A Sermon for Sunday, September 1, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Luke 19:1-10 (Communion Sunday)
When I was a kid growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I would participate every summer in the Vacation Bible School program at Shades Valley Presbyterian Church, where our family were members. One of the many highlights of that week-long experience was getting to sing the children’s classic, “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man.”
Do you remember singing that song when you were younger? Maybe at Vacation Bible School, church camp, church school or worship?
In case you need to refresh your memory of the tune and lyrics, I’ve asked a member of the choir and our church organist to lead us in singing of this beloved song which has been around for many, many decades. It goes like this:
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree and he said,
‘Zacchaeus you come down, For I’m going to your house today!’
For I’m going to your house today!
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
But a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a happy man was he;
And a very happy man was he.”
“Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man” is a joyful and exuberant song that perfectly captures the drama and excitement permeating the story of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus, from start to finish.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector who has heard that Jesus is passing through Jericho, and he wants to see this man whose ministry has been the talk of town for several weeks. But the crowd is massive, like a parade at Disney World on the 4thof July, and Zacchaeus is so short that he can’t peer over the crowd to see Jesus coming around the bend.
So, he runs past the crowd and climbs up a sycamore tree to get a better glimpse as Jesus walks by on the road. To Zacchaeus’ surprise, Jesus stops and looks up at him and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus doesn’t even hesitate. He scrambles down the tree as quick as he went up and is pleased that Jesus will pay a visit.
But the people who are near the tree begin grumbling and saying in grumbly voices, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”And the wee little man looks up at Jesus and says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back as four times as much.” Jesus replies: “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a song of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
I loved the story of Zacchaeus as a child. Every time I heard it read or sang the song aloud, it delighted me to know that this runt of a fella ran ahead of the people blocking his view and climbed a sycamore tree so he wouldn’t miss seeing Jesus. Zacchaeus’ perseverance and enthusiasm was inspiring to me and still is today.
There’s no other story quite like this one. Actually, Luke’s gospel is the only place that mentions Zacchaeus. And this moment in Jesus’ ministry is vastly different than the other interactions Jesus has with folks:
There’s no one who is physically sick and crying out to Jesus to heal them
There’s no one plagued by unclean spirits
There’s no one who is on the verge of death and needing a miracle
There’s no feeding of the hungry
There’s no teaching and preaching
There’s just a guy, a not very popular one, who is determined to see Jesus and expects to sit comfortably on the branch of a sycamore tree to watch the rabbi teach a lesson or heal someone.
But Zacchaeus’ expectations are unraveled as soon as Jesus looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
And Zacchaeus’ vocation and identity, his greed and complicity in an oppressive economic system fashioned by the Roman Empire unravels into radical generosity.
In a commentary on this passage, Elizabeth Johnson, recently retired professor of New Testament studies at Columbia Theological Seminary, explains Zacchaeus position in the community: 
All tax collectors, by definition, are wealthy; they purchase the right to collect taxes and profit from what they charge above what they owe the empire. When some tax collectors ask John the Baptist, “Teacher, what should we do?” he tells them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you,” (3:12-13), which effectively puts them out of business. Zacchaeus has been very successful, since Luke says he is well-to-do. Jericho is a big city—Herod had a grand palace there—and is therefore a major center of taxation, so Zacchaeus has numerous underlings collecting on his behalf. His prosperity is to be expected.
So, Zacchaeus’ declaration to repay those he defrauded an amount four times greater than what he took and to give half of his possessions to the poor is extremely significant. The Sanctified Art Team observes:
Zacchaeus perpetuates and profits from an economic system that robs and defrauds those on the bottom to benefit those on the top. He is a wealthy tax collector, which means he is not welcomed or wanted by most. Jesus flips the script by inviting Zacchaeus to offer him hospitality, which unravels the crowd’s expectations since they deem Zacchaeus a sinner and an unworthy host. Jesus invites Zacchaeus into community. Jesus invites Zacchaeus to belong. Zacchaeus responds with generosity, vowing to share his resources equitably. Zacchaeus shows us a holy and joyful unraveling. …
How might we, too, unravel our finances and spending practices from systems that oppress and defraud others? What does it look like to transform our own greed into generosity?
How do we demonstrate a holy and joyful unraveling of our finances and spending practices from structures that cause more harm than good? How do we transform the greed for more into generosity for the poor and the suffering?
