Wee Little Man {into the story}

And Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” {Gospel reading for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 19:1-10}

If you grew up in Sunday School, you know the story because you know the song. Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he… I’d hate to be known by young and old as wee, a sing-songy character relegated to children’s Sunday coloring projects.

Luke does tell us, matter-of-factly, that Zacchaeus was “a short man,” and that, in order to see Jesus, he had to climb a sycamore (or fig) tree. However, as Luke narrates the story, it becomes obvious that Luke holds Zacchaeus in high regard. Zacchaeuss was not a wee man but a courageous man.  Zacchaeuss had courage to run after Jesus, courage to follow Jesus, courage to throw the dice on whatever Jesus asked him to do.

When Luke makes the introduction, he tells us Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector (read: despicable tool of the Empire) — and rich. This addition is crucial. Any first-century reader would have assumed Zacchaeus to be rich. If you are a tax collector (and especially the chief tax collector) and if you get to doctor the books and add your “service” fees on the top and skim your pocket-money off the top of whatever you say is due – then, God knows, you’ve got money. You’ve sold your soul for it. Money’s the one thing, maybe the only thing, you do have. You’ve got no integrity, no friends, no dignity – but you are rich.

So why add this synonym? Why highlight this word?

It would seem this biographical note serves to push our memory back to the previous story Luke had just told, a tale of another rich man (Luke 18:18-30). This young, wealthy ruler came to Jesus, full of self-importance, asking Jesus to tell him whatever he needed to do in order to inherit God’s kingdom. Just tell me, he says. I’ve got it covered. Taken aback by such brash arrogance, Jesus lays down the law, literally.

“Well, you’re not that good. Why don’t you just go and keep all Moses’ commandments,” Jesus answers.

Remarkably, the wealthy ruler remains indomitable. “Yeah, all good there. Done. What else you got?”

What do you say in the face of such ignorance, such unabashed egotism? What do you say to someone who insists they have no problems, no weaknesses, no sin? Jesus upped the ante; Jesus hit him where it would certainly hurt. “Okay, then, if you are so almighty and good – go sell everything you own. And give it away.” Luke says the ruler simply walked away sad. This was the one thing he could not do. He could not surrender what he clung to for life: money.

Jesus summed up this encounter with his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And the disciples and those listening and all the first readers would have sat dumbfounded. What? How can this be… For them, the rich (by honest means – so long as you weren’t a Roman tax collector) were those closest to God. Wealth signalled God’s blessing. If the rich who’ve got it all together can’t get in…

But then, we come to a second rich man, Zacchaeus. The first rich man (the young ruler) was the one everyone assumed was righteous – and he went away without God. The second rich man (Zacchaeus) was the one everyone assumed to be evil – and the story ends with Jesus, at his house, having a party and ticking off all the religious elites. In an act of humble contrition, Zacchaeus offered this: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay back four times the amount.” And Jesus honored and embraced him.

It is as though the point was not at all about the amount the rich might give away but about the heart that acknowledges it has nothing to give, nothing to lose, a life fully cast onto God for mercy. That is the place to be – because Jesus is quick with mercy, quick to embrace.

Zacchaeus was not a wee little man. Short, perhaps – but his heart was huge. His heart was open to God.

I had a piece this week in the Washington Post. Take a peek.

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