The passage from Luke’s gospel read earlier by Levina Wong focuses on the chief tax collector at Jericho, a man named Zacchaeus, who served in the ancient Roman province of Palestine, also called Judea. At that time and place, tax collectors were drawn from the local Jewish community to put the squeeze on fellow Jews, often keeping for themselves any surplus money that could be extracted over the quota remitted to the imperial Roman administration. So Zacchaeus would have been a rich man, but considered a traitor among his kinsmen. A lonely and despised collaborator.
The narrative carries a deceptive simplicity. Simple in its account of redemption. Deceptively so by reason of multiple messages which layer themselves within one another, a bit like the Russian nesting doll, or matryoshka, where one carved figure opens into others. Unlike the Russian matryoshka, however, where the smaller dolls appear later, the meanings tucked into the story of Zacchaeus reveal themselves as even larger than the envelope narrative itself. A Russian matryoshka in reverse.
The story opens with Zacchaeus, described as small of statue, climbing a tree to glimpse the celebrated rabbi from Nazareth. Jesus looks into the branches, calls Zacchaeus by name, and invites himself for a visit. The crowd was taken aback. Outcasts like Zacchaeus did not normally receive such visits. Respectable people often reach out to the oppressed, but much less so to those collaborating with the oppressors.
In the next part in this strange tale, Zacchaeus spontaneously offers half his property to the poor. Out of the blue, he vows to return not only what he had stolen, but to do so fourfold: to reimburse 400% of the amount extorted, double the restitution for theft normally required by the Law of Moses.
In contemplating a text like this one, the questions may prove themselves as significant as the answers. What caused Zacchaeus to climb the tree? Why did Jesus pay him special attention? How did Zacchaeus get into his dubious occupation? When and how did he begin to suspect that he should take steps to dig himself out of the mess? And last but not least, “Why did God include this story in the Bible?”
The change of heart by Zacchaeus, accompanied by his offer to put things right, seems to have come without threats or coaxing. As if Zacchaeus was waiting for some small door to open, giving a chance for a normal life. The visit with Jesus seems to have triggered a reaction, a bit like the first warm spring day can cause buds to open after they linger hesitantly on bare branches at the tail end of winter.
Yet the story hints at something more, over and above a yearning for change. Because regret in a vacuum can sometimes lead not to repentance, but to despair and paralysis, especially when coupled with awareness of the same mistakes repeated over and over again. It may be impossible to face the truth of these mistakes -- or even to formulate prayers for deliverance -- until liberated by an even greater reality, which for Zacchaeus came in the call of someone who cared.
The story concludes with Jesus declaring “Today salvation has come to this house! For this man too is a son of Abraham.” For this man too is a son of Abraham: an affirmation which may be another way to say that Zacchaeus had come home, come home morally to the best in his spiritual heritage.
In the Bible, accounts of homecoming have often been hemmed in, fore and aft, by the experience of someone who made a mess of things and then received a chance to repair the damage. The prodigal son came home after squandering his inheritance. You remember that from afar, the father ran to meet him, not requesting any apology for the lost money and wasted days.
Sometimes the notion of home relates not only to a place we have been, but also to a destination in a far country, where we are headed. The patriarch Abraham left his birthplace to establish a new community in what became known as the Promised Land. Letters from the apostle Paul addressed the early church as “sojourners” who were “Looking for a better country.” Here in Massachusetts, almost 400 years ago, that sentiment was echoed by Governor William Bradford, a founder the Plymouth Colony, some of whose descendants later worshiped here in King’s Chapel. Bradford described the early settlers as people who “knew they were pilgrims and looked not much on those things [in this world] but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country.”
Those who enjoy baseball will not fail to appreciate this paradox of home as a place from which we came, and to which we head for safety. At Fenway Park the batter aims to run from first base to second; then to third; and on to fourth base. No, not to fourth base, but to home plate, back where he started.
