Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 3, 2013

2013.11.3 “Zacchaeus, Patron Saint of the Short” – Luke 19: 1 – 10

Central United Methodist Church

Zacchaeus, Patron Saint of the Short

Pastor David L. Haley

November 3, 2013

All Saints

Luke 19: 1 – 10


Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich.  He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way — he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd.  So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.

When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.”

Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him.  Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”

Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor – and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”

 Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham!  For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.” – Luke 19: 1 – 10, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Like all children, when I was a child, I loved Halloween. I don’t remember every Halloween, but I remember one in particular, walking the streets of our little town on a cold rainy night trying to see out of some Halloween mask and trying to keep from falling into a ditch. Good times!

Of course, the candy wasn’t bad either. Now that even my youngest children no longer trick-or-treat, I’m reduced to eating the leftover candy we get for trick-or-treaters, and therefore being thankful for the rain this year, which dampened the number of trick-or-treaters, leaving more candy for me.

But here’s a bigger question: how did Halloween, once part of a meaningful three-day religious festival, get reduced to begging for candy?

That’s a long story, which I don’t have time to go into, (Google it), but as I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate more and more the Christian holiday from which Halloween received it’s name, All Saints, (in Scotland, All Hallows), November 1st, which we celebrate today, since we are not here on All Saints Day, perhaps sick from eating too much candy on Halloween, like, for example, this cat.

The reason we love All Saints is because it is a celebration of saints on earth and saints in heaven, especially saints we have known.  Sometimes the older we get the more saints we know in heaven, which makes the celebration of All Saints all that much more important, meaningful, and even tearful for us.

One thing we need to clarify is that when we say saints, we don’t necessarily mean “saintly.”  In fact, if you read any history of the saints you will find they are as crazy a group of people as any and all of those we have known, including us.

I have always loved what author Frederick Buechner says about All Saints:

“On All Saints’ Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and whole ones, the despots and tosspots and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.” (The Sacred Journey, pp. 73 – 74)

While there is no scarcity of examples, it might be hard to find a better example of the kind of unlikely candidates for saint than the one featured in today’s Gospel, the tax man Zacchaeus.

Although his name, Zacchaeus, means “righteous, it appears Zacchaeus was anything but righteous, due to the three strikes he had against him. First, he was not only a tax collector, but a “chief” tax collector, a man hated politically as a traitor to his country; morally, for being corrupt, skimming his own people; a social and spiritual outcast.

Secondly, he was rich. Go figure; what are the chances of that, a tax collector AND rich? Kind of like saying he’s a politician, and wealthy. How does that happen?  I think we know.

If you’ve been listening to Luke’s Gospel, the fact that Zacchaeus was rich, would seem to make his chances for sainthood unlikely. From the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke has harsh things to say about the rich. Before Jesus is born, his mother praises God for filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty handed. (1:53) When he grows up, Jesus blesses the poor but warns the rich: “Woe to you who are rich, you have received your consolation.” (6:24) In Luke 12, there is the rich farmer who builds bigger barns, but is pronounced a fool, because he dies that night. There is the story of the rich man Lazarus, who because he ignores the beggar at his gate, winds up in hell. In Luke 18, there is the rich young ruler who walks away, because he could not give up his wealth, leading Jesus to make his famous pronouncement, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (18:25) So it’s not looking good for Zacchaeus.

Thirdly, Zacchaeus is short, which won’t keep him out of heaven, but it does put him at a disadvantage in a crowd. Those of us who are dimensionally challenged, perpetually tired of looking up to tall people, understand. It is a particular problem on this day, when he just wants to see Jesus. But he has gotten there late for the parade and can’t see over or around or through everybody, so if he’s going to see Jesus the only thing he can think of is to climb a tree.  So now, (1) he’s a tax collector; (2) he’s rich; (3) and he’s up in a tree. I’d say Zacchaeus’ prospects for sainthood are getting worse by the minute, wouldn’t you?

