I am a nomad from a family of nomads. I have lived all over the world and across America. In the words of the great Johnny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere, man!” For the last three years, I have been blessed to call Ames, Iowa my home, where I am the minister at Westside Church of Christ. I also joyfully bear the title of husband to my wife and, as of this July, father to my infant son. If you would like to contact me, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I was a boy, every time my class had a group picture taken, I was always in the front row. I was something of a short little kid and had to be in front so I wouldn’t be blocked out. I would never get to stand on the top bleachers with the tall kids. Though I now stand at an imposing five feet and nine inches, I have always felt like I could relate with that one person in the Bible that perhaps could be considered the patron saint of the vertically challenged: Zacchaeus.
We read his story in Luke 19:
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 because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
There’s no denying that Zacchaeus was short—his shortness is big part of the story! However, there’s more to him than that and if we simply associate Zacchaeus with his physical stature, then we miss out on a lot of what this story is saying.
Zacchaeus may have been short and I’m sure people may have even made fun of him for it, but definitely not to his face because he was a man of great importance. He was the chief tax collector and as a result, he was quite wealthy. He would have also been in a position of power and recognition, and though being a Jew, he was working alongside the Roman officials.
Still, while Zacchaeus had money and power, he probably didn’t win a lot of popularity contests. Even today, people aren’t huge fans of the tax man, but imagine if the person collecting your taxes was giving them to a government that had taken over your homeland and you had no choice but to give them that small chunk of your paycheck every time they asked. Many Jews would have seen him as a traitor to his own people. It didn’t help their reputation that many tax collectors were corrupt, often “skimming a little of the top” and fattening their own wallets. There’s nothing to indicate that Zacchaeus himself did that, but I’m sure that the people there at least assumed that he did.
But despite this, Zacchaeus, just like everyone else, is curious about this Jesus guy. Everyone had heard of Jesus at this point. He was a rabbi with some extraordinary teachings. Unlike the other teachers, he spoke with a voice of authority. He had even performed several miracles, healing the sick and casting out demons in the name of God. Everyone had heard of Jesus, which explains why such a large crowd gathering around him when he entered the city of Jericho. Hundreds of people from all over the city and the surrounding towns were drawn to see what was happening.
Zacchaeus was short and he could not see over the crowd. Not only was the crowd blocking him, but it was sure that the Pharisees would have kept him away. To them, he was a sinner and was to be cut off from society. If it weren’t for the Romans in charge, the Pharisees would likely have had their way, too. They would have seen Zacchaeus as an embarrassment and wanted to keep him away from this well-known visiting rabbi.
Then he sees the sycamore fig tree. It would be a big risk, but Zacchaeus doesn’t have much time to think. The crowds were no doubts going to grow larger and Jesus would be going to someone’s house to eat dinner, soon. And so he climbed. Leaving his pride and dignity on the ground, he shimmied his short legs up that tree. With each branch, his view expanded more and more. But it was then that he noticed something: Jesus was heading right towards him!
A voice called out, “Zacchaeus, get down out of that tree.” Zacchaeus looks down and cannot believe his eyes. It was Jesus! He was standing right there below him. Somehow, Jesus knew him by name…and he wanted him to get down out of there. In fact, Jesus continued on, “Zacchaeus, can I stay your house today?”
Zacchaeus, in this moment, is completely overwhelmed. For years, he had been shunned because of his job. He was used to it, by now. It came with the territory. And yes, it came with it also great wealth, but I’m sure that Zacchaeus often found himself lonely and without friends. Jesus’ gestures moved him powerfully, and Zacchaeus’ response reflects that. He gives over half his possessions to the poor, and even says that if at some point he had ever cheated anyone out of their money, he would give them four times that amount back. His life was going to be turned around and he was going to repent of his sins. It was going to be different now…all because Jesus had called his name.
This is the beautiful imagery of this story: Jesus seeks out the lost. He was on a mission that day, and whether or not Zacchaeus had climbed that tree, Jesus would have found him. He was looking for him. But Zacchaeus did climb that tree, and in doing so, he demonstrated great humility on his part. He wanted to see Jesus and was willing to drop his pride and climb, even if it only meant a quick glimpse. In the end, his reward was much greater than what he ever could have expected.
There were a lot of reasons why Jesus should have picked someone else, and there were plenty of people in the crowd who would have loved to point these reasons out. But Jesus didn’t care. It didn’t matter what Zacchaeus had done or who he was or who liked or who didn’t like him. All Jesus saw was a child of God who needed helping finding his way.
That’s the beauty of this story, because this is our story, too. We are all like Zacchaeus, striving to see God over the crowd, but struggling with our own limitations. We, too, have our sins and our reasons why we don’t deserve to see him face to face. But when we seek out Jesus, we just might hear that voice calling out our names. We may look down from our tree and see the face of Jesus, asking us if he can eat at our house tonight. We may just find that it turns out that while we were looking for Jesus, Jesus was looking for us.
This is the gospel, the good news that we are spreading: no matter who you are or what you’ve done, there is room in His kingdom for you.