The story of Zacchaeus shimmying up a tree to better see Jesus and then having Jesus invite himself to a long lunch (Luke 19:1-10. Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 26) is just a riotously joyful and life giving story – great for Sunday School students and serious mature Christians who need reminding how simple, generous and available it all can be.
There is so much going on in this short but action packed story and no detail is superfluous! Location is always important – the story takes place in Jericho, a customs centre (very worldly) as well as being the location of layers of historical and Biblical significance (remember the battle of Jericho and Rahab the prostitute who helps save the Israelite army and thus finds herself named in the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew’s gospel). Zacchaeus (a name which means righteous or just) is a Chief Tax Collector so wealthy from a much despised job – collecting taxes for the Roman Empire. He is short in stature which is possibly a physical and social description which suggests the risk of being left out or literally overlooked. And of course the wonderful creative solution which is to scramble up a tree so that he can see this Jesus for himself. And the utter surprise to Zacchaeus, his neighbours (who start grumbling) and we the audience, that Jesus is absolutely clear that he wants Zacchaeus to hurry down because Jesus wants to spend time with him – now, today!
At this point in the story we have an important decision to make which relates to translation and it is important. In the English we have tended to report Zacchaeus as saying that he “will” in the future give half of his possessions to the poor ... but those who know better than me declare that it is clear in the Greek that he actually says that he gives (or in the present tense – he is already doing this!). This makes a difference because it changes what we think the punch line is! So is it that Zacchaeus is converted by his encounter with Jesus and as a result changes his behaviour (or worse still that because he promises to change his behaviour Jesus declares that salvation has come to the house that day)? Or is that Zacchaeus is a righteous person who is already a seeker (hence his readiness to shimmy up a tree to get a better view) and that Jesus brings salvation with him when he invites himself home to lunch?
At first this may sound rather hair splitting but the difference is whether we understand Jesus to be offering transactional love – that is salvation in exchange for particular decisions, behaviours and beliefs as a reward or does he announce grace, which is undeserved love for the accepting!
If Zacchaeus was indeed a righteous person, already seeking to live justly, and seeking God’s wisdom and favour – prepared to scale up the tree to see more clearly – then was it his attitude or the unsolicited arrival of Jesus which brings salvation to him? The text is clear that salvation came with the arrival of Jesus into his house. And the attitude of Zacchaeus seems to have meant that he was open to inviting Jesus into his home, providing hospitality and receiving what was offered. His attitude of seeking, of living justly, of welcome, and of acceptance all made it possible to receive but the gift was freely given.
In the spiritual life we so often get tied in knots of our own making by trying so hard to see, to hear, to learn only to belatedly discover that the One we are seeking is seeking us. Jesus is already on his way to lunch, is already seeking us out, making a bee line to our place. Part of our struggle is that we seek God as though God were separate and Other. The grumbling observers of Zacchaeus certainly thought that Jesus the teacher was Other (and certainly they would have thought that God was very Other) than the tax collector and yet Jesus invites himself in as though Zacchaeus is his long lost best friend – and so he is in some way – for as Jesus says Zacchaeus is also a son of Abraham, is one of the family.
And in case you think I’ve pushed it too far, which is possible, this is the same conclusion or discovery that the mystics, and wise ones of old, have always found (and of course from whom I have got the idea!). In this age we have teachers such as Richard Rohr to help us speak more coherently about this seeking what seeks us, and in Immortal Diamond he says it this way: “If you are seeking the divine, you have already made contact with the divine in yourself... Longing for God and longing for our True Self are the same longing. And the mystics would say that it is God who is even doing the longing in us and through us (that is, through the divine indwelling, or the Holy Spirit). God implanted a natural affinity and allurement between God’s own self and all of God’s creatures. The limited and the limitless would otherwise be incapable of union; the finite and infinite could never be reconciled into one.” Another way of saying this might be to say that the spark of the divine placed in us is longing for reunion with the divine Source, longing for the Oneness that is our true nature and destiny.
Jesus came to seek out and save the lost. We tend to hear that as a moral or legalistic statement that Jesus came to find the worst of people who had the most sins to repent of and the worst consequences to avoid. But all who do not know that they belong, all who are longing for we-know-not-what, are the lost who need saving. And that has or does still include us. Every time we feel separate to God, unseen, unimportant, restless then we are among the lost that need to be found and saved. And salvation is much more than avoidance of punishment, it is to heal, to preserve, to rescue, to take from danger to safety and to deliver. We need this as individuals as part of our path to wholeness. And we need this saving as a community because just as we are not really separate from God we are not really separate from our neighbour or our world and rescue and preservation is very much what we are collectively in need of. Our politics and our economics, our healthcare and education systems, our ideas of justice and restoration, all are in need of salvation and renewal. We need to live and work and have our being in a community that knows itself an expression of the One, as interconnected and of infinite value.
We who gather around the Word and the Bread are seekers and strivers and yet we are already where we need to be for the One who we seek is seeking us. Let us be still for a moment and know that we are found, know that we are saved, and know that we are completely loved.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, open our eyes so that we may see you are already here, that there is no distance between us.
I am indebted to the wisdom of Father Richard Rohr in general and in particular as expressed in his book “Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self”, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2013 (quotes from page 95)
Also I am grateful to editors Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler for "The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation", Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011 and the very good footnotes on the text.