We are all familiar with the Sunday school songs “Zacchaeus, was a very little man.” At some point perhaps we have been Zacchaeus.!
To be short in stature is not only about one’s physical height. It’s part of the human condition and it’s one of the threads that runs through the Gospel reading. The Psalmist declares, “I am small and of little account” (Psalm 119:141).
- Have we ever felt like that?
- Ever felt “small and of little account?”
- Ever felt life has short changed us?
Being a “tax collector” and “sinner” are indeed made synonymous here in Luke 19, but to understand a little bit more about what this means invites us to think again about the context. Imagine: you are oppressed under the Roman Empire. You are poor. You are probably struggling. You don’t have the same rights as your Roman overlords. And then one from amongst you decides he wants to get ahead a little bit because he knows what it is to be a person who’s oppressed/poor and so he becomes a tax collector. As a tax collector, you can take some money off the top from the people who give their taxes to the Roman Empire.
And then the Romans also know that you’re going to skim some off the top, so you’re distrusted by the Romans because you’re not actually Roman, you’re Jewish, so you’re not equivalent to them. But you’re also hated by your own people because you betrayed them to the occupying nation. So, this Zacchaeus is a man who represents a class of people who are despised by everyone. He has good reasons for becoming a tax collector. Who wants to be poor? Who wants their family to not have enough to eat? And so, he does what he can to try to get ahead, to try to make sure he’s going to be okay in the midst of an economy and a world which didn’t have enough for him. So, the vicious cycle of the poor exploiting the poor to continues till today.
I wonder, what is our Zacchaeus story?
- Has life ever cut us down to size?
- Have we ever felt small, insignificant, ignored and of little importance?
- Perhaps, we feel we don’t measure up to life’s demands?
- We are not good enough?
- Do we feel we are always on the outside, never an insider?
- Does it seem as if we cannot outgrow our past or the opinions of others?
- Do we ever wonder if Jesus notices us, knows who we are?
- Knows us by name?
- Have we ever felt powerless and overwhelmed by the demands, circumstances of our lie/work/family?
- Sometimes it does seem as if our value, worth and dignity have been defined by our past choices and actions, what we have done and left undone.
- Have we ever experienced being lost and alone in the crowds of life?
If our answered is yes to any one of those or a thousand other things like them then you and I probably know what it’s like to be Zacchaeus. We just want to climb up a tree and hide. I just want to run away and escape my life.
I would like to share two incidents which happened recently, that made me feel like an outsider even though I so much want to be an insider.
- On my way to Singapore at Christchurch Airport, a customs staff, without even checking my passport indicated to me to join the foreign passport queue. He had no words to say to me when he discovered I hold a kiwi passport. An assumption all migrants are outsiders?
- I attended a retirement celebration at a church. The lady who sat beside mistook me as a cleaner. Perhaps I was the only coloured woman there. She was shocked when I was introduced as a minister of Aldersgate.
Sometimes I just want to jump out of my life and into another life. It’s my life and it’s the only life I have. If Jesus is going to do anything new with me it has to start with my life as it is.
To run away from, ignore or escape my life as it is denying Jesus us anything to work with.
The antidote is facing our life, not running from it. That what Zacchaeus does in today’s gospel. He refuses to be lost in the crowd. He refuses to hide. He refuses to run away from who is is. Instead, he climbs up a tree to see Jesus. I wonder what if he climbed that tree because he wanted to be seen by Jesus?
What if that was how he faced the truth and reality of his own life?
Jesus looked up and invited himself into Zacchaeus home and into his life.
Diana Butler Bass’ book Grateful revisits the Zacchaeus story and invites us to see it in the midst of God’s economy of grace—arguing how grace actually changes us and the way that we live our lives and the way that we’re able to be the church and to show up in the world.
And in this moment, as Jesus is going down the road with all of the people thronging him, he looks up and, the text tells us, he sees this man –a tax collector– a man named Zacchaeus, and he invites him to come down from his tree as Jesus declares he’s going to go to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner.
” Yet the reality is that the people in the Bible are just like you and I – they are real people, people who are doing the best that they can, people who are afraid, people who don’t know what will happen.? People who maybe have been locked in their homes for fear, people who are longing for a different life or world and are not sure if it will come. And so, when I rehear this story of Zacchaeus, I feel a lot of empathy for him.
We don’t know why he comes to see Jesus. We know he can’t see because he was short. But he is also thinking about that sycamore tree and climbing — that’s something he’d probably been doing his whole life. He’d been finding ways to climb out from the mire of the people who were all just waiting and longing for freedom and salvation from God. And he climbs up because he’s going to get his and then Jesus sees him and says, “Come on down!”
But then–again and again I hear God’s Spirit, he meets the Grace of God. The grace of God, going back through the entire Scriptures, is the God of El Roi, the God who sees. (Hagar).
Hagar called the name of the LORD who spoke to her,
You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said,
“Have I also here seen Him who sees me?”
In a terrible home situation, all Hagar could do was run. Hagar thought her circumstances needed transformation; in fact, she needed transformation. The God of transforming power met her at a well. There she came realize that she met with God who sees me.
And grace sees every single one of us and says there is a place in God’s realm for each of us to experience and know grace.
He reawakens to the fact that this God has always seen him. And Jesus comes to his dinner table. And it’s through that table fellowship of sitting over a meal that his life is changed and transformed.
I wonder, in this time, how can we be a people who instead of living out of those places of fear and scarcity, live our lives more deeply in alignment with the God who sees, with the God whose economy is one of grace, one where there is enough at this table from which each of us might partake, where rich and poor and strong and weak and all of us in between are invited to come down from our trees or to rise up from the streets where we shake our fists and to find ourselves together at one banquet table with the God of all things…who in Christ extends the grace that sees us?
Perhaps we can resonate with this story in this time, as we notice our own fear and the anxiety we are feeling. Or the ways we are climbing some trees for good reasons.
May we be a people who open our hearts to be seen by this grace and this love of God in Christ. And as we are seen, may we then be a people who see one another in the same way as Jesus sees and loved. Bringing grace enough for everyone.
Grace for today, grace for tomorrow. There is grace enough for all.
God who sees, you and I and may we know that we are seen.
Go in that peace and in that love and that grace, for Grace Actually Sees.