There are two things we know about Zacchaeus: he was rich and he was short.
He wasn’t just rich, he was a chief tax collector. There are quite a few references in the Gospels to tax collectors, but this is the only reference to a CHIEF tax collector. It’s like Zacchaeus was the regional manager of tax collectors. In those days, being a tax collector was a good way to make a lot of money, because it was a franchised operation, working for the occupying Roman government, but it was not a great way to make friends among the population, who had no fondness for taxes and really did not like people who made their money by collaborating with the Roman occupation. So with his money, Zacchaeus had a lot of privilege and with his position, he had protection, since the Romans would allow no one to mess with the way they governed. But Zacchaeus was also short. That is to say, very noticeably not tall. This is important, because even though it may not be a good thing, it often affects how people see a person, and the kind of respect they give him. Of course, it’s unfair, just as the extra privilege accorded to the rich and powerful is unfair in the other direction.
The image is that here comes this well-known healer and prophet, Jesus, walking down the main street of the town—“who knows, maybe he’s the messiah or something, maybe he’ll restore righteousness to Israel, maybe he’ll take the place of John the Baptist and start baptizing people in the Jordan (which wasn’t far away from that town of Jericho), maybe he’ll pick up where John left off when he was arrested, and show Herod and those Romans a thing or two…” The crowds were out, expecting something … and this short guy, this sinner Zacchaeus was there wanting to see him as well. But he was … not popular; a sinner; regional manager of the Tax Collecting Corporation … and besides he was short. So they turned their backs on him and closed ranks, and kept him from seeing the street. But, somehow, Zacchaeus really wanted to see this Jesus guy. Being resourceful and determined, Zacchaeus saw a sycamore tree down the road—the variety that grows in Palestine has big branches that spread out, starting pretty close to the ground—so he ran ahead and climbed up in the branches.
The crowd was expecting something special from Jesus, but they weren’t expecting what happened: “Zacchaeus come on down here! I have to stay at your house today!” Those were the words of the prophet Jesus, and Zacchaeus accepted them with joy; he scrambled down out of the tree and welcomed him. So they’re walking off toward Zacchaeus’ house and everybody has an opinion—it’s not just the Pharisees and other religious leaders this time. Everybody is saying that this Zacchaeus is obviously a sinner—look at all the money he makes, and besides, he’s short. Jesus, of course is a great disappointment, not living up to our expectations, hanging out with short people … I mean … obvious sinners. While people are grumbling, Zacchaeus stops and explains to Jesus how he lives: “Look, Lord, I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I may have defrauded someone, I make fourfold restitution.”
One of the problems with the lectionary is that sometimes parts of the Gospel story are skipped over. In my Greek New Testament, there is another story that runs parallel to this, the story of the rich ruler. The same basic story occurs in the Gospel of Mark, so it was read last year, and I preached on it here at St. Paul’s and at Trinity just over a year ago. So it’s left out of this year’s cycle of readings. In that story a clearly devout and prominent man asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus lists off the essentials of the commandments, the man affirms that he has always followed those, and Jesus says, “just one more thing—sell what you have, give to the poor, and come follow me” … the man goes away sorrowful, for he was very rich. In the Gospel of Luke, these two stories are only separated by Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and the healing of the blind beggar—one page in the Greek. Zacchaeus, who is also rich and powerful does not go away sorrowful, but welcomes Jesus with joy. Though no one notices or believes him, he dedicates himself and his property to the Kingdom of God.
Jesus said: (to put it in very literal translation) “Today, therefore, it is necessary that I remain in your house” –it uses the same formula that he uses when he responds to Peter’s confessing that he is the messiah by saying “it is necessary that the Son of man undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed and on the third day be raised.” Dwelling in the house of this notorious sinner brings in the Kingdom of God. (flip one more page and you are at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem). Zacchaeus is an ambiguous character with a complex life—not unlike many of us, I would wager—he has plenty of privilege, and yet he’s also marginalized and despised. He is in no more likely situation to respond to Jesus than the rich ruler, and he’s in no less difficult situation to take this man into his house than we are. Jesus sought out Zacchaeus and brought salvation to his house, just as he seeks us out, to bring his healing and his Gospel in this town.