The Gospel today features the endearing story of Zacchaeus, a man who climbs a tree because he is too short to see Jesus. By climbing this tree (of the cross), he encounters Jesus and is changed.
The danger with familiar stories is that because they are familiar, it is easy to miss their remarkable qualities. Let’s look at today’s Gospel with fresh eyes, searching for the symbolic in the ordinary details.
Shortsighted Sinner – Zacchaeus is physically short, so short that he cannot see the Lord. Do you think that this detail is provided merely to describe his physical stature? I don’t. As a preacher, I’m counting on the fact that there is more here than meets the eye.
I suspect it is also a moral description. Zacchaeus cannot see the Lord because of the blindness brought by sin. Consider some of the following texts from Scripture, which draw parallels between sin and blindness:
My iniquities have overtaken me, till I cannot see (Ps 40:12).
I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD (Zeph 1:17).
They know not, nor do they discern; for God has shut their eyes; so that they cannot see, and their minds so that they cannot understand (Is 44:18).
Because of the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed within her the blood of the righteous, now they grope through the streets like men who are blind (Lam 4:13).
Unless one is born again by water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God. (John 3:5).
Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).
Yes, sin brings blindness, an inability to see the Lord. Zacchaeus has fallen short through sin and hence cannot see Jesus. How has he sinned? Well, he is the chief tax collector of Jericho, and tax collectors were wicked, unjust men. The Romans recruited the mobsters of that day to collect taxes. Tax collector roughed people up and extorted money from them. The Romans permitted the collectors to charge in excess of the tax due as their “cut” of the deal. They were corrupt, exploited the poor, and rubbed elbows with the powerful. These were men who were both feared and hated—and for good reason.
Zacchaeus is not just any tax collector; he is the chief tax collector. He’s a mafia boss, a Don, a “Godfather.” Have you got the picture? Zacchaeus isn’t just physically short. He’s the lowest of the low; he doesn’t measure up morally. He’s a financial giant but a moral midget. Zacchaeus is well short of a full moral deck. His inability to see the Lord is not just a physical problem; it is a moral one.
Now I’m not picking on Zacchaeus. Truth be told, we are all Zacchaeus. You’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m not that bad.” Maybe not, but you’re not that good, either. We’re all a lot closer to being like Zacchaeus than like Jesus. The fact that we’re still here is evidence that we’re not yet ready to look on the face of the Lord. We’re not righteous enough to look upon His unveiled face. How will Zacchaeus ever hope to see the Lord? How will we?
Saving Sycamore – Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus, and so must we. The only tree that can really help us to see the Lord is the tree of the cross. Zacchaeus has to cling to the wood of a sycamore to climb it; we must cling to the wood of the rugged cross.
Only by the wood of the cross and the power of Jesus’ blood can we ever hope to climb high enough to see the Lord. There is a Latin chant that goes like this: Dulce lignum, dulce clavos, dulce pondus sustinet (Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight (that is) sustained). By climbing a tree and being able to get a glimpse of Jesus, Zacchaeus foreshadows for us the righteousness that comes from the cross.
Sanctifying Savior – Jesus stops by that tree; we always meet Jesus at the cross. There at that tree, that cross, He invites Zacchaeus into a saving and transformative relationship. It is not surprising that Jesus essentially invites Himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Though dinner is not mentioned, it was a basic aspect of Jewish hospitality. Remember, however, that it is Jesus who ultimately serves the meal. Consider these texts:
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20).
And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them (Luke 24:28-30).
Yes, Zacchaeus has now begun to see the Lord, and the Lord invites him into a holy communion, a relationship, a liturgy that will begin to transform him. Zacchaeus and we are one and the same. We, too, have begun to see the Lord through the power of the cross to cast out our blindness, and the Lord draws us to sacred communion with Him. The liturgy and Holy Communion are essential for this, as the Lord invites himself to our house, that is to say, our soul and our parishes.
Started Surrender – Zacchaeus is experiencing the start of a transformative relationship, but it is only the start. Zacchaeus promises to return the money he has extorted four-fold and to give half his money to the poor. There’s a Christian hymn entitled “I Surrender All.” Zacchaeus hasn’t quite reached that point, but neither have most of us.
Eventually Zacchaeus will surrender all, and so will we. For now, he needs to stay near the cross so that he can see and continue to allow Jesus to have communion with him. One day all will be surrendered.
This is the start for Zacchaeus and for all of us. The best is yet to come. You might say that the Gospel ends here—to make a long story short.