The Little Guy
I love the story of Zacchaeus. If you grew up in church, you know this story, complete with song and motions. We all know that Zacchaeus was a wee little man who climbed a tree one day so he could see Jesus. The gospel writers aren’t typically free with detail in their telling of all that Jesus did. In fact, in most cases, we’re lucky when we get a name. Most of the time we only know gender, nationality if it makes an important point, maybe occupation, and not much else. Luke breaks the mold with Zacchaeus. He’s probably the only person in the Gospels for whom we know anything about physical appearance. He was short. He was short enough that he couldn’t see over or around the crowds lining the street the day Jesus came to town. So he climbed a tree.
We know something else about Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector. And not only was he a tax collector, but he was the chief tax collector and very wealthy. There were few people in Jesus’ day who were looked down on more than the tax collectors. They were crooks. Rome required them to take a certain amount from everyone. But not only did they collect the heavy taxes required by the government, they added a bit to the total. An unseen handling fee that they put straight into their own pockets that everyone knew about but couldn’t fight. So everyone thought the tax collectors were thieves. And they were traitors. They were Jews that chose to work for Rome and robbed their brothers and sisters. They weren’t allowed into the synagogues. They were shunned from their community. So this short guy, Zacchaeus, made up for it by taking as much as he could and becoming incredibly wealthy in the process.
So why did a sawed-off thief like this want to see Jesus so much that he climbed a tree? I imagine that a story had been circulating through the tax collector world, so preposterous that they just kept telling it. One day, this tax collector named Matthew just left his booth and all of his money, all because a dude named Jesus said, “Follow me.” To a guy like Zacchaeus, this would have been worth sitting on a tree branch. Another story was spreading like wildfire throughout Jericho that day. The blind guy that sat outside the city wasn’t begging anymore. He’d called out to this Jesus guy and now he could see. Other stories were whispered as people came to his booth each day. Word of Jesus was everywhere. And now he was walking into town. I’m sure Zacchaeus couldn’t help but climb that tree if it was the only way he could catch a glimpse at a man who was causing the blind to see and the tax collectors to walk away.
We already know that Zacchaeus climbed the tree because he was short and couldn‘t see over the crowds. You also have to remember that since he was probably considered the worst person in all of Jericho, people weren’t likely to let him push through the crowd. So he climbed a tree. He just had to see this guy that all the stories were about. And I’m guess that he nearly fell out of the tree when Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, get out of that tree. We’re having lunch at your place.”
Imagine the shock on the faces of all those people who wouldn’t let him through the crowd a few minutes earlier. I would guess the crowd parted like the Red Sea as Jesus and the biggest crook in town walked arm in arm down the street. I would also put money on it that their jaws nearly fell out of their faces a little while later when Zacchaeus started handing them money. The man who had been taking the cash out of their hands for years was now passing it out like it grew on that tree he’d been sitting in.
Jesus has the power to change lives. The same Jesus who took a wee little traitor and loved him and brought him back into the community can do the same thing for each of us and wants to do it. He can walk into our lives and turn our attitudes upside down. He can take pained and broken relationships and make them whole and sweet. The only question is this: Are you willing to jump out of your tree and let him?