But that’s the exciting thing about the Jesus story: it doesn’t depend upon who we are or what we do or how much we have or what our natural gifts and graces are. Jesus is always surprising us by welcoming the wrong people and confounding the righteous, at least those righteous in their own minds.

So you know what happens next: Jesus looks up and spots Zacchaeus, calls him down, and invites himself over, which sets off grumbling by everybody. “Zacchaeus? Really!” Does Jesus know who he is?”

Do we know who he is?  Is Zacchaeus a repentant sinner, or a hidden saint? You see, when he defends himself before the crowd, what he says, he says in the present tense: “Master, I give away half my income to the poor and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”

It’s a question of translation; even though the verbs are in the present tense, the typical way of reading of the story follows translations like the New Revised Standard Version and New International Version, which render the present tense verbs as a “futuristic present.” That is, Zacchaeus the sinner repents and vows to make restitution, for this point on.

But it could equally well follow other translations like the King James Version and Revised Standard Version and The Message) which render the verbs as a “progressive present tense.” In such a reading, Zacchaeus is a hidden saint about whom people have made false assumptions. In other words, while the crowd has demonized Zacchaeus, Jesus sees to his heart and praises him as “a son of Abraham,” just another one of many times Jesus calls out good people who are bad and commends bad people who are good.

Could it be that the formerly despicable Zacchaeus is the generous one? Could it also be that the traditional interpretation of Zacchaeus as a penitent sinner who’s converted, tricks us into committing the very sin that the story condemns, of prejudicially condemning someone before we know the truth? Could it be that Zacchaeus does live up to his name, “righteous?” Could it be that Jesus knew that all along?

And isn’t it worth noting how Jesus knew “Salvation was in the house?” Not because Zacchaeus shed tears or offered to lead a Bible Study or start a prayer group, but because he opened his checkbook, using his wealth to right wrongs and help those in need. Even in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is not AGAINST possessions and wealth; he knows what we all know, that as much as anything in our lives, our wealth and possessions can be an instrument for good or for evil. And, what we do with what we have makes a powerful statement about who we are, even more powerful than what we say with our mouths. In this story, it is the indicator that Salvation is in the House!

Could it be that Jesus is once again turning our world upside down, confronting us with our assumptions about who is good and who is bad, who is a saint and who is a sinner, and showing us how easy it is to be blinded by our prejudices, such that we wind up accusing the very people we should be emulating? (“A Repentant Sinner or a Hidden Saint?” Daniel B. Clendenin, The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself, Journey with Jesus Foundation, 2013, 2010.)

Who better to teach us this than Zacchaeus, patron saint of the short.  As Frederick Buechner says of him, and other so-called saints like him throughout the Bible:

“Zaccheus makes a good one to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others too.”

“There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring him to death if Yahweh hadn’t stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even.”

“Like Zaccheus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zaccheus, they’re all of them somehow treasured too. Why are they treasured? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it-that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them at their best to be because ultimately, of course; it’s not the world that made them at all. “All the earth is mine!” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein,” adds the Twenty-fourth Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me too.” (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, pp. 180–181.)

And that’s why I love All Saints: because sainthood has less to do with who with are, than who – by the grace of God – we can become. Just as he does in the Gospels, Jesus still marches through time and space calling people to follow, even unlikely people like Zacchaeus and like you and me. Some of us do, and despite ourselves, we and the world are better for it.

Rev. John Buchanan, former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, compares those who are our saints to “our balcony.” As some of us remember, in the past, many gymnasiums, theaters, and churches had balconies. When, as children or youth we did something, such as play basketball or act a role in a high school play or read Scripture in church, our parents sat in the balcony, cheering us on. So, says Buchanan, our saints are now “our balcony,” the people who influenced and inspired us and now, in heaven, cheer us on.

Except for one, who doesn’t need a balcony, because he is up in a tree. Thank you, Zacchaeus – you sweet little man – for the example you gave us! May salvation be found in our house!  Amen.


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