Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Roman Empire. While we may not be especially fond of IRS agents, the tax collectors of Jesus’ time were truly despised, and with good reason. Tax collectors were citizens of the Roman Empire selected for this “honor” by the Emperor or one of his governors. They were told exactly how much had to be collected, and they had to turn in the full amount of the tax due, regardless of whether all of it was actually paid to him. So if someone was unable to pay, the tax collector had to make up the difference out of his own pocket. Inability to pay the total due could result in the tax collector losing everything he owned, and might even result in being sold into slavery along with his family to make up the difference. Many tax collectors of the time dealt with that little problem by over-collecting from everyone, taking everything they could get from everyone they could get it from. They would turn in to the Empire the exact amount due and keep whatever overage they had managed to acquire. As a result, all tax collectors were assumed to be corrupt individuals, lining their pockets at the expense of others.
In our online discussion of this text yesterday, some of my preaching colleagues noted his description as a short man and assumed that a short man would naturally seek a profession in which he has power over others who are taller and stronger than he. Some looked at his name, which means innocence, and assumed it was planned irony on the part of the writer of Luke that this clearly corrupt person was named “Innocence.” Sort of like a prostitute being named Chastity. Others proposed that childhood teasing by his peers led the boy named Innocence into a life of theft and corruption as a tax collector. But nearly all of us started from the assumption that because Zacchaeus was a tax collector and rich, he therefore must be corrupt.
And then someone said “Yeah, this is all lots of fun. But if you look at the Greek you’ll see that we may be completely misjudging Zacchaeus.” Really? I looked it up, and sure enough, in the Greek Zacchaeus says literally “Behold, one-half of my possessions, Lord, to the poor I give. And if someone I defrauded of anything, I am paying back four times.” He speaks to Jesus in the present tense, not the future – these are the things he is already doing!
It looks like way too many of us made the same mistake the crowd made – assuming that Zacchaeus was the typical tax collector, ironically named Innocence. When perhaps he was not at all what they (and we) thought, and the name Innocence was deserved. In fact, when we compare the Greek to the translation we heard today, it seems as though the translators themselves were convinced of Zacchaeus’ corruption, and thus translated his words in future tense “Lord, I will give one-half my possessions to the poor. And I will make restitution of four times whatever I defrauded from anyone.” As if Zacchaeus is saying, “Now that you have accepted me, Lord, I will change and do good works.”
Instead, the literal translation leads me to believe that Zacchaeus was not corrupt as we think he must have been, and this is what he was telling Jesus. He wasn’t the thief everyone assumed he was. He was already giving to the poor, and making amends for his sins against others. He did not have to change what he was doing. But he did have to bring Jesus to his home that night, and he did have to stand up to face the neighbors who were badmouthing him once again.
Jesus recognizes him as a son of Abraham, obeying and even exceeding the requirements of the law. But Jesus says “I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus has already sought out Jesus, to hear the message he brought. But just listening will not be enough. He must accept Jesus into his house, his life, his heart, in order to be saved - in order to be healed. For while Zacchaeus means “Innocence,” Jesus means “God Heals.”
If he’s already Jewish, and he’s already doing all these good things, what does he need to be saved from? From the world! He needs to be healed from living with the bad opinion of his neighbors. From their assumptions, and apparently, from our assumptions as well. He needs to be healed from resentments he may harbor because of those bad opinions, and the bad treatment that would accompany them. He needs to be healed from the temptation to be like so many other tax collectors – because it would be easier and less scary to overtax those who could pay than worry about not having enough money for the Empire. And after all, why not? As long as everyone already believed he was like the others, why not? He needs to be healed from feeling less than the others, unaccepted and unacceptable. Jesus says “I must come stay with you” because Jesus knows how badly Zacchaeus needs to be healed, and accepted, and loved. Jesus knows that Zacchaeus feels he will never be accepted by his neighbors, and Jesus must stay with him so that he will know and be assured that he is loved by the One whose love is most important.
The story of Zacchaeus is the story of each one of us. Even the most well adjusted people have moments when they feel they simply aren’t enough – not smart enough or pretty enough or successful enough or thin enough or strong enough or tall enough or healthy enough or young enough or old enough . . . We spend our energy worrying about what the neighbors think and trying to do the things that will make us acceptable in their eyes. The story of Zacchaeus tells us that it doesn’t matter what the neighbors think. God loves us, and really, who else matters?
And as for that whole thing about not having enough or not being good enough which plagues so many of us . . . I received a story by email this week that I’d like to share:
The plane’s departure had been announced. A mother and daughter had only a few minutes left before the daughter had to board her flight. I couldn’t help but overhear their words, as, standing near the security gate, they hugged and the mother said, "I love you and I wish you enough". The daughter replied, "Mom, our life together has been more than enough. Your love is all I ever needed. I wish you enough , too, Mom".
They kissed and the daughter left. The mother walked over to the window where I was seated. Standing there I could see she wanted and needed to cry. I tried not to intrude on her privacy but she welcomed me in by asking, "Did you ever say good-bye to someone knowing it would be forever?". Yes, I have," I replied. "Forgive me for asking, but why is this a forever good-bye?". "I am old and she lives so far away. I have challenges ahead and the reality is - the next trip back will be for my funeral," she said.
"When you were saying good-bye, I heard you say, 'I wish you enough'. May I ask what that means?". She began to smile. "That's a wish that has been handed down from other generations My parents used to say it to everyone". She paused a moment and looked up as if trying to remember it in detail and she smiled even more. "When we said , ' I wish you enough', we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them". Then turning toward me, she shared the following as if she were reciting it from memory.
I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright no matter how gray the day may appear.
I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun even more.
I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive and everlasting.
I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest of joys in life may appear bigger.
I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.
I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.
I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good-bye.
She then began to cry and walked away.
What a beautiful wish! The mother’s wish is God’s wish for each of us – that we should have enough, exactly what we need. And the daughter’s response is our response to God, “Your love is all I ever needed.” It is this assurance that Jesus brought to Zacchaeus: “You have God’s love, and that is all you need. Never mind what the neighbors think, never mind how the world perceives you. YOU are God’s beautiful, precious, beloved child, you receive from God exactly what you need, and you are loved exactly as you are.”
So let’s go out from this place today, assured that whatever we have and whatever we are, it is enough, and we are loved. And let’s tell this story of God’s love to everyone! For the story of Zacchaeus is the story of God’s love and acceptance of each and every one of God’s children – each and every one of us – no matter what the neighbors think! and that is the story I love to tell!
Hymn: I love to tell the story