The Wee Little Man
No one likes the tax man, not even the Beatles, as they made their feelings quite clear in the hit song, "Tax Man."
In the first-century, Palestine tax collectors were 'persona non grata' and worse. Often they were viewed as traitors for collaborating with the occupation of their land by the Roman Empire. Many people regarded them as the ultimate of sinners for overcharging and even extorting the poor and working classes. Tax collectors were uniformly feared and hated.
The Zealots were a rebel sect who sought to overthrow their Roman rulers by violence. They even believed that to kill a tax collector would be a godly act.
Zacchaeus, in today's Gospel lesson, was the head tax man in the large city of Jericho, where exports of expensive balsam brought in a steady stream of tax and customs revenue for Rome. There was plenty of room for dishonest profit for the tax collectors, so it's no wonder Saint Luke tells us Zacchaeus was a wealthy man.
Perhaps you're familiar with the Sunday School song about Zacchaeus.
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 him by, He looked up in the tree,
And he said, "Zacchaeus, you come down from there;
For I'm going to your house today, for I'm going to your house today."
Zacchaeus came down from that tree, as happy as he could be,
He gave his money to the poor, and said: "What a better man I'll be."
We're still left to wonder why Zacchaeus climbed into the sycamore tree for a better look at Jesus. Perhaps he was dissatisfied with his life; it really is true, after all, that money cannot buy happiness. Perhaps he had heard of Jesus' radical teachings about the Kingdom of God, and wanted to find out for himself if it was true.
In any case, it's clear that God had already been working in this man's life even before Jesus came to Jericho, preparing Zacchaeus' heart for an encounter that would forever change him.
Imagine his amazement when Jesus called out to him by name, and invited Himself to stay at Zacchaeus' house. And, imagine the nasty remarks muttered by the crowd when they realized Jesus had chosen to stay in the home of the ultimate sinner.
I like to picture Jesus in quiet conversation with Zacchaeus as they walked along the road, the crowd following at a careful distance. By the time they reached his front door, Zacchaeus had decided ... from that day forward, he would follow Jesus.
In front of the entire town, Zacchaeus promised to give away half of his considerable wealth to help the poor, and to make restitution to those he defrauded, paying back four times what he had taken from them. This was no empty boast. I believe this was a solemn vow made in the midst of a life-changing encounter with the Son of God.
"Today salvation has come to this house," Jesus loudly announced to the crowd, "for he, too, is a son of Abraham." Since Zacchaeus was a Jew, he deserved to hear the good news of the Messiah and be given a chance to believe. Jesus was lifting him out of a life of duplicity and fraud, and calling him to his true identity as a child of God.
In the recent motion picture, "The End of A Spear," Jim Elliot, the Christian missionary who was martyred at the hands of the Auca Indians of Ecuador in 1956, wrote in his journal,
"He is no fool
who gives up what he cannot keep
to gain what he cannot lose."
The Kingdom logic contained in that simple statement was clear to Zacchaeus as well. His money and possessions suddenly meant nothing compared to the opportunity he was being offered -- to live forever in a close personal relationship with the Messiah.
How incredible to have the slate wiped clean by a God who no longer keeps score, a God who would work with him to make sense of his life. What did it matter if he gave away half or even all of his gold?
He suddenly saw material wealth for what it was -- totally unimportant in the eternal scheme of things, except as we use it to help those in need ... those who are cold, without proper warm clothing, those who are hungry, or strangers in our town, or those who are sick or in prison.
Like Jim Elliot, Zacchaeus gave up what he could not keep to gain what he would never lose.
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