Zacchaeus is not a happy man. In fact, he might describe himself as miserable. He has great wealth, but has learned the hard way that riches do not guarantee joy.
He supposes that wealth often brings with it isolation, but most of the other wealthy men he knows are respected in the community. If they don’t exactly have friends, at least they have people who want to be around them, who value their opinions, who vie for their attention.
That’s not true for Zacchaeus. His wealth comes from being a tax collector, or more precisely, from being the chief tax collector. He is Jewish, but also an agent of the Roman government, which is despised by the people of Israel, who resent the foreign occupation of their land.
It is his duty to personally pay the Romans the taxes owed from the region. He and the tax collectors who work for him earn their living by adding to the taxes levied by the Romans. Anything extra, they get to keep for themselves.
The fact of his great wealth is a testimony to the amount he has cheated his fellow Jews. They, of course, know this, and despise him for it.
Zacchaeus is a pariah. No faithful Jew would dream of inviting him into their home, and would not be caught dead setting foot into his house.
For a long time the money was enough for Zacchaeus. He knew people loathed him. He knew they laughed as he walked down the street, making snide remarks about his height, which was much shorter than average.
He told himself he didn’t care; they were just jealous of his money.
But lately he has cared. He is deeply lonely. He feels an emptiness inside that money and possessions just won’t fill.
He sometimes thinks that an invitation to someone’s house for dinner would be worth more than all the money in his coffers.
When Zacchaeus goes out into the city this day he notices something different in the atmosphere – an excitement in the air.
The streets are crowded. Then he overhears people talking. A man named Jesus will be passing through Jericho that day.
Jesus. The name sounds familiar to Zacchaeus. Wait a minute.
Jesus….Wasn’t he the one there has been so much talk about? The one who has been healing people, even a blind man. The one who is such a renowned teacher.
There has been some controversy about this Jesus, too, Zacchaeus remembers. He has been criticized for eating with prostitutes and tax collectors – with people like him.
Suddenly, without understanding why, Zacchaeus knows that he has to see Jesus for himself. Before he realizes it, he is running through the streets of Jericho. He is so intent on seeing Jesus he doesn’t even hear the people laughing at him for running like a schoolboy.
But Zacchaeus isn’t the only one intent on seeing Jesus. The crowds are so thick there is no way the short of stature tax collector will ever be able to see over them.
So shedding any dignity he has left, Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree so that he can get just a glimpse of this remarkable man.
There he is. Soon he will be passing right under the tree where Zacchaeus is perched. Here he comes.
Then a strange thing happens. When Jesus gets to the sycamore tree, he stops and looks up.
“Zacchaeus,” Jesus says.
The crowd is suddenly silent in anticipation. After all, Jesus’ teachings about wealth are well known. There was his story about the rich farmer who stored up grain in anticipation of bleak times. Jesus called him a fool.
Then there was the story about the poor man Lazarus who begged at the gate of the rich man. When they both died, Lazarus went to heaven, but the rich man was tormented in hell.
Then there was Jesus’ advice to the rich young man who wanted to know how to inherit eternal life. “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor,” Jesus told him.
When the young man sadly walked away, Jesus said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
If Jesus was that harsh with the rich young man, who was religious and who came by his wealth honestly, how much harsher will he be on someone like Zacchaeus?
The streets are quiet as the people wait for Jesus to condemn the despised little tax collector.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down,” Jesus calls up to the tree.
Here it comes, the people think with glee.
But the mood of the crowd changes dramatically with Jesus’ next words.
“I must stay at your house today,” the holy man tells the pariah.
Zacchaeus jumps with joy from the tree. He doesn’t even hear the grumbling of the crowd, the sudden criticism of Jesus.
“Look at that,” people are saying. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
What Zacchaeus does know is that Jesus brings honor to whatever house he enters. And Jesus has chosen him, Zacchaeus, for that honor in front of the whole community.
Jesus is offering him friendship and respect, two things Zacchaeus had never expected to experience.
Suddenly that empty spot inside him is overflowing with joy and love and grace. Suddenly everything seems different.
Somehow he must show Jesus how much this means to him, how this moment has transformed his life.
“Look,” he says, “half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”
We can almost hear the crowd grumbling, “Yea, sure, that’s what he says now. Let’s see what he does tomorrow after Jesus leaves. You can’t expect him to change.”
It is the kind of grumbling that is one of the biggest impediments to the kingdom of God – that certainty that we know who people are and that they cannot change.
We write off individuals and whole groups of people.
He’s a tax collector. You know what they’re like.
Or she doesn’t even go to church. Or he’s a fundamentalist. Or a liberal. Or a conservative. You can’t expect anything from them.
And once again, Jesus shows us that our preconceived notions of who is in and who is out are wrong; that no one is beyond the reach of God’s embrace.
With Zacchaeus, Jesus shows that transformation is a consequence of God’s love, not an entrance requirement into God’s kingdom.
Jesus looks at the despised Zacchaeus and says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
A camel has passed through the eye of a needle.
What outrageous good news for all of us.