiliating picture.
What we don’t know is his familial status, whether he had a wife or if they had children. What is the status of his household; is someone battling an illness, and can the sounds of death’s footsteps be heard pacing the halls? We don’t know his tribe, religious devotion, or even his age, but there is one piece of information that I always wish for when reading the story. I can’t help but think: what might have happened in the days, weeks, and months leading up to the moment between Zacchaeus and Jesus? What propelled this corrupt tax collector and agent of the oppressive Roman government, to climb like a child up into a tree for just a chance to see Jesus.
While I do not know his answer, I do know this: if the angel Gabriel appeared to me in the sky and proclaimed, “If you are willing to stand at the top of the Lincoln Memorial main stairs and hop on one foot, wave your arms frantically, and shout ‘here! Over here!’, your future husband might see you and introduce himself,” I would do it. I would hate it. I would be questioning my sanity and wondering why an angel felt the need to essentially dare me to do something so ridiculous. I would be sweating and probably weighing the pros and cons while making a very slow ascent. But I would do it. And if the greatest prophet of our time came up to me, laid his hand upon my forehead and said, “You can become the nation’s poet laureate, a best-selling non-fiction writer, and have a play produced on Broadway with great reception from the critics, but only if you run through the streets of your neighborhood screaming ‘Look at me! I promise that I will captivate you and engage you with beautiful writing if you just read one piece! You’ll see when you read it, please, please, please!!!’”…Well, first I would probably ask several more times if he or she was sure this ridiculous display would end in the results promised. And if yes, I would probably spend at least three days making sure I heard what I thought I heard, and another three days to vet the source. But if all signs pointed towards the words being true, I would do it.
Of course, no such thing will ever happen, so my dignity is spared. But I can picture the weight of the decision, the weight of the reality that I am about to risk everything — my family’s belief in my sanity, my neighbor’s respect, the trust of my employer to protect their image and thus my job — for the possibility of an encounter that could truly change my life. I can imagine that, while preparing to begin running down the street, I would be wondering whether this whole thing was nothing more than my biggest regret in the making. Still, despite all this, I would do it. I know I would do it. Because there are some dreams, opportunities, relationships and encounters that are worth it. Sometimes you have to give it all for something that may never pass you by again. So, although I do not know specifically what happened in Zacchaeus’ mind as he was sprinting down the street, coat flailing in the breeze and sandals smacking first his soles and then the sandy cobblestone, I can, however, imagine that whatever it was, made him realize that the thing he wanted most was right in front of him and that he wanted to — had to — attain it at any cost.
Yet, while all of that is true, I am not even sure that it is the point of the story. Perhaps when we look at Zacchaeus sitting awkwardly perched on the limb of that tree, we are supposed to see what Jesus is worth. Perhaps when we look at a man like Zacchaeus, climbing a tree just to get the opportunity to see Jesus — not talk to, recline at table with, or discuss the scriptures with, just the chance to see Jesus — we are supposed to understand what everything else in our life is worth. Perhaps we are supposed to recognize that just the chance to set our eyes on Jesus is more valuable than the approval of our social or professional superiors, the admiration of our employees, the respect of our family, friends, and of those who share our politics, morals, ethics, class…all of it. Jesus is worth risking all of it. And if we do risk it all, if we position ourselves to see Jesus, he will not only see us, but he will call us to himself. He will make himself known to us in a whole new way, because he will enter our homes and dine with us regardless of what people think of us. Jesus will engage us, and he will so change us that everything else that used to matter — whatever power, prestige, money, fortune, fame, beauty, knowledge, privilege, whatever it is that we’ve held most dear — becomes a sacrifice of repentance and devotion to him in the form of justice and generosity. Perhaps the whole point of the story, and the vision into this small snippet of one man’s entire life, is that it is both a mirror and an invitation.
The last year has been so painful. As a black woman with a disability brought on by a mysterious illness, I have felt each headline as if it were a punch in my own gut. In the last eighteen months of my life, I have had very up-close and personal encounters with powerful people, people whose opinions could and did have a major impact on my life professionally and personally. I have felt the pain of unending injustice that has gone unanswered, even flat out denied, at the hands of those who would stand next to me in a pew and call me “sister.” I have felt fear in my body and mind and grieved my losses in a world full of grief and loss. And when I look at the world around me, a world so full of pain, injustice, division, deceit, and death, my soul aches to see Zacchaeus. Not Zacchaeus as I imagine he was for all his life before he climbed up in that tree but the Zacchaeus that climbed out of it. I am not hoping to see him because I think he will save the world but because he is willing to give everything in his life over to the one who can.
How much more would this nation look like the “one nation under God” it claims to be, if people who have spent their entire careers stocking up on money, power, and esteem, building their own little empires over which they rule, instead chose to denounce their own crowns and follow the King who reigns over a kingdom that is not of this world? How much sooner would it be true to say that America is a country that gives “liberty and justice to all,” if those who have misused their power and position for their own selfish gains, or worse, denied that they had the power to impact the lives of other people at all, found themselves saying, “Lord! Here and now, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount”?
This is the place where the rubber meets the road, for me and perhaps for all of us. What do we see when we stand in front of the mirror? When I look into the mirror, do I see Zacchaeus? Am I willing to do anything in my power to fight my way out of the noise, and sweat, and chaos, to rise out from the weeds and climb into a place — a place of true vulnerability and exposure — for the opportunity to see Jesus? If Jesus looked up at me and called me down to meet with him — while those whom I have hurt, abandoned, or betrayed looked on in disgust and disbelief, and while those already sure of their piety looked on in judgement and pity — would I have the courage to come down from that high place and stand before him, face to face? Do I have the courage to welcome the Lord into my home, offering up the shame-filled parts of myself that he already knows so well, and allow him to speak words of such truth and grace that I cannot leave the conversation unchanged? If all of us — rich and poor, powerful and powerless, old and young, left and right — could adopt the attitude of Zacchaeus, we might be able to change not only our own little Jerichos, but also the entire world.
Jesus is inviting all of us to risk it all for the chance to have a perspective shifting, life altering, holy encounter with the one who gave himself up to both dine with us and be our sustaining meal, the bread of our life himself? The question is, how will we respond?
If you’re not sure, after looking at the story, I can promise you this; it is worth it.