Being rich is a risky business. From the beginning of his Gospel, St. Luke has made that clear. Already in chapter one, St. Mary’s Magnificat declares that, whereas the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty-handed. We’ve been given examples of that very thing, as well. The rich fool stored up treasures for himself on earth, but then he died, and all his stuff went to someone else. The rich man who ignored poor Lazarus at his gate, he died, too, and found himself in Hades, in great agony and torment. He had his good things for a little while, but they couldn’t save him. Most recently, in the chapter just before this morning’s Holy Gospel, the rich young ruler came looking for eternal life, but he went away sorrowful and disappointed, because he was extremely rich, and he couldn’t bear to give up his many possessions in order to follow Jesus.
“How hard it will be,” Jesus says, “for those who are wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier to thread a camel through a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s Kingdom.”
But Zaccheus is not only a rich man. He is also a tax collector, and not the first of those that we have heard about in the Gospel According to St. Luke.
Here is one of those many places where cultural and societal expectations, and religious expectations, too, have been turned on their head. For tax collectors have received the preaching of St. John the Baptist, and have repented and believed the Gospel of the Christ. And yet, St. John did not tell them to quit their jobs; only to carry out their occupation fairly, honestly, and with integrity. “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to,” he said.
Among the Holy Apostles, who even now follow Jesus on His Way through Jericho toward Jerusalem, St. Levi (Matthew) was a tax collector when Jesus called him to discipleship. And far from forsaking his former associates, the first thing that happened after he was called, is that Jesus reclined at table in his home to break bread with a great crowd of tax collectors. It is the Pharisees, not Jesus or St. Luke, who describe those men as “sinners.”
In fact, Jesus has gotten quite a reputation for befriending tax collectors, receiving them to Himself, and eating and drinking with them.
Likewise, this past Sunday, in the case of the Pharisee and the tax collector, it was the tax collector who went home justified, in repentant faith, by the mercies of God.
So, maybe this tax collector, Zaccheus, is seeking the mercies of God in Christ Jesus. Or, maybe, to begin with, he’s simply curious about this Guy from Nazareth, to find out for himself who Jesus is and what He’s like. Maybe he’s just looking for a friend, having heard that Jesus is a friend of tax collectors.
In any event, whatever his ambition may have been, you find out with Zaccheus that “rich” and “poor” are not such clearly defined categories. Not so easy, after all, to divide the black hats from the white, the “good guys” from the “bad.” Turns out that wealth, in itself, is ambiguous and morally neutral; it’s rather how one holds and uses wealth that is decisive.
Now, you might also remember that Father Abraham was a rich man in his day: “Very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold,” with several hundred trained men in his household.
Come to think of it, the Father of the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ Parable is also a rich man. For so the Lord Himself is rich in mercy toward us, toward all who call upon His Name. And, as such, by faith in His mercy, both rich and poor alike are given to be rich toward God and rich toward their neighbors in love, in charity and generosity. It is the attitude of your heart, and the actions that you take, which determine the real wealth or poverty of your life. That is what the Lord perceives, regardless of the world’s evaluation of you and your holdings.
Here, then, as in the case of St. Matthew and his house guests, it is neither the Lord Jesus nor St. Luke who describe Zaccheus as “a sinner.” That is the accusation of the crowd, by which they aim to impugn Christ Jesus, who is living up to His reputation, yet again, as a “Friend of tax collectors.”
Granted that all men are sinful and unclean; there is no one who is righteous of himself — no, not one. Zaccheus is no exception to that rule. And granted that he acknowledges the possibility that he may have defrauded someone in some way or another.
But, so far as this Holy Gospel is concerned, what it means for Zaccheus to be “lost” and now “saved” by Christ, is not described in terms of sin and forgiveness, but in relation to the household and family of God.
It is true that sin is the problem, and forgiveness is the solution, apart from which there is no life or salvation. Yet, in the particulars of this case at hand, there is no “confession and absolution,” per se, but a different scenario unfolds and plays itself out.
Zaccheus has a position of power and authority, albeit an unpopular one. And he has lots of possessions. He is a rich man. But, for all of that, look at where he’s at: On the outside, not even able to look in. He is excluded. Shut out. More to the point, he is crowded out. He wants to see Jesus; he’s trying his level best, but he can’t. He is unable. Powerless.
