There’s a story about Charles Spurgeon, the eloquent British preacher who had a theological school for the training of pastors. Part of the training was to have the students preach in front of the class. Mr. Spurgeon would call a student to the front of the class, hand the student a text, and ask the student to preach on it.
One day a student stood up in front of the class and said, “I have been given the name Luke 19:1-10. There are three things I would like to point out about Zacchaeus: I would like to say in the first place, he was a little man and so am I. I would remark in the second place, he was up a tree and so am I. And I would emphasize in the third place, he made haste and came down and so will I.”
Before I make haste and come down today I would like to make a few observations about being up a tree.
First, if you’re up a tree people may not notice you. During these past months we as an electoral audience have been given a steady diet of political debates, advertisements, slogans, and signs. All of these are meant to give us exposure, and in some cases over-exposure, to the candidates for the election.
The candidates put themselves into a high profile, on public display. Such visibility — and we might add such vulnerability — are all part and parcel of being a viable candidate for public office.
In complete contrast to this high profile, it is possible to be equally invisible, isolated, alone. And I can’t help but wonder if that, in part at least, was not the experience, the dilemma, the predicament of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was, after all, a tax collector in a country which was occupied by the alien Roman armies. Whether he collected taxes directly for Rome or whether for the temple in Jerusalem, which was also under Roman control, Zacchaeus and his kind were looked upon by most people as traitors and cheats. Even if they were not dishonest they were collaborators with the Roman order, lining their pockets at the expense of their neighbors.
Is it any wonder, then, that people had no time or place for one of his kind? Is it any wonder that, from a biblical point of view, Zacchaeus was up a tree — isolated, abandoned, rejected, cut-off, alone?
Are we really so different? In many ways of course, we are very different. And yet for all of that we also have our own ways of being cut-off, abandoned, alone. We can be alone by our insistence on doing our own thing. We can be abandoned as we melt into the crowd and submit to the social pressure of being only a statistic. We can be cut-off from reality by permitting the dehumanization of our day to go unprotested. And all the while people may not even take notice. Which is why, from a biblical perspective, this whole experience, then and now, is a lot like being lost.
That suggests a second observation. If you’re up a tree Jesus will see you.
The familiar lyric is, “if you’re ever up a tree, call on me.” But today’s text suggests a truth which might be phrased this way: “If you’re ever up a tree, Jesus will call on you.” And the specific basis for that is the statement by Jesus that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus not only said that, He demonstrated it. That is why, as Christian men and women, we declare that Jesus “embodies” this divine quest.
It has been described this way: “Someone cares so much … that He went looking everywhere for us. His quest led Him to the vilest place of all, a hill, where they executed criminals, where He was Himself executed with them, because it was the ultimate way of looking and seeking.
“Since His resurrection He has been popping up in all kinds of strange places — in the drug cult, in the battlefield, in the schools, on the sea-shore, in the tenements, on the street — and there is even a rumor that He has been seen in the churches and homes!”1 Have you felt the pressure of that quest?
When that pressure breaks in upon us, it’s a lot like being found. It is an experience of grace. It is being loved by One who has an undying and everlasting love. In short, it is the Gospel doing what it intends to do: to seek and to save the lost.
To be found is to risk everything on the good news, the incredible news that we are loved just as we are. To be found is to let His love crowd out the false pressures that make us want to hide. To be found is to be content with being human and to quit trying to play God. To be found is to accept our noble hopes as being just as real as our guilty, nagging conscience. To be found is to be awakened by the words of Jesus, to hear His voice, and to see that his life and death and resurrection are the measure of every person’s life.2
Last, if you’re up a tree you can see others who are up a tree.
During the reign of Oliver Cromwell, the British government ran low on silver for coins. Cromwell sent his staff to investigate the local cathedral to see if they could find any precious metal there. After investigating they reported, “The only silver we could find is in the statues of the saints standing in the corners of the cathedral.” And Cromwell, practical man that he was, said, “Good! Well melt the saints and put them into circulation.”
The effect of Jesus on the life of Zacchaeus, the experience of grace, melted him and put him into circulation. It would appear that Zacchaeus was moved to work out his salvation, as it were, not only with his head, heart, and voice; but also with his legs and hands. And not with the result that he fled from the world; to the contrary, he practiced his discipleship in the world and through its institutions.
He did it this way: “First, ” he said, “I will give half of all I own to the poor.” And then he said, “If I have cheated anyone, I will give them a 400% return!”
Apart from the calculations, independent of the percentages, Zacchaeus made the declaration of a free person who no longer needed to cling to his riches as if his worth depended on them. And he took very seriously those at whose expense he had done very well.
I think you will agree with me that such a response is not done so much out of obligation or command but out of a sense of freedom, salvation, grace, and joy. Yet Zacchaeus does instruct us in several areas that give shape, body, and structure to this freedom we have in Christ.
I once read an article by David L. Tiede, who was professor of New Testament at Luther Northwestern Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in which he listed four of the essential elements or dimensions of Christian freedom.
One, Zacchaeus was immediately aware that the poor are of special concern in the kingdom of God. That is, “They are the proper beneficiaries of his thanksgiving to Jesus, and the whole law, prophets, and missions of Jesus.” In short, it is the poor who have priority in the kingdom of God.
Two, numbers and percentages in one form or another are humanly necessary. “This is just good business sense, a way of insuring the priority of giving among all the other claims on one’s resources.” So then, whether we give 5%, 10%, 90%, numbers and percentages serve to keep us honest.
Three, a concern for justice is central. “Fraud and oppression must be rectified.” The Gospel does not permit being at peace with oppression nor being indifferent to injustice. And make no mistake, the cost of justice is high.
Four, the salvation of the kingdom does bring joy, freedom, the breaking in of new life, and hope. It is out of a grateful heart that our expressions of thanksgiving to God take shape.3
Frederick Buechner’s book, Peculiar Treasures, is a biblical Who’s Who. The last alphabetical entry is Zacchaeus. He writes, “Zacchaeus makes a good one to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others, too.
“There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father … There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen …. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even.
“Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar … to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured too.”4
We should all be so peculiar! We are all so treasured!
1. Arndt L. Halvorson, All Things New (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), p. 85.
2. Ibid., p. 88.
3. David L. Tiede, “Zacchaeus and the Freedom Fund,” Stewardship Packet, The American Lutheran Church.
4. Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 180.

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