Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
—Luke 19:1-10, NIV
There are times when you feel like you are the only true Christian left in the whole world, and you get the sinking feeling that maybe you should give up.
This used to happen to me around Christmas time, when my church is filled to the bursting point with people whom I do not recognize. I attend church every Sunday, I’ve never seen these people before, and yet they confidently speak of it as ‘their’ church. I find myself questioning my own memory for an instant before I realize that amnesia isn’t my problem; it’s these people who are very loose with their terminology. They don’t pay attention to the service, except when Christmas songs are sung; they whisper loudly during the sermon, and they discipline their children during the solemn part of communion—the children, you see, aren’t familiar with church and have to be told how to behave on the fly.
Hasn’t this happened to you? Perhaps it was during the congregational business meeting, where vaguely familiar faces who do not attend and do not contribute suddenly become vitally interested in how the church spends its resources and how it conducts itself in the world. You squirm in your seat as you realize that the speaker is completely out of touch, raising issues that were solved by consensus long ago, ignoring factors that have long been well known.
You can get very resentful. Sometimes in the heat of discussion or when solemn moments are being disrupted you begin to feel so helpless, because they are ruining everything! They won’t sit still, so you cannot see; they won’t stop talking, so you cannot hear. Finally, you can’t see Jesus in the church any more, because the hypocrites stand in your way; they are big and powerful and they won’t let you through.
If this happens to you, think of Zacchaeus in today’s selection from Luke.
We don’t know why Zacchaeus became a tax collector. Tax collectors had the legal power to take whatever they wanted, since they worked on commission. Being a tax collector was a sure way to become hated, despised, and rejected. Most likely, Zacchaeus had already been a social outcast for some reason. He also must have had good business sense; he was the sort of person the Romans liked to recruit for the position. Perhaps Zacchaeus reasoned that if he was going to be an outcast anyway, he might as well be rich. At least then he would have material wealth to offset his social poverty.
Zacchaeus did not abuse his office like the other tax collectors did, yet he was despised. In the end of the story, the penalty Zacchaeus imposed upon himself for any errors he may have committed would have been quite impossible for him to pay if he had been corrupt, and we know that Jesus did not applaud token repentance that is impossible to carry out.
Zacchaeus was in the same situation that you and I are sometimes in: hated, despised, rejected, misunderstood—or simply just disregarded.
When Jesus came to Jericho, Zacchaeus wanted to see Him: Jesus was his hero! Jesus was the champion of the little guy, and Zacchaeus was a little guy. Jesus was the friend of the friendless, and Zacchaeus had no friends. Jesus even had tax collectors among His disciples, and Zacchaeus was a tax collector! But he could not see his hero, because the people hated him, they despised him, they wouldn’t let him through!
Poor Zacchaeus! Such a powerful tax collector, yet such a little man. What a very lonely man! He could not even see his hero, because the big people got in his way and wouldn’t let him see.
When this happens to you, do what Zacchaeus did. When people stand in your way and block your view, when you cannot see Jesus because of all the hypocrites in the church, run ahead of the crowd; climb a tree! Look down on all those hypocrites, and see them for what they really are: the lost little lambs of Jesus. Then love them, as Zacchaeus did. For while the people still hated and rejected him, Zacchaeus gave them half his wealth.
Then Jesus will come to you, call you down from your lonely perch. He will have supper with you, at your house, tonight.