Every time I hear the story of Zacchaeus, I can’t help but to think of the maple tree in the front yard of my grandmother’s house. I grew up an only child and since my dad was significantly older than my mom, all of my cousins on that side of the family were already grown. Going to visit my grandmother could be a lonely experience not to mention an exercise in self-amusement since there was no one else to play with. My favorite activity was to climb that maple tree. It had a big limb that was positioned low enough that you could grab on and swing your legs around it and then pull yourself up. Once you were there, the other limbs practically formed a staircase leading to the upper chambers of the tree. The smaller you were, the higher you could go. In spring and summer the leaves would hide you from view, and I always had hopes of eluding my parents when they would call me at suppertime. To my surprise they always found me either from the sheer repetitiveness of this game or perhaps because the tree was directly in front of the family room picture window where my mom watched periodically to make sure I didn’t fall and break my arm.
Zacchaeus was one of my favorite Bible characters when I was a child and I have always imagined him to be the patron saint of kids. Kids identify with Zacchaeus on several levels, beginning with the fact that he was short in stature. He wanted to see Jesus but wasn’t able because he couldn’t see over the crowds. Most 5 year olds have this same issue whether trying to see the marching bands and floats in an Independence Day Parade or trying to reach the cookie jar on the kitchen counter. Without help you have to use ingenuity to achieve the same goal that is simple for a grown-ups. Which brings us to the second thing kids have in solidarity with Zacchaeus: they’re always being viewed with suspicion by the tall people.
Kids tend to learn right from wrong by the age old method of ‘trial and error.’ Nothing is worse than getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar on the kitchen counter after devising the perfect scheme to get to it. Conversely, nothing is sweeter than the plan coming together and getting away with the treat before the hour of reckoning. William Faulkner in his novel The Reivers speaks to the naiveté of grown-ups about the innocence of children. He writes, “A child is not innocent! There is no crime which a boy of 11 had not envisaged long ago. His only innocence is that he may not yet be old enough to desire the fruits of it.”[i] Zacchaeus may have been short in stature, but he certainly wasn’t short on smarts and he had carved his way to a successful career as a chief tax collector which put him at odds with his community since he was taking their money and giving it to the Roman occupiers, and in the process taking a little extra for himself.
And third, Zacchaeus had a child-like enthusiasm for adventure. When he couldn’t see over the crowds he ran ahead of them and spryly climbed a sycamore tree where he would get the best view of this itinerant Rabbi whom he had heard so much about. In spite of his ‘shortcomings’ (pun intended) he devised a scheme to see Jesus and executed it with expediency. Not only did his plan work, but the unexpected happens: Jesus sees the tax collector in the Sycamore and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for supper. And even though this may seem like a social faux pas on the part of Jesus, the gospel writer says Zacchaeuswas happy to welcome him.’
I would say that Zacchaeus is not only the patron saint of kids, but also of the spiritual seeker; those perhaps like all of us here who are seeking a relationship of intimacy with God. In our world today, this quest can seem daunting in that all the problems we face, both societal and personal, feel so much bigger than we are; seemingly impossible to see over or past them: Income inequality, racism, environmental concerns, immigration, and the toxicity of our public discourse combined with our own immediate concerns of home, career, and relationship with friends and family….it can seem so overwhelming.
While Zacchaeaus lived with financial security, his life was devoid of the peace that most imagine comes as a result. And so using the resourcefulness that he had learned as a survival skill he was on a tireless mission to get a glimpse of what Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians as ‘the peace which passes all understanding.’[ii] Zacchaeus, in his pursuit to see Jesus gets even more than he bargained for: an invitation to Communion, which was the doorway to that which he lacked the most: community, love, acceptance, worthiness, healing, and the beginning to a new life even in the midst of chaos. The gospel writer of Luke says that Zaccheaus promised new behavior as a result of his Communion with Jesus; a life modeled on compassion, reconciliation, and justice. It would be naïve to think that all of Zacchaeus’s problems instantly vanished. But now he knew himself to be on the right path to healing that Jesus had enabled.
I think it is also important to note that this salvation that Zacchaeus experiences is not solely the result of his crafty plan to see Jesus, but rather was working in concert to Jesus’ own searching out of Zaccheaus. In the language of Psalm 139: “LORD, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.”[iii] Presumably Jesus had never met Zacchaeus, yet Luke says that,“When Jesus came to the place, helooked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down: for I must stay at your house today.’” Jesus already knew Zacchaeus and in front of the huge crowd of people called out to him by name and articulated his own desire for relationship and Communion with him. Jesus, who was on his own path toward Jerusalem to fulfill the vocation. He had been called to, considered His desire for relationship with Zacchaeus to be no small thing, for this is why He was going to Jerusalem: to give of himself fully so that no one would be left friendless, homeless, or hungry. The closing words of our gospel lesson is the central theme of Luke’s gospel: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” In the gospel of John we hear a variation on this theme: “When I am lifted up, I (sic) will draw all people to myself.”[iv]
Just as my mom came out time and time again, looking up into the maple tree and calling me to dinner, so Jesus called to Zaccheaus and invited him to supper. Likewise, Jesus is calling to us to hurry down from the tall trees in our lives: the trees of hiding, protection, and distant perspective. He is inviting us to the sacramental feast of the altar, to be fed, loved, and known fully to be whom we were created to be: children of God.[v] It takes a little effort on our part but we can be assured that Jesus is prepared to meet us exactly where we are. All we have to do is come forward, put our hands together and receive the sustenance we most need and desire and in turn find our place and purpose in this world, just like blessed Zacchaeus, patron saint of all kids as well as seekers of God, whom we remember today!
[i]Faulkner, William. The Reivers: A Reminiscence. New York: Random House, 1962. Print.
[ii] Philippians 4:6-7
[iii] Psalm 139:1-2
[iv] John 12:32
[v] Richard Meux Benson, the founder of SSJE, wrote: “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.” (The Final Passover, Vol. 2, p. 402)
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