The Zacchaeus Phenomenon

See what happened when giving, rather than taking, became the new normal.

I have always loved the story of Zacchaeus. I am sure part of my love for Zacchaeus began when I learned that song from Sunday School: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and wee little man was he …” Perhaps I have also always loved Zacchaeus because I too am a bit “short in stature,” and so I have always felt a sense of kinship with Zacchaeus. I can totally relate to not being able to see in a crowd. The one time we went to the Macy’s Day Parade, I could only see the tops of floats as I strained to see on tiptoe. What I wouldn’t have given for a sycamore tree that day! Plus, Zacchaeus’ story ends so joyfully, that his story seems like a happy little adventure between Jesus and this eager, short man.

But the more I thought about Zacchaeus this week, the more I began to realize that Zacchaeus is not exactly a sweet, innocent, short man trying to see Jesus. Zacchaeus is actually a pretty bad guy in the story. Tax collectors are pretty notorious in those days. First, they are considered traitors by most Jews because they willingly are employed by the occupying Romans. Second, and perhaps worse, tax collectors make a great deal of money because part of the arrangement of being a tax collector is being able collect as much as they want over the Roman tax to pad their own wallets.[i] Considering Jericho is a big city, and major center of taxation, we should not be surprised that Zacchaeus is not just doing well – he is rich.[ii] We should also not be surprised when the people in the crowd grumble when this man, who betrays his people and extorts money from them, is welcomed so warmly by Jesus.

We know Zacchaeuses in our lives – those guys who always cheat their way to the top and seem to be rewarded for their cheating. They do not even have to be attractive to get their way – they might even be some short guy with no physical appeal. We much prefer stories like the man with the bigger barn who dies before he can enjoy his wealth, or the rich man who burns in hell without the help of Lazarus, because we like people to get what they deserve. We like the stories of ultimate justice because we have some sense of justice as fairness ingrained in us. So when someone is consistently rich, and consistently the recipient of favoritism, we sense justice is being violated.

Over the years, my understanding of wealth and what it does to people has varied over time. In general, I think money has the potential to be corrupting, and so we all have to be careful about our relationship with wealth. But I have also met many wealthy people who give away a LOT of money. Whether the person is a wealthy alum from my college, a generous board member for a non-profit, or a wealthy parishioner at church, I have come to see the powerful way that the wealthy can turn their blessing into a blessing for others. We hear in scripture all the time how hard life is for the wealthy, how money can lead to sinfulness, and how money can curse someone to suffering in the afterlife. So we tend to prejudge the rich as being a group who has a lot of work to do – almost as if they must atone for something. But what that kind of judgment does is allow us to judge others without seeing what in our lives is separating us from God too. Money can certainly separate us from God and lead us to sinfulness; but so can envy, lust, jealousy, and drunkenness.

When we can see Zacchaeus as a man – not just a wee, little man or a rich, manipulative man – but simply a man who is a sinner just like each of us, then we can really begin to see the magic of Zacchaeus’ story. The magic of Zacchaeus’ story is that despite his sinfulness, Jesus’ uncompromising love changes him. The last part of the gospel today is where we see the magic unfold. When Jesus shows Zacchaeus unconditional love and acceptance, Zacchaeus is entirely transformed. Zacchaeus does not simply say he will start living his life in a different way. Instead, Zacchaeus pledges to give half of his possessions to the poor. Furthermore, he pledges to repay fourfold anyone whom he has defrauded – which given his position was probably quite a lot of money. And in return for Zacchaeus’ overflowing generosity and repentance, Jesus’ love flows even more, as he declares Zacchaeus to not only be saved, but to be considered a son of Abraham – a member of the family of God! The story almost becomes comical as Jesus and Zacchaeus try to one-up each other in showing love and grace, abundance and blessing.

For those of you who have ever given generously to church, you may have experienced this Zacchaeus phenomenon yourself. Making a generous gift to the church actually feels really great – like you are a part of some cycle of gratitude. When you give out of blessing and gratitude, you end up somehow receiving even more blessing and gratitude. And somehow giving that generous amount – whether a tithe or some other amount makes you more generous in other areas too. Somehow, that request at Christmas for needy Plainview families seems easier to accommodate; giving to charities and institutions outside of church feels like the right thing to do. And giving your money generously makes you want to give your time generously too – because somehow in the midst of giving, you receive so much more.

This cycle of gratitude between us and Jesus is what we celebrate today. When we bring our pledge cards forward a little later in the service, we bring them with a light heart, an overwhelming sense of blessedness, and a joy that almost makes us dance down the aisle. This is Zacchaeus’ gift to us today – to help us reclaim the joy that only comes from generosity. Zacchaeus’ joy can be your joy today too. Amen. [i] Laura S. Sugg, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 260. [ii] E. Elizabeth Johnson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 261.