I recently had the opportunity to speak at church, and here is my take on a familiar Biblical story from Luke 19:1-10:
Luke, a physician and advocate for the marginalized, has a unique way of presenting the compassion Jesus had for those who were shunned by the vast majority of other people, and the way Jesus honored those who sought him out in the midst of whatever they had done, whatever they had become in life.
Zacchaeus, like the prodigal son, or the lost sheep, was one who was joyfully received by Jesus, though judged and counted insignificant by others around him.
Aren’t there times when all of us climb a tree, seeking a better position or perspective? Whether it is academic, athletic, financial, appearance-related, or even relational achievement, we believe that there is some way of gaining a better vantage point. Even in our perspective of Jesus, aren’t most of us more comfortable seeing who Jesus is from our distanced and objective observation rather than the more intimate experience he has in mind?
Sometimes our climb becomes tiring. Barbara Brown Taylor, a wise episcopal priest, describes beliefs about believers this way:
“Most of us have pretty firm beliefs about what it means to believe. One common belief is that believers are never at a loss for words. They are never embarrassed to be asked what they believe or shy to answer; they are always articulate and eloquent and wise. Believers are never doubtful or afraid. They live in total confidence that they are in God’s hands and when they say their prayers at night God talks back to them. They act on what they hear from the pulpit, they mean every word of the Nicene Creed, and their hearts are strangely warmed at the communion rail.
Have I gotten to your belief about believing yet? What is it that you hold over your own head? What golden ring is it that you place just high enough so that you can never quite reach it? Is it that you do not pray enough, or witness enough, or read enough theology? Is it that you are not knowledgeable enough or enthusiastic enough or sure enough about what you believe? Whatever it is, please stop it. Please stop exiling yourself from the flock because of your beliefs about what it takes to belong and see if you cannot allow yourself to belong simply because God says you do.”
Fortunately for us, Jesus does not thrust the expectations upon us that we place upon ourselves. Instead he honors those who seek him out and calls us to remain in him, as he remains in us. It is a relational call.
Zacchaeus’ climb was a declaration that even in the wealth he had accumulated, there was something more to be sought. Blocked by the crowd, and dissatisfied and frustrated by the limitations he felt in the body he had been given, he climbed up to get a better view. He wanted to “see who Jesus was” but from his own vantage point, isolated from the crowd, and elevated above Jesus.
Jesus had another far more fulfilling and life-changing encounter in mind- one that Zacchaeus could not have predicted or orchestrated. I suspect that Zacchaeus did not have to climb the tree in order for Jesus to know he was there. Jesus sees us even when we cannot or do not want to see him.
Jesus’ direct command to Zacchaeus was not that he reform his life, not that he be a little nicer, not that he make things right. Just that he would come down- a loving invitation and investment. Just that he show up when Jesus showed up, in the comfort- and vulnerability- of his own living room.
Our homes reflect us and our lives- the neatness or disarray, the decor, the colors, the degree of comfort and warmth…all of it reflects a set of values, personality, and a general attitude toward life.
At this stage of my life, the superheroes and Legos scattered on the floor say, “we have three little boys.” The mountain of unfolded laundry says, “Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be enough time.” But I hope the overall feel says, “Come in and be comfortable. We have kids, and we have fun together. Help yourself. You are welcome to be here and not have to be perfect.”
When we approach Jesus as an historical figure, a vague entity, or an image on stained glass, it can become a relationship that occurs on our own terms. We feel as though we can choose when, how long, and the depth to which he can penetrate our lives. But when we invite him into our car ride home from church, into our living rooms, into our messy lives, it is a different experience altogether.
The truth is, Jesus already sees it all anyway. The difference in welcoming his presence is that we make ourselves available to be changed and transformed. We no longer need to be isolated or dependent on our own pursuits.
When Jesus called, Zacchaeus did not contemplate the pros and cons. He did not do a cost benefit analysis and talk with a therapist about the potential emotional growth that would occur should he come down from the tree. In the core of his being, and with no real ambivalence, he knew the only choice that he could make. It was the same choice the disciples made when they dropped their fishing nets and followed- it was immediate, and it was personal.
The crowd grumbled and judged him as a sinner, but Zacchaeus joyfully welcomed Jesus and “hurried down.” He didn’t seem worried about the state of his house, and my hunch is that Jesus didn’t spend time attending to Zacchaeus’ material home so much as his spiritual one. Are we in such an admirable hurry to come down from reliance on our own resources, our own comfortable, distanced view of Jesus to an uncertain encounter in the midst of our messes?
I get the sense that the specific changes Zacchaeus got ready to make were not out of dutiful obligation but joyfully prompted by his encounter with Jesus. According to the law, Z would have only had to add a fifth of what he’d wrongfully taken from others but he far exceeded that by restoring it fourfold. Having taken advantage of everyone in his path, Zacchaeus was an unlikely candidate for generosity and restitution, yet that was exactly what occurred.
My own experience of Jesus is that the connection with him itself prompts us to do radical things that are out of our comfort zone and unexpected, even within ourselves.
The more closeness I experience with Jesus, the more I want to hurry to come down and be with him. Ironically, when I can let go of my striving, that is when I open myself, as Zacchaeus did, to true change.
What do you need to let go of, leave behind, or do to come down, come closer to Jesus? Maybe it is setting aside ten quiet minutes a day to listen for his voice. Maybe it involves an honest and uncensored prayer.
When he calls to you, do you hurry down? Will you risk an encounter with Jesus that may not be what you had in mind but has the potential to be much more?
Wherever you find yourself in this story, it is my hope that you will meet Jesus there, allow him to visit you, and allow him to penetrate your heart in a way that leads you to walk away from that visit changed.