The story of Zacchaeus is pretty familiar to most of us. It’s almost like a children’s story; Zaccheus, despite the fact that he is a wealthy home-owning tax collector, seems like a little kid himself. He is short, he can’t see over the big people, he runs, and he climbs trees.
This story is only found in the Gospel of Luke, and it plays an important role in one of Luke’s favorite themes: the danger of wealth and the proper use of money. Along with the other gospels, Luke reports of Jesus meeting with a rich young man who is unable to give away his possessions, of Jesus saying that one cannot serve God and wealth and that 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. But it is only Luke who tells about the Good Samaritan who spent his money caring for the man who was robbed, beaten and left by the side of the road; and tells about the rich man who found himself, after his death, in Hades and with a great chasm between himself and poor Lazarus who was being comforted in the bosom of Abraham after being ignored by the rich man in life. Luke also is the only Gospel writer who tells us of the widow who found a lost coin and spent more than she found rejoicing with her friends, and the generous father who spends his wealth celebrating the return of his prodigal son. Today’s story, the Zacchaeus story, is the climax of all of Luke’s stories about money. It is the story of a rich man who makes it through the eye of the needle and receives salvation, who gives away his money and makes restitution to those whom he has wronged.
So this charming scene plays an important part in the story line in Luke about the right use of money. It is also just about the last story Jesus tells before he enters into Jerusalem to great fanfare on Palm Sunday. Luke says that Jesus told this story as he passed through Jericho, the city which, in the Old Testament Joshua story, was the gateway to the promised land. For Jesus, too this last stop before Jerusalem, the city where he would die, was his entrance into the promised land.
Zacchaeus, too, finds Jericho to be the entrance to the promised land. For him, it was meeting Jesus that gave him entrance into the kingdom. It was being sought out by Jesus, being singled out to host Jesus who invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, that gave Zacchaeus a new life. A new life of generosity, a life of doing justice and loving mercy, a life of righteousness - being in right relationship with God and neighbor. Salvation has come to Zacchaeus, who once was lost but now has been found.
Meanwhile, however, in the midst of this stunning story of salvation, the people grumbled about Jesus hanging around with sinners. We’ve seen this before, too.
Oh, that Jesus. Instead of hobnobbing with the righteous, he goes to eat with sinners. He touches lepers, he lets odd women wipe his feet with their hair, he befriends tax collectors who work for the hated Roman empire and rip people off. Does anybody in the Bible ever praise Jesus for hanging out with the marginalized, the unclean and the uncool?
But as Jesus himself says, he came to seek out and save the lost. And still, the people grumble, shaking their heads, because they consider the lost to be abhorrent and unworthy. The people believe there is a reason why they are lost: they are not morally fit to be in the presence of a holy man or so-called righteous people. The people know because the scriptures say so, at least some of the scriptures do. For it is true that in the Bible, there is always this tension between purity and inclusiveness. The Scriptures stress both of these things, and people tend to gravitate toward one or the other. Read some parts of the Torah and the book by the prophet Ezekiel and you get a big dose of the purity strain. And then read other parts of the Torah and the prophet Isaiah and the book of Ruth and you get a big dose of the inclusivity strain.
But when we get to Jesus, mostly what we get is inclusiveness. You almost never hear Jesus saying that someone is unfit to be in his company. You almost never hear him talking about purity other than to disdain it. He dines with Pharisees and tax collectors alike. He touches dead people. He refuses to condemn the woman caught in adultery and challenges those who wish to stone her to go right ahead if they have never sinned themselves.
In fact, the people Jesus criticizes the most are the religious establishment - people who are concerned with their own power, people who nitpick about rules and castigate and exclude others while affirming their own religious superiority. And, as we have seen, Jesus also criticizes the wealthy, those who are overly concerned with their money and their possessions. And yet even one of the wealthy makes it through the eye of the needle, our small friend Zacchaeus.
These stories are two thousand years old now. In some ways we find them to be from another world, which of course they are. First century Palestine is long, long ago and far, far away. But because these stories are also part of our story, we read them not only historically but also theologically. What does the story of Zacchaeus have to do with us in our desire to know and obey the will of God for us and for the world? If we get stuck on outmoded categories like “tax collectors for the Roman Empire” and “lepers” we may imagine that this has almost nothing to do with us.
But I would ask, who are the tax collectors, the lepers, the ones the Pharisees and other upstanding citizens would call sinners in our day? And do we grumble about them? Do we stand against them on account of purity concerns? Even when we see them eagerly pursuing a glimpse of Jesus? Even when we see them responding to the Gospel with generosity and seeking to do justice and love mercy? Do we set ourselves up between them and Jesus to keep him (and perhaps ourselves) holy and undefiled by association with people we think of as sinners?
Of course, this is understandable. Even the disciples tried to get between Jesus and those who sought his healing and his blessing. Remember them sternly telling parents not to bring their children to bother Jesus? In fact, one time even Jesus himself tried to reject a non-Jewish woman who sought healing for her daughter. That was not one of Jesus’ finest moments, I think. He started out on the purity track himself.
But of course Jesus changed his mind. After actually meeting the Gentile woman and seeing both her need and her faith, he welcomed a new idea, that Gentiles were worthy, Gentiles could be saved, too. He healed the woman’s daughter, and he overrode the people who tried to block others from his mercy. He taught the disciples to let the little children come to him, for theirs too is the kingdom of God. Unless you come like a child - like one who can’t see over the adults and runs and climbs trees, perhaps - you won’t be able to enter the kingdom. You’re on shaky ground if you’re like one of the adults who blocks the way, who stands between Jesus and one who seeks his blessing.
There is always this tension between purity and inclusiveness. I mean, what if we just let anybody in? What if we are not granted a special - or even exclusive - place in the kingdom? You know that old joke about all the rooms in heaven, one for each denomination, and how when St Peter gives you the tour, he tells you to be quiet when you are near the door where a certain denomination’s members are, because they think they’re the only ones there. You can fill in the blank about what denomination you think the joke’s about, but it’s one of those jokes that’s really funny and at the same time it can make us a little squirmy because sometimes the joke is on us.
For ever and ever people have been trying to throw other people out - out of church, out of town, out of their families, out of heaven. There’s that whole taint of association thing - if we let a sinner in here among us then we’re all tainted. This is what the people grumble about with Jesus. He eats with sinners - he treats them as if they are of his own class. He treats them like equals, he treats them with dignity.
And what we seem to forget is that Jesus doesn’t need us to protect him from being tainted. Jesus removes taints. We are all sinners. This is God’s church, not our church. It’s God’s heaven, not our heaven. Jesus ignores and overcomes those who go overboard on the purity side, trying to stand between him and those who desire his mercy. He finds them and includes them despite our grumbling. He calls them home, carries them home like lost sheep, to be restored to the fold. His fold, not our fold.
We are promised the kingdom. We will have everything. We don’t need to spar over who is in and who ought to be left out; we can be generous as God is generous. As Zacchaeus responds to Jesus in generosity, promising to act with justice and mercy, so we can respond to Jesus, too, with generosity and mercy, with acts of justice, for Jesus has come to our house today, too.