Seeing the World with Zacchaeus

Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

By Jane Lancaster Patterson

When we’re in a long season of readings from the Gospel of Luke, as we are this fall, I sometimes wonder whether listening to the gospel as it is read aloud on Sunday morning is rather like having the stage directions for a Shakespeare play read aloud, rather than experiencing the performance of the play. [Scene: a road in Jericho. Enter Jesus and a crowd of followers, stage left. Stage right, Zacchaeus climbs up a tree.]

More than any other gospel, the Gospel of Luke comes alive when we fully imagine the characters moving across the stage that each of them is given. Some of them cross the stage with purpose: a Samaritan traveler leaves his donkey standing by the roadside, drops his bag, and crosses the road to kneel and reach out toward a beaten, bloody stranger left for dead; a heartbroken father spies his wayward son a mile off, and races out to gather him into a bear hug.

Some characters move around on the stage, but never toward the person who obviously needs them, like the rich man whose doorstep is the resting place of the ragged man Lazarus, whose emaciated body is covered in open sores. Every morning and every evening the rich man crosses the stage and steps over Lazarus, pointedly failing to catch his eye. Ironically, the stray dogs are the only ones who have compassion on the poor man. They cross the stage to curl up and share the stoop with him, just as Abraham will gather him close in heaven at the end of the story.

Time and again, we see characters who either cross the stage toward the suffering of their neighbors, or hold back. But the whole play begins with God’s compassionate movement across the widest possible stage, from heaven toward earth; from the farthest, most transcendent realm to the most intimate space of Mary’s womb; from invisibility to very particular incarnation in a Jewish boy from Nazareth.

As Zechariah sings early in the gospel, “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us” (Luke 1:78). God has taken a good look at the suffering of human beings, has felt the stomach-twisting sensation of tender compassion, and has chosen to come toward us in Christ. Time and again, we see Jesus crossing the stage he is given: moving courageously toward suffering, toward hunger, toward poverty, toward desperation, toward sickness, toward death.

Only one character responds exactly mirror-wise to God’s downward movement by climbing up toward God, and that is Zacchaeus, whom we met this morning. We are told that he is a chief tax collector, and rich. The collection of taxes and tribute was an entrepreneurial venture in Palestine under Roman occupation, and a chief tax collector would have been doing quite well, off not only his own graft, but that of the collectors who worked under him.

The local populace hated the tax collectors, whom they saw as sucking their lifeblood and giving it to Rome. In the time of Jesus, many small farmers lost their land to taxes, and were imprisoned for non-payment. The traditions and cohesion of village life were threatened by this loss of small farms. The crowds of people Jesus fed miraculously on a few loaves of bread and a little fish were people familiar with hunger, hour by hour, day by day.

One day Jesus is going through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, and he sees the chief tax collector shimmying up a tree to catch a glimpse of — well, what, exactly? What did Zacchaeus see when he climbed that tree? Up and up and up. Zacchaeus has figured out a way to get a better view than anyone else.

When we were in Israel, we saw a tree in the place where Zacchaeus is said to have climbed. These days, a huge sycamore stands on that street corner. If you climbed to the top, you would have a great view. Zacchaeus climbed and shimmied and hauled himself up until he could see. He could see a mother weeping in the funeral procession for her son; he could see a child poking through the garbage, looking for something to eat; he could see a family with all their belongings, heading to the city to look for work; he could see the lepers, the paralyzed, the blind, the lame. He could see it all. When he climbed up toward God, he could see it all. He looked, and was filled with the tender compassion of God. He looked, and was filled with remorse.

But now Jesus is calling him: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” On our imaginary stage, Zacchaeus comes down, branch by branch, and he and Jesus meet eye to eye on the way to his home. Maybe Zacchaeus is still a little shaky. He has utterly changed his point of view of the world.

Whereas before his sojourn in the tree he had been preoccupied with how much more money he would need to finish the landscaping at his villa, now he is curious about what could happen if money flowed out of his hands rather than into his hands. What if he gave away half his income? What would that look like? What if he crossed his own little piece of the stage toward some of the people he’d been able to defraud and offered them their money back, no not just their money, but four times as much as he’d taken from them? Let’s leave Zacchaeus there, heartbroken, looking at his hands, imagining money pouring through his fingers into the calloused and empty hands of his fellow citizens.

Let’s turn to look at Jesus, sitting there next to Zacchaeus in the tax collector’s sumptuous dining hall. This room, with its mosaics and silk cushions, is a far cry from a craggy hillside in Galilee with a few dried fish and some bread. The grumbling remarks of some of the bystanders are still ringing in his ears: “He’s gone to be the guest of that sinner, Zacchaeus.” What in the heck is he doing here? But then he looks at Zacchaeus, whose face, usually set in a grim mask of defended authority, is now suffused with wonder. And Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. I have come, after all, to seek out and to save the lost.”

And only now do we really see the stage on which our story is set, and the plot that is unwinding across it. Whereas before we saw Jesus moving toward the suffering of the poor and the sick, now we see him moving, as he says, “to salvage those who have been destroyed.” Coming to Zacchaeus’s house is a salvage project.

Like the child Zacchaeus saw looking for a crust of bread among the garbage, Jesus is looking through the garbage heap of Roman greed to find someone whose life might be saved, looking for the lost sons and daughters of Abraham, to remind them of who they really are, what family they really belong to.

Among his silk cushions and landscape plans, Zacchaeus is being destroyed from the inside out. He is as lost and hungry as the people he has been defrauding to pay for his lifestyle. All the while that he has been using his neighbors for his own advantage, he has been steadily losing his way, wandering offstage until the day he climbed up greedily toward God, without knowing what would happen when he did so.

This church is a hillside where we, the hungry and the broken, gather to be fed with the bread of life. And this church is also the tree we climb up into, to catch a glimpse of the heart of God, and to feel our own hearts twisting with compassion for the neighbors we can finally see clearly.

From these pews, we can see our neighbor struggling with addiction, the one with cancer, and the one who suspects that a divorce is pending. We can see all the way across the ocean to where a woman in China is buffing the edges of our next cell phone, to a pulverized street in Aleppo, to the busker in a subway in Paris.

We come here to be fed. And we also come here to be found, to be sought and salvaged out of all the rubbish heaps of hard-heartedness that our society has lured us into. From here, we can see painfully, clearly, the struggles of others. From here, we can also see God moving in compassion toward every single one of us, coming to grasp us out of the particular rubbish bin we have gotten lost in.

Here we lift our hands to be filled. And here we learn how to open our hands, the wealth we have striven for and counted and saved up, pouring forth in joy and relief. Because today salvation is coming to this house, striding powerfully from heaven toward us. Will we step over the threshold, cross the road, climb the tree to meet God’s saving embrace?

The Rev. Dr. Jane Lancaster Patterson is a retired associate professor of New Testament at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas.


Online Archives