Those are weighty questions that I can’t (and won’t dare) answer for you, but that are important for each of us to consider as our conscience dictates. I will say that it’s never simple and can be immensely complicated. I can say, though, with utmost certainty that this congregation, and many more like it, regularly strive to faithfully practice acts of generosity in the world: meal bags for families at Children’s’ Healthcare of Atlanta; Clifton Night Shelter; Books for Haiti; 104 pairs of shoes for The Soul Project; special offerings to further ministry in the PC(USA); weekly offerings on Sunday mornings and stewardship pledges that foster the ministries of Emory Presbyterian, and so much more.
What are other ways that we can spend our money and time to change lives and make an impact on our community and world.
Zacchaeus joyfully gives away his monetary worth simply because Jesus sees Zacchaeusas a son of Abraham (and a child of God) and all children of God are worthy of love, acceptance, redemption and salvation. Hannah Garrity of A Sanctified Art expounds on this idea of seeing in an artist statement about her painting, which is today’s bulletin cover. She writes:
Seeing, taking notice, acknowledging, lifting up—Jesus did all of these things as he looked up at Zacchaeus, calling him down, resting love and responsibility on his shoulders. … In this image, Jesus looks up with grace. A shimmer of gold on his skin represents the presence of God in him. He takes notice of a selfish, greedy, and immature adult. Zacchaeus’ actions make me think he did not mature much after middle school. By the standards of society, exhibited by the comments of those around him, this man does not deserve to be acknowledged. When he is finally seen, all of his immaturity melts away. He immediately rises to the occasion. Take notice, acknowledge, lift up. See.
Who are the people we need to notice, acknowledge, lift up and see? Who are those who deserve to be given the dignity, respect and care that society denies to them?
How do we see others who are different from us, especially those who are selfish, greedy and immature? How do we see them in the same way that Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus?
Where do we even get the motivation to stop and look at someone else at a time when our smart phones draw our gaze ever downward and into the most trivial and mundane matters? How do we clear heads and hearts over crowded with an overabundance of information so we can give complete attention and presence to another person and their story much like how Jesus commits himself to being in Zacchaeus’ company?
In summer 2010, a group of minister friends serving churches in other states, and I got our middle school youth groups together to do a week of mission work in the Atlanta metro-area. And we chose as our scripture theme for the week, the story of Zacchaeus, because it demonstrated how Jesus’ unconditional love for us inspires us to give generously to others with that same love.
However, Kathryn, one of my middle school youth from Pleasant Hill Presbyterian in Duluth, though, struggled with the concept for a few days. She just couldn’t figure out what it meant to see another the same way Jesus sees them. But then one afternoon, while spending a free afternoon at Centennial Olympic Park, everything clicked. Here’s her account which she shared in a sermon shortly after the mission experience:
We were at the fountains at Centennial Olympic Park, when we noticed a homeless guy wandering near the benches near the Park’s walkway, and that people would intentionally step aside to avoid touching him. When he sat down on a bench, the person sitting there immediately stood up and went to another bench to sit. I went to Erik, our youth adviser, to see if he would give my money to the homeless man. Erik gave the man the money, bought him lemonade, and also handed him a T-shirt from his backpack. Thanks to the men from Clifton Sanctuary Ministries who spoke to us the previous night, I felt comfortable giving the money to the homeless man without worrying where the money would go. Now I understand. It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and doing something for a person in need, and I’m grateful for the way those experiences and this trip impacted me and empowered me to show Christ’s love.
Although we had all been working with different non-profits and agencies that are dedicated to helping out the poor and low income in Atlanta, it wasn’t until we heard the stories of some of the men at Clifton that enabled Kathryn to see like Jesus the next day at Centennial Olympic Park.
For Kathryn, it wasn’t just about helping someone in need. It was about joyfully giving another person, a homeless man, dignity and respect when other park-goers were going out of their way to avoid contact. Rev. Laura S. Sugg, a Presbyterian minister in Colorado, offer this insight:
The story of Zacchaeus tells us that the gospel is about serious commitment to God but it is also about joy. We good church folk do not always do joy very well. Zacchaeus’ little stand and big smile convict us to do better. Communion is serious business, but it is also a celebration. The word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving. As we share the elements with each other and say words like “bread of heaven” and “cup of salvation,” a good response is, “Thanks be to God!” We respond to Jesus’ invitation to the table with joy because we are included in God’s family. The story of Zacchaeus also tells us something about looking for Jesus, even as he is looking for each one of us.
Perhaps it’s at the communion table where we find inspiration to see another and celebrate the feast which Christ has prepared.
Perhaps it’s at table where we are reminded that Christ has made room for everyone because all are included in God’s family, especially anyone like Zacchaeus.
Perhaps it’s at table where our expectations, judgments, grumblings and many other flaws unravel into love, mercy and generosity.
Perhaps it’s at table where we see Christ and realize that we are also found.
Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor
Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor