But before I go to the story of Zacchaeus, I want to mention that simple, brief statement in scripture, a brief verse that is frequently the first words of scripture learned by any child: “God is love.” This statement may seem self-evident to many of us. We think, “Of course, God is love. That’s pretty obvious.”
But there are many people for whom this is not obvious.
- There are many people who were never taught a view of God as one who primarily loves, but as one who primarily judges and condemns. For many who have rejected any sort of religious faith, this view of God is a major reason why they have done so.
- But, as well, there are many people of faith, including many people of Christian faith, who see God’s love as very selective, and for whom their life of faith seems to be centered on pleasing a potentially angry deity.
The well-known title of one of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons from eighteenth-century Massachusetts may sum up their attitude to their god: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” As some of us may soon sing about someone else in a few months’ time:
He’s making a list, and checking it twice;
going to find out who’s naughty or nice.
And there are some people in the community who worship that sort of god. There are many people who cannot get their minds around the idea that God’s love seeks to embrace the whole world, without exception.
In this vein, the British writer Adrian Plass wrote a series of humourous books about the members of a small congregation, one of whom was a man named Leonard Thynne. Leonard grew up within a very rigid sort of Christian denomination, possibly Plymouth Brethren or something similar. In his adult life, Leonard Thynne still wore the emotional scars of this aspect of his upbringing through very low self-esteem. He was an alcoholic – trying with rather mixed success to become a recovering alcoholic. One day, Leonard heard a sermon at his church by a visiting preacher – a monk, no less. He was impressed with the monk’s talk and commented:
He knows a different God to the one I do. His God’s nice!
Like Leonard Thynne in this story, there are many people who are not aware that God loves ... that God loves all people ... that God loves the whole creation. They have picked up the notion of a petty, little small-g godlet whose love is very, very selective:
- the small-g godlet of “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”;
- the small-g godlet who makes and double-checks a list of those who are naughty and those who are nice;
- the small-g godlet that led Leonard Thynne in Adrian Plass’s story (and many more people in real life) to assume that their god is some scary, unwelcoming being – a god who is definitely not nice!
And in relation to all this, we hear the story of Zacchaeus.
Now, all too often, when we tell the story about Zacchaeus to children, we emphasise the part about his size. He was “short in stature”, as the New Revised Standard Version tells us. He was “vertically-challenged”. We often emphasise the part about the little bloke climbing up the tree to get a good look at what was going on, and we may even use the old song about:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
a wee little man was he …,
even if we know that “wee” only means “little” these days in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and New Zealand.
Those who know the songs of the Medical Mission Sisters from the 1960s may also remember the refrain about,
Now the Hebrews, they were tall,
But Zacchaeus, he was small … etc.
We tend to get hung up on the bit about Zacchaeus’s height.
More importantly than his height, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Not only was he a tax collector, but he was a chief tax collector. Luke used the Greek word architelones to describe Zacchaeus. It was the only time Luke used that word in his gospel. An ordinary tax collector was called a telones, not an architelones like Zacchaeus. An architelones like Zacchaeus had other tax collectors working for him, shaking down the people, while he dealt directly with his Roman masters. He would have had many more opportunities for personal corruption than an ordinary tax collector. The comments made by Habakkuk in our first lesson about the ethical breakdown of society in his own day were also relevant for the ethical situation in which Zacchaeus operated.
If an ordinary tax collector was considered a collaborator, an architelones like Zacchaeus was an absolute traitor. If an ordinary tax collector was unpopular with his neighbours, an architelones like Zacchaeus would have been absolutely hated.
There was one very ironic thing about Zacchaeus: his name. The name Zacchaeus was based on the Hebrew word zakkai, which means “innocent” or “righteous”. It was the sort of pious and hopeful thing that parents would have once done, and still do in many cultures, to name their child after a virtue they hope he or she would emulate. The New England Puritans were known for giving their sons names such as Perseverance. We still occasionally encounter such names, most frequently female names such as Grace, Faith, or Hope. Africans today do this to a great extent, not only naming their daughters Charity or Mercy, but also giving their sons names such as Courage or Justice.
But if Zacchaeus’s parents gave him the name in the hope that he would be zakkai (“innocent”, “righteous”), he may well have been a deep disappointment to them.
But when Jesus noticed Zacchaeus up in the tree, he didn’t examine him as to his ethics. He didn’t give Zacchaeus a conditional offer of God’s love. (“Get your act together, and you’ll be right, one of these days.”) That’s what some people in our culture think the churches are on about. But it’s not what Jesus is on about.
Instead of examining Zacchaeus’s ethical credentials, Jesus offered him God’s unconditional love and, to seal the deal, invited himself to stay at Zacchaeus’s home.
Zacchaeus did a few things as a result. He made a big donation to the poor. He offered to repay anyone he had cheated … four times over. In this process, Zacchaeus began to live up to his name. Zacchaeus actually started to become zakkai. He became a “saint”.
But he also set about the task of providing hospitality to Jesus, to the group of disciples travelling with him, and (given the custom of the times), to the community at large.
Jesus expressed God’s unconditional love to Zacchaeus.
Part of Zacchaeus’s response was to throw a party.
In this process, Zacchaeus began to live up to his name. Zacchaeus actually started to become zakkai. He became a “saint”. And the transformation that Jesus drew forth from Zacchaeus had a social justice dimension to it. Zacchaeus committed himself to make restitution to anyone he cheated and to give to the poor. The transformation that Jesus draws forth from any one necessarily has an ethical dimension, a social justice dimension, to it, or else it is not genuine.
There are many religious people today – both within Christianity and within other faiths - who see the life of faith merely in terms of such things as talking about religion a lot or taking on a few austerities in one’s personal life-style. In whatever faith tradition we may think of, if your faith does not have the result of increasing your level of basic human compassion in both your personal and your social ethics, it is just so much religious busy-work. In any faith tradition, including Christianity, if your faith does not make you a more compassionate person, your faith does you no good at all.
In this encounter from Luke’s gospel, Jesus encountered Zacchaeus and drew forth from him the level of compassion that his name implied. Zacchaeus became zakkai; he became a “saint”.
In our worship, Jesus promises us a similar transformation.
- The same water in which we shower becomes the means in which we are decisively identified with the cause of Christ.
- Simple gifts of bread and wine become the means of Christ’s fullest presence in our midst.
- People gathered for worship become the saints of God.