Unlike baseball, however, getting home in a spiritual sense is not reserved only for the talented few. You don’t have to be Babe Ruth to reach home. As Robert Frost put it in his poem “Death of the Hired Man” home is “the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Perhaps what Zacchaeus felt on hearing Jesus say, “This man too is a son of Abraham.”
Of course, homes can also be places of disagreement and quarrels, with rooms carrying mixed memories of both acceptance and discord. Reality can be a source of stress, at least for those still in touch with it. Which might be why appreciation of home often becomes sharper when we travel, and can put the discord in perspective. Perhaps not dissimilar to the way an active faith can arise in reaction to the challenge of doubts.
There is a breadth to feelings about home which can serve as a bridge to others with similar yearnings for roots and refuge, whether in places or in relationships. Yet home also implies a small-ness: the power of the particular found in the intimacy of a spot where people know you by name.
A story is told about three students who met during their freshman year at college. The tale was recounted to me as true, or at least more true than false. And even if not true, the tale would deserve to be invented.
The kids began comparing notes about their origins, with one boy bragging that his hometown was so friendly that a letter would reach his parents even without their house number. Just “Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Highland Avenue” was enough. Then a girl said she could top that. A letter would reach her parents even without a street name: just “Mr. and Mrs. Jones” would do the trick. Finally, the third companion boasted that his village was so close-knit that a letter could reach his family even if addressed only to “Mom and Dad”, and on a dare he mailed an envelope addressed just that way.
When the envelope reached the student’s hometown, the mail carrier studied the postmark over the cancelled stamp on the upper right, which indicated the letter had been sent from Amherst. Remembering that the younger Johnson boy had gone to study at the University of Massachusetts, he delivered the missive without any fuss.
Let us return to the question asked earlier: “Why did God include the story of Zacchaeus in the Bible?” Doubtless there are many reasons that Luke’s narrative was copied over centuries and retained in Scripture. And almost certainly the story’s open-endedness invites each of us to supply a punch line by the way we live.
Some commentators suggest the story illustrates the old adage, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” Zacchaeus wanted to meet Jesus, but was too short to see over the crowd. So he did a “work-around” by shinnying up a sycamore tree and with ingenuity found the joy of redemption.
Perhaps. However, let us explore two other messages the story might carry. The first addresses those who do not see themselves as having made any big mistakes. Those who benefit from “un-bereaved lives” without serious hiccups. For them, the tale might be there simply to prompt compassion for folks who like Zacchaeus struggle with burdens not apparent on the surface. Folks in need an outstretched hand to facilitate exit from the prison of past errors.
For those who do identify with Zacchaeus, looking for a second chance, or a third or a fourth chance, for those hoping to break a cycle of mis-steps, for them the story makes eminently good emotional sense, in its affirmation of a God who takes the initiative in calling us to new life.
Of course, not everyone receives an audible shout-out to come down from a tree for lunch with Jesus. And the process of receiving help takes many forms, some quite different from the experience of Zacchaeus. You may remember the gospel account of the disciple Peter fishing on the Sea of Galilee. After stepping out of his boat, Peter became fearful and confused. He had been doing just fine while he had his eyes fixed on Jesus; but when Peter got distracted, he looked away and began to sink.
Whether or not Peter hitherto believed in a God who could solve real problems, at that moment he found no alternative but to cry out with the Bible’s shortest prayer, just three words: “Lord save me.”4 Jesus then grabbed his hand, pulling Peter from otherwise overwhelming waves.
A powerful encounter. Not the way Zacchaeus was rescued, of course, where Jesus initiated the call and Zacchaeus responded. For Peter, it was the drowning man who initiated things by crying out, with Jesus providing the response. Some, like Zacchaeus, hear a call in a calm moment. Others of us do not hear a call; and like Peter, we hesitate to ask for help until almost overwhelmed, only then to find the strong arm of God pulling us home. Each a story for its own day.