Luke 19:1-10 | Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Doctor Who is a BBC television series that began in the 1960s. The stories are about the adventures of the Doctor, who travels time and space in a machine called the TARDIS–Time And Relative Dimensions in Space. On the outside, the device looks like an old fashioned British police call box, a blue telephone booth. On the inside, it is enormous, with uncounted rooms and passages. I can’t think of a show that I would recommend more wholeheartedly for kids. For that matter, there are few shows that can match it for grownups.
Zacchaeus of this gospel passage is like the TARDIS—bigger on the inside. No doubt plenty of people before me have made a great deal of Zacchaeus’ small stature, but so did Luke. The Gospel story is insistent, recording that he was a small man, that he climbed a tree to see over the crowd, and pointing out that when he responded to the criticism of the crowd, he took care to stand up before speaking. Plenty of people stand, we might say, but Luke is particular to tell us that Zacchaeus did.
Being from the South, there are aspects of the story that are difficult for me to imagine. Our sycamores, when we find them, are very large trees with no figs. Our figs may be called trees, but no one other than the smallest child could climb in one, let alone see over the heads of a crowd from the branches. The tree in the story sounds like a sycamore fig, a variety native to Africa that grows in the Middle East—a larger tree by far than our figs, and fruit-bearing.
Something else is peculiar about the story. In calling Zacchaeus down out of the tree, Jesus says, “I must stay in your house today.”
A must. A necessity.
Is this the same compulsion that drove Jesus toward Jerusalem? Does he mean that by staying with this chief of tax collectors, a man despised for his position and his wealth as well as for his small stature, that something needful for the kingdom of God is being accomplished?
The kingdom of God. The Gospel. The life of Jesus. These are things that are also different than they appear, things that are bigger on the inside.
Zacchaeus hears the crowd, their grumblings and their insults. Many of us know what that is like, to hear the insults of people who hide behind anonymity or mutter at the edge of our hearing. Many of us have also taken our place in the crowd, mumbling and insulting with the worst of them.
Zacchaeus stands as tall as he is able, and he shows them his real stature. Half of his wealth he gives to the poor. Anyone he has defrauded, he promises to repay four times over—and out of the half of his wealth that he has remaining. We have to wonder at that second promise. If he were the scoundrel that the crowd seem to think he is, he would need more money to meet the claims. Maybe that second promise is more of an indictment—if any of you want to make me out a crook, come prove it so. Sometimes we need to speak for ourselves.
Zacchaeus didn’t let the crowd deter him. When he couldn’t see who Jesus was one way, he chose another. The challenge didn’t stop him, and the jeers of a crowd who watched a tiny man climb a tree like a boy didn’t stop him. The opinions of other people didn’t stop him. Rejection didn’t stop him.
When he saw Jesus, when he heard Jesus calling him down and saying in front of everyone that he was going to Zacchaeus’ home, he didn’t hesitate.
Hearing the reaction of the crowd, he responded in a surprising manner. Where many of us would rage against the insults or attack those who were mocking him, Zacchaeus responded with a great heart and deep faith. His critics must have left that scene feeling that Zacchaeus was a bigger man than they.
Climbing that tree so that he could see was a choice, and so was clambering back down as everyone gaped at him. Giving to the poor and making amends were choices. Welcoming Jesus was a choice.
All of us are Zacchaeus. Sometimes we’re smaller than we think. Sometimes we’re bigger. We get to choose. The trick is lifting our eyes to see the difference.
Stained glass window in the the protestant Christ church in Korntal in Baden-Württemberg. “Hurry down, Zacchaeus”