What it means, exactly, that “he was small in stature,” is a matter of conjecture. No doubt it refers to his height, although the word for “stature” here is more commonly used for age. Maybe he was simply shorter than average, or perhaps he was actually a “little person.”
But, whatever the case may be, his shortness is part of his inability. It is why he cannot see. And it presents an interesting contrast to his wealth and power. Significantly, it aligns him with the “little children.” So does his tree-climbing, for that matter, which a businessman in that culture would never do.
Zaccheus really is childlike in many ways; not only in his smallness of stature, but in what he cannot do or achieve for himself — and, then, in what he is given and receives.
His efforts to see Jesus are comical: easily pictured and remembered, and part of what makes this story so endearing. It’s a bit slapstick, like that Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin.
Well, this wee little man runs ahead and climbs a tree, in the hopes of seeing Jesus. But, then, suddenly, the initiative has shifted entirely to Jesus, who seeks out Zaccheus.
As silly as it seems, climbing up a tree looks ahead to what is coming. For the Lord Jesus is about to pass through “that Way,” as He now journeys to Jerusalem in order to be lifted up in death upon the Tree of the Cross, to enter into His Glory through suffering.
It is by the Way of the Cross that He comes, and by that Way of the Cross that you behold Him and receive Him as He is.
But so it is, first of all, that Jesus comes to that place, to that Tree. And He sees Zaccheus, and calls him down from the tree, and comes to him, to stay at his house on this “Today.”
It is Christ who will climb the Tree and be crucified: for Zaccheus, for you, and for all. And it is Christ who sees you in mercy, who comes to you in peace and love, and bestows His salvation upon you; so that you, by His poverty, are made wealthy indeed in His Kingdom.
Then it is, by faith in Him, that you are crucified to yourself, to your power and your riches, for the benefit of others: to make amends for whatever hurt you have caused, and to help the poor and needy with whatever means the Lord has provided you.
But, first of all, the Lord comes to abide with you — as He comes to stay with Zaccheus.
Zaccheus is delighted. He hurries down and receives the Lord Jesus gladly: receives Him like a little child on his birthday, giddy with excitement to be given such a good gift.
And you disciples of Emmaus know how it is when Jesus comes to be your guest and to abide with you, how He becomes the Host, and He reveals Himself and bestows salvation.
So, too, here, in much the same way: Zaccheus does provide hospitality for Jesus, as he also provides for the poor and pays back whatever wrong he may have done. But consider what Jesus does for this little man:
He takes the public shame and contempt upon Himself, in order to give life, and to honor the one who has been lost: to gather this sheep back into the flock of Israel. The crowd has called Zaccheus “a sinner,” but Jesus calls him “a son of Abraham,” which is to say, that he, too, is an heir of the promise, a child of God by grace, a member of the household of faith.
This rich man is not condemned to the torment of Hades, but is gathered with poor Lazarus to the comfort of Abraham’s bosom. And, like that other tax collector, of whom we heard last week, this chief tax collector is brought home justified by the Lord Jesus. Salvation comes to him, and to his house, in the coming of the Christ.
It is entirely by grace; for this is what the Son of Man has come to do, to seek out the lost and to save them. He is the Rich Man who empties Himself in order to fill you up with good things. He is the Big Man who makes Himself small in order to gather the little ones to Himself, to bear them on His shoulders, rejoicing, and to raise them up by His own Tree.
This is how and why it is that Zaccheus is not left on the outside, desperately trying to look inside, but unable to see past the crowds. Now he is at home, at the Table with Jesus. Like a little child he has received the Lord gladly. And as Christ has entered his house, he has entered the Kingdom of God. He passes through death into life, and he is able to stand tall and serve, to confess with generosity his faith and his gratitude.
Today, that same salvation of Christ Jesus has come to this house, so that you, too, may live as a child of God, at home within His household and family.
Whether you are tall or short, young or old, rich or poor, or whatever your circumstances, by faith in the Gospel you are a member of the Body of Christ. By your Baptism into Him, you belong to the Holy Communion of all His saints, of all times and places, in His holy Body and precious Blood. And, as you are lifted up by His Tree of the Cross, so shall you ever live to see the salvation of our God in both body and soul.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.