LET'S START WITH THE FAMOUS PASSAGE FROM LUKE 19...
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. Now a man named Zacchaeus was there; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to get a look at Jesus, but being a short man he could not see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, because Jesus was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to that place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, because I must stay at your house today." So he came down quickly and welcomed Jesus joyfully. And when the people saw it, they all complained, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." But Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I now give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times as much!” Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this household, because he too is a son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."
The story recorded here gives us a glimpse into the wonderful connection Jesus made with a Jewish Tax Collector. In the story, we see Jesus declaring his oneness with a man whom the Jews would have regarded as a sellout to the oppressive Roman empire, a duplicitous traitor to his own occupied people - a treacherous man of loose morals who kept the worst kind of company… Or, as the Sunday school song so tamely put it,
"Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…"
Despite what Christian culture has done to turn this story into something cute (and cheap)… What happened with Zacchaeus actually makes an incredibly bold statement. It is a story that culminates with a man who has been Jewish his entire life finally becoming a “son of Abraham” in truth. Jesus approaches the man in the tree, invites himself over to the man’s house, and then?
Absolutely everything changes.
Reading it, we might be left wondering: How did Jesus break down Zacchaeus' walls so fast? The truth is simple and beautiful... The truth is that love will do that. That's how love works. It disarms us: it overtakes our defenses and shatters our barricades.
When love comes, we lay our weapons down and welcome the trampling of our gates: gates of hurt, of pain, of insecurity and pride - the things which keep us isolated - thinking we don't matter, that we aren't worthy, that we're beyond hope…
- No matter how we’ve been labeled by religion or society,
- No matter how we’ve been dismissed by family or culture,
- No matter how little was expected of us, because of how we were deemed too broken, too deficient, too far gone,
- No matter how much trouble we've had accepting ourselves...
Love changes everything.
Love says something different about you. And love says something different to you. It says, “I want to be with you, and enjoy your company, and celebrate you just as you are.” Love says, "I will be your guest today. I will drink from your cups and eat from your plates (and whatever else it is that our culture views as intimacy and approval) without fear or hesitation.” Love says, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I am ONE with you. We are ONE.”
Do you think Zacchaeus - in THAT SOCIETY - had never heard from a religious person before? You think he'd never heard a rabbi speak? You think he'd never heard what most Jews (in their own "moral majority") felt toward him and his lifestyle? Do you think a Scribe or Pharisee had never passed him by in the streets and told him what they thought of him? Or what (they believed) GOD thought of him?
"You sell-out! Collecting taxes for the Roman dogs? Despicable."
"You corrupt, filthy man, taking advantage of your own people!"
"You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Do you think he had never heard those sorts of things before? Of course he had. And he had probably heard from more well-meaning people - who sugarcoated their guilt and derision with a pretense of concern for Zacchaeus...
"Oh we love you, Zacchaeus, we just don't love your sin."
"Zacchaeus, we're not upholding 'the truth' if we don't tell you where you're wrong. We're not being spiritual if we don't explain to you how you are broken."
"We can’t be seen with you or be known to frequent your house… because then people would think we were okay with your sin, or that we’re taking part in it ourselves!"
"Oh, poor, pitiful Zacchaeus. We hope you accept our truth, and change!"
And why would people say such things? Because they, like many today, would have been under the same dangerous delusion that our gestures of love must be glued to our expressions of disapproval. That acceptance can only happen when the people we've marginalized have conformed to our standards... When we engage the world like this, intimacy is not a gift freely given. It is dangled as bait until people jump through the hoops of our assumptions and judgments. It is withheld until they conform to our standards (which we've probably ascribed to God).
In the depths of this darkness, we believe that to fully embrace a person the religious establishment has outcasted, or has decided is "far from God," is somehow a COMPROMISE of our values… and not the very EXERCISE of them.
Jesus, as always, shows us a better Way.
In front of a large crowd, with all its assumptions and expectations and traditions and prejudices, Jesus calls up to the little man in the tree, “Zacchaeus! I must stay at your house.”
Wait, THAT guy’s house? The house that makes religious people angry or afraid? The one parents turn their kids' heads away from? The one purchased with money made on the backs of the oppressed and occupied? ...Yes, that house. "I must stay at your house, Zacchaeus." I must be a guest in your home. I must honor you by receiving your hospitality. I'm going to be associated with you and in close company with you, and you don't have to do anything or prove anything to ANYONE for that to happen.
You are worth being with no matter who you are or what you've done. You are worth being with whether you show dramatic change or not… You are worth my time no matter what these people think or how it might damage my reputation in some of their eyes… Because you're as precious as anyone. I'm not afraid of being thought of as "too inclusive." I'm not concerned that people might think I'm "endorsing your lifestyle” just by my being with you. I don't care what people think it means for me to embrace you.
You Are worth embracing.
And that's all that matters.
That is love.
That is what “I must stay at your house" meant to Zacchaeus.
And that is what this story HAD TO saY about Jesus...
(...until two millennia of religion and felt board cutouts in sunday school transformed it into a fun little story about a short guy...)
We have no record of Jesus requesting anything of Zacchaeus, but his loving inclusion did pave the way for radical change to happen. There is power in that sort of love. The kind of love that is not conditional. It doesn't offer relational embrace only if the one receiving it promises to change. It's not a love that burdens others with obligations and more reasons to feel guilty. Real love isn't loaded with that sort of empty, forced reciprocation. It's reckless and wild and free. Jesus extends embrace without condition, without pretense, without contingency. This is the sort of love that can reverse years and decades of ugliness and brokenness and hurt and pain. It can turn our eyes from our own mess, and fix them on the things we can help and heal. And we see in the story that this is exactly what happened. Zacchaeus’ guarded heart became open and vulnerable again. He lavished generosity and committed himself to justice. He became a celebration.
that celebration sparked a REVOLUTION in the midst of the city of Jericho.
Jericho is an interesting detail. It was an ancient city - a city known for its past. In the time of Joshua, there was the story of the Hebrew people marching around it for six days with the priests carrying the Ark - the sign of their covenant. And when they blew their trumpets and shouted, the walls of Jericho fell...
But here in Zacchaeus' story, Jesus moves differently. God-With-Us is at work gently, revealed within the city walls. He doesn't march around them at a distance to show power - he invites himself in to the home of a notorious "bad guy," making himself vulnerable to the disapproval of the religious, even as they continue "trumpeting" and shouting their judgment from the outside. As a guest at Zacchaeus' table, Jesus carries what would become his sign of a new covenant, in whatever bread they break or wine they drink together. He administers this new dynamic of communion with God as a priest would do - representing God to the people and the people to God. And his declaration is oneness. His gesture of bold, loving inclusion ministers reconciliation.
...Jesus brings Jericho into a brand new focus.
And the walls that fall down
this time are more significant
than any wall of stone ever was.
The kind of statement made in the story of Zacchaeus is the kind that would still terrify a large portion of religious people. For those of us who have been led to base our lives around a tribal mentality of exclusion - forever looking to label who's "in" and who's "out" - Jesus' radical inclusivity presents an alternative vision for an alternative kingdom... So which vision - and which kingdom - are we chasing down? In the story of Zacchaeus, we can engage Jesus in a way that is central to the gospel message itself:
You are included.
You are known.
You are loved.
Never let anyone tell you differently. You can't motivate Jesus to be with You; Jesus already is with you. You are worth being ONE with to God, and when you experience that oneness, you will know a world beyond your fears and insecurities. A better world. A world without walls. Stepping into that world will motivate a transformation in you. So come down from your tree, your high place, your vantage point... and let's eat together... Because there is nothing we can do to cause what already is.