Zacchaeus: The original ‘despicable me’
Reading for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost:
And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich. And he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press, because he was little of stature. And he ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him: for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house. And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost. (Luke 19:1-10 KJV)
Zacchaeus is an interesting biblical character. Unfortunately, we do not know much about him. He is not mentioned in other stories in the Bible. He appears in this one story, out of nowhere. And then he disappears.
Something about Zacchaeus makes me anxious to know more. I want to know what about Jesus caught his attention. I want to know how he lived months and years after he met the living Christ. And I wonder what he thought about the stories of Jesus’ resurrection.
My commentaries did not help me much with information about Zacchaeus’ job. The Tyndale New Testament Commentary tells us the title “chief among the publicans” is “not found anywhere else,” so we are not exactly sure about the significance of his position. He might have been in charge of tax collection for a region.
The respected conservative Bible commentator Adam Clarke says there are two possible meanings of the description of Zacchaeus. One possible meaning is he had tax collectors who worked under him. As a chief tax collector, he may have forwarded taxes collected in the region to the government in Rome. Another possible meaning is that he was the “most respectable” tax collector in Jericho.
Most respectable = least despicable
At best, “most respectable” means Zacchaeus was the least despicable, the least hated, of a detested and despised group of people. In contemporary society, that might be the equivalent of a “straight acting” gay man or lesbian. At worst, being in charge of tax collectors made Zacchaeus the most hated of a very hated group of people. The equivalent today might be a flaming gay man or a real butch lesbian.
There is a possibility Zacchaeus was seen as the worst of the worst. Unfortunately, we do not know.
Zacchaeus lived in Jericho, which was a “very rich city” in the Jordan Valley. Jericho was located on an important trade route. The main road to Jerusalem from the east, from the Trans-Jordan, went through Jericho. So Zacchaeus worked in an area where a lot of tax could be collected.
Because Zacchaeus was a tax collector, he was “excluded from membership among the people of God.” And there was some reason why tax collectors were not really accepted in the house of faith. The general thought of the time was that tax collectors got money by misapplying their power and authority.
While Zacchaeus was probably Jewish, he was considered a heathen because of the infamous nature of his occupation. A tax collector could tax everything a merchant had, right down to all of the produce, the cart, and the animal pulling the cart.
Zacchaeus’ doorway to grace
Zacchaeus was short, so he could not see Jesus over the crowds. He climbed up a tree so he could see the famous rabbi. Had Zacchaeus been a tall man, he might never have climbed the tree for a better view. While being height-challenged might have been considered to be a personal imperfection, Clarke notes that the “imperfections of our persons” can become subservient to God’s grace.
I believe what we see as human imperfections often serve as a means to the end of God’s grace. And what we see as imperfections are subordinate to God’s grace. In other words, God gave Zacchaeus grace through the very trait Zacchaeus probably considered an imperfection. And being short was much less important to God than grace.
Many people in the queer community see their sexual orientation, their true gender identification or their gender expression as a limitation, an imperfection. That is not God’s view. To God, your sexual orientation, your gender identification and your gender expression are ways God uses to show you the richness of heaven’s grace.
You may look around and feel your age, abilities, disabilities, height, weight, race, skin color, ethnicity, social class, or occupation make you a flawed member of society. The very things society feels are imperfections are things God can use to show us the Creator’s grace.
‘I must abide at thy house’
Jesus saw Zacchaeus. He did not avoid Zacchaeus like one might expect somebody to avoid, for example, a person who was carrying a contagious disease such as leprosy. Jesus did not look the other way hoping Zacchaeus would not notice, so that Jesus would not have to acknowledge the presence of such a despised person — a person many people would have considered to be among the worst of sinners.
Jesus went beyond smiling, or waving, or just giving a polite greeting to Zacchaeus. His reaction to meeting Zacchaeus was not to reluctantly accept an invitation to the outcast’s home. Jesus did what nobody expected: He invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ place.
The famous and popular rabbi invited himself to the home of a tax collector — likely a chief tax collector. In our time, this might be like Billy Graham inviting himself to lunch with Al Capone. Or perhaps like Pat Robertson inviting himself to Marilyn Monroe’s home for supper.
This just did not happen! A religious leader, a rabbi, went to the home of a tax collector. Worse yet, Jesus invited himself! This was “unheard of.”
Jesus told Zacchaeus to hurry up and get down from that tree. The Savior said, “I must abide at thy house.” Jesus felt it was important to dwell there. Leon Morris, who wrote the Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Luke, says this was a “strong expression” that shows “Jesus saw His visit to Zacchaeus as part of His divine mission.”
God was seeking Zacchaeus
Zacchaeus’ presence shows that in some way he was seeking God. What Zacchaeus did not know was that God was also seeking him. According to classical trinitarianism, Jesus is God the Son. Jesus, God the Son, was seeking out Zacchaeus. We understand that when we read the last verse in the passage:
For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.
The contributors to the Christian Community Bible observe:
Everybody in Jericho was pointing a finger at Zacchaeus: how could a man involved in dirty deals, (like he was) be converted? What punishment would God send to him? Instead of punishing him, God comes to his home.
The biblical story in Luke says “they all murmured.” I suspect the complaining was in jealousy. All of these good, upstanding people would have loved to entertain a popular, dynamic rabbi in their homes. And who does Jesus choose to hang with? A person of ill repute! The compliment of Jesus’ presence was wasted on this tax collector.
The “good” people were insulted and slighted because Jesus had not chosen them. Our human tendency is to feel slighted when we learn that God is interested in people who are different than we are.
Much meaning comes from the from the names of the people, things, towns or cities in biblical stories. Zacchaeus means “righteous one” or “pure.”
God sees a righteous one
When Jesus saw Zacchaeus, the Son did not see a tax collector. The Son saw a “righteous one.” When God looks at you, God sees a “righteous one.”
When the Creator looks at you, the Creator does not see a gay man or a lesbian; the Creator sees a “righteous one.”
As the Ruler of the Universe looks at you, the Ruler of the Universe does not see a bisexual; the Ruler of the Universe sees a “righteous one.”
When the Comforter looks at you, the Comforter does not see a trans-identified person; the Comforter sees a “righteous one.”
The Redeemer does not look at you and see a questioning person; the Redeemer sees a “righteous one.”
God does not see you as a straight person. When God looks, God sees you as a “righteous one.”
This church is a direct result of people seeing the world through Jesus’ eyes. Instead of seeing queer people as people who are despised, this church sees queer people as God’s righteous ones. And in this church, we see God’s grace being expressed in the sacraments of our sexuality, our gender identity, and our gender expression.
God is speaking to us through ancient stories to rekindle a passion to continue to view the world through Jesus’ eyes, and to help others see the world the same way. And God will do that through each of us no matter what direction this church takes.
A lifelong counselor, teacher and educator, having worked in elementary and secondary education for 25 years, Gary Simpson is a member of the Canadian Counseling and Psychotherapy Association and has spoken and led workshops on gay-straight alliances, bullying, spiritual self-defense, gay Christian identity, and the needs of GLBT youth and young adults.
Currently studying at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., he holds a B.Ed. from Union College in Lincoln, Neb., an M.A. in Guidance and Counseling and Ed.S. in Educational Psychology from Loma Linda University in Riverside, Calif., a Master’s in Religious Education from Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta, and a Certificate in Sexuality and Religion from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.