May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Most of us, I think, tend to regard the figure of Zacchaeus, whom we hear about today in our reading from St Luke's Gospel*, with a certain degree of affection and sympathy. We think of it as a cute story about a man who is so short that he has to climb a tree to see over the heads of the others in the crowds who have gathered to see Jesus. There is even a sweet little song about it, 'Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he', that I'm sure we all have heard. So I think it important to remind ourselves that when the story begins Zacchaeus is a villain, a really nasty piece of work. He may be someone on the margins of society; but unlike the poor, the leper, or the stranger he is not some kind of an innocent victim; he has placed himself outside the Pale because of the choices he has made.
He is, we must remember, a tax-collector and not just any tax-collector but a chief tax-collector. St Matthew was a tax-collector also, but of a very lowly kind, one who personally manned a booth in the street. Zacchaeus is very much higher up the food-chain, directing the tax collection of the entire city, perhaps even the region. He would have had many men working for him, all employed in trying to squeeze money out of their fellow-Jews so as to enrich the Roman invaders – and themselves. Worse, Zacchaeus is corrupt and has grown rich from his corruption. He has thrived on exploiting the misery not only of his fellow man but his brothers in faith, working hand in glove with a hated enemy. It is no wonder that they hate him; for he has piled misery upon misery in their lives. When they declare him a 'sinner' they do not mean he is a sinner in the sense that all men are sinners, but rather that he is someone wilfully engaged in serious and public sin.
But when Jesus is passing through Jericho, the city where Zacchaeus lives, on his way to Jerusalem, the place where he will suffer and die, the tax-collector hears of it and wants to see him. This should not surprise us; Jesus was by this time famous as a great teacher and worker of wonders. Many wanted to see him; even the wicked King Herod, who had beheaded St John the Baptist for warning him against the evils he practised, wished to see him. But Zacchaeus, as we all know, had a problem. He was short; he could not see over the heads of the others in the crowd. So he climbs a tree. And then something startling happens. The man he wished to see stops and speaks to him.
St Luke does not tell us how it is that our Lord knows Zacchaeus' name. There is no suggestion in the Bible that they have ever met before; indeed, the fact that Zacchaeus goes such great lengths to catch a glimpse of him, and behaves in quite an undignified way for a man of his wealth and power in order to do so, is indicative of the fact that they had never laid eyes on each other before. And in those days before newspapers, television, or the internet, the idea that Jesus would have recognised him from some image that had been published somewhere is unlikely – especially in a culture that rather frowned on
So I tend to think that the fact that Jesus knew his name was something miraculous – and perhaps more important a miracle than it might seem at first sight. He knows his name; he knows that he lives in the city and is not one of the many who is simply passing through; and he knows that he can afford to entertain at short notice a great number of guests. He seems to have looked into the heart of the man in the tree – and know what is needed to heal the soul of this wicked man. And the result is that something happens within the heart of that man. He is happy to welcome Jesus into his home – and not, we may be sure, because his vanity is appealed to by having an exotic wandering preacher come to eat with him. Later events make that clear. Because when others grumble that Jesus has chosen to dine with this sinner, the response of
Zacchaeus shows that he has profoundly changed. He will give half of what he has to the poor; and those he has cheated will be repaid four times over. Jesus' words and actions have touched his soul; and Zacchaeus has responded with repentance and reparation – by being sorry for what he has done wrong and doing what he can to make amends. And he has thereby, as our Lord declares, found salvation.
It is important to note, I think, that Zacchaeus does not deny that he is a sinner; or in any way try to excuse his past actions. And neither does Christ try to suggest that he is not a sinner; indeed, his comments following the tax-collector's repentance and reparation, that he had come to seek out the lost and that salvation has come to Zacchaeus' house as a result of his actions, rather acknowledge that the man's life was previously grievously sinful.
This is important, I think, because there is an increasing tendency in modern life to equate welcoming the sinner with welcoming the sin, with saying that if the Church is to be truly open then it must stop talking about sin or calling people to repentance. And this is demonstrably untrue. The Church is indeed called to welcome all – and sinners, indeed, have a right to be welcomed; for if they are not welcomed within God's House, where will there learn what they need for their salvation? But the story of Zacchaeus reminds us that while all must be welcomed in, all must be also taught of their need for repentance; and repentance is required for salvation.
This, as I draw to an end, we must realise should be a source of great joy for us. For all, as we surely know and I have already reminded you, are sinners. But God loves us so much that, in spite of our sinfulness, he sent his only Son, that Salvation might be open to all he welcomes into his house. All have fallen; but God is there to help us up again. My prayer is that all will take his hand – to the greater glory of the one who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.
St Luke, Chapter 19
1* He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. 3 And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today." 6 So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully. 7* And when they saw it they all murmured, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." 8* And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold." 9* And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost."