November 3, 2013
Some of life’s greatest lessons come from the most unexpected teachers. Zacchaeus, the man who went looking for Jesus, was one such instructor. We are surprised by him because of his occupation: chief tax collector, which meant he was a collaborator with the occupying force of his time, the Romans. Zacchaeus was responsible for taking taxes from Jewish citizens and forwarding the money to Rome, but he would take more than necessary to cover his expenses. In other words, he was seen as a crook and traitor. What could we learn from him?
Zacchaeus, a short man who grew tall in Jesus’ esteem, shows us how to live a life open to God and our neighbors.
Openness to God
Zacchaeus heard that Jesus and His group were passing through Jericho, and the tax collector wanted to see Him. Why? We are not told, but it might have been simple curiosity or perhaps a sense of desperation. Maybe he was tired of being the target of jokes and spite. Maybe he was tired of his lifestyle and was reaching out to Jesus as a last-ditch effort to make his life make sense.
William Van Poyck died by lethal injection in a Florida prison in June 2013. He had spent years on death row for killing a prison guard. As the time drew near for his sentence to be carried out, he wrote down his thoughts:
“I’ve already thrown or given away 95 percent of my personal property, the stuff that for years seemed so important. All those great books I’ll never get to read; reams and reams of legal work I’ve been dragging around, and studying, for two decades and which has suddenly lost its relevance. My magazines and newspapers stack up unread; I have little appetite to waste valuable, irreplaceable hours reading up on current events. Does it really matter to me now what’s happening in the Middle East, or on Wall Street, or how my Miami Dolphins are looking for the upcoming new season? What’s the point? Ditto the TV; I’m uninterested in wasting time watching programs that now mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. The other day I caught myself reaching for my daily vitamin. ‘Really?’ I wondered, as the absurdity hit me. Likewise, after 40 years of working out religiously, that’s out the window now. Again, what’s the point?”1
We don’t have to be sitting on death row to ask: What’s the point? Zacchaeus seemed to be open to Jesus and therefore to God. He was wealthy but knew the poverty of his own spirit. His openness to God is evident in his accepting the invitation to entertain Jesus.
Openness to God’s People
Welcome. That is one of the most potent words in the English language. It speaks of open doors, open places and open hearts. When we are welcomed into someone’s home, for example, we find we are treated with favor. We feel special. Jesus invited Himself to the home of the tax collector, but it was Zacchaeus who felt welcomed. Luke does not tell us what conversation Jesus had with this man, but it involved the community. The Jewish citizens of Jericho were shocked that Jesus would go to the home of a sinner, that is, a man rejected by the community and assumed to be rejected by God.
When Zacchaeus heard the people complain, he promised to give half of his possessions to the poor. He wanted to be connected to the community and do his part in helping where he could. He teaches us that we belong to a community of faith and that we should be open to each other. Not everyone will believe or live as we do, but that does not matter. Christians from many traditions and places comprise the church. One originally excluded from the community of faith teaches us to be open to everyone because we’re all potentially a member of that community.
Openness to God’s Processes
We also learn from Zacchaeus to be open to the processes of God. His surprise encounter with Jesus changed the course of his life. This still happens today. We encounter a great force that feels personal, and we come to know that force by name—Jesus. The process of salvation is manifold, but the end result is the same. As Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “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.”
Today we’ve learned some short lessons about the life of faith. May the results be long.
1 Death row diary offers a rare glimpse into a morbid world By Moni Basu, updated 1:58 PM EDT, Tues., June 18, 2013