Text: Luke 19: 1-10
Jesus and Zacchaeus
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
There are a three things I want to call your attention to regarding this text because it is really a much richer story than many of us realize at first reading. The first item that I find very interesting is the bait and switch that takes place in the opening few lines. The text makes a point to let us know that Zacchaeus was rich. Do you remember the movie “Jaws”? Do you remember how when someone would get in the water and the shark would begin to close in, this awesome music would start? Da-dum, Da-dum, da-dum…remember? You knew something was about to happen!
That music begins to play in my head when I read in one of the gospels that someone was rich. Jesus tended to not get along too well with the rich; the story usually ends badly for the rich person. Jesus calls them out, tells them to sell everything they own, says it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, etc-you know the stories. So when the story begins by telling us that Zac was rich, well, you sort of expect this to end badly for our character. But it doesn’t! That’s why I called it bait and switch-I sort of think this was intentional on the author’s part, but we will never know, but it does keep the story interesting.
The second item is of critical importance. There is a literal truth here, but also a very important metaphorical truth and I don’t want you to miss this. The text tells us that Zac was a man of small stature; you remember the song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he”-from our childhood we have been taught that Zac was short. Now, I’m not the shortest person in our family, but I’m not the tallest either-and I’m shorter than all of my sons, and usually a bit shorter than most of the people I have worked with over the years. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t think, but I have had thoughts about it might be nice to be a little taller. When we got married Heidi and I paid particular attention to our shoes so she wouldn’t be a lot taller than me in all of our pictures-so it goes.
I’m making this point because often there is quite an ego involved when we begin to discuss someone’s physical appearance. If Zac was really so short that it was worth mentioning in the story, perhaps there was some ego attached to that as well. The important part of this story is that Zacchaeus put his ego aside and climbed a tree so he could see Jesus. To climb the tree is a public acknowledgement that he was too short to see anything. To climb the tree is to put yourself in the path of public humiliation. To climb the tree is a public confession that your physical stature is inadequate for the task at hand. All of these things mean that Zacchaeus was able to overcome his ego, his personal hang-ups about being short, and doing what was required to see Jesus.
That is the literal part of the story that I mentioned earlier. There is a literal truth here that can be interpreted exactly as it is written. Zac was short, he couldn’t see, so he laid his ego aside and publicly climbed a tree so he could see Jesus.
The metaphorical truth applies to us with the same level of importance-and we can use much of the same language. Our own egos often blind us to the point where we can no longer see Jesus. If we want a clear view of Jesus, it is necessary for us to lay our egos aside, and then we can see.
Many of us don’t recognize the ego when it presents itself; the ego is very crafty. If you have ever thought that things should not be happening to you that are happening to you that is your ego. If you have ever felt like you do things right when everyone else does it wrong, that is your ego. When something you see or hear is offensive to you, it is your ego that is making that judgment; as a matter of fact, all judgments you make have the ego at the source. When you consider one person or one religion or one movie or one sports team to be better than all others, it is the ego that is driving those thoughts.
Let me give you the metaphor one more time; in order for us to gain a truly clear view of Jesus, it is necessary for us to lay the ego aside. When we view Jesus through our ego, there is too much in the way and we cannot see clearly. This is a huge topic, but worth thinking about and worth mentioning as it relates to this story…but we have a third point to consider, so we need to move on.
The third point is that after a brief conversation with Zac, Jesus declares that salvation has come to this house today. My question is what did Jesus mean when he used the word salvation?
You see words create pictures in our minds. Those pictures shape what we hear and how we hear it; the pictures shape the way we receive the information and how we interpret what was said. That is the source of most misunderstandings-when somebody says something, they see one set of pictures while someone else sees a completely different set of pictures-the words don’t have to change, but the pictures in the mind certainly do.
It is also important how you say something. You can say essentially the same thing two different ways and get two completely different reactions. For example, let’s imagine that you are getting ready to go out for the evening and you tell your wife that she looks like the breath of spring. I would imagine that information would be well received and you might score all sorts of points that you noticed the nice outfit and the way the hair was fixed and how great the shoes matched the rest of what she was wearing, and so forth. Now you could also say essentially the same thing, but instead of saying that your wife looked like the breath of spring, you could tell her that she looks like the end of a long, hard winter. I’m thinking the result of that statement may be very different than the first.
Words create pictures and we see the pictures in our mind’s eye and we interpret what we hear or what we read based on what pictures we see.
So my question becomes this; what pictures did Jesus intend for us to see when he said that salvation had come to this house today?
When we hear the word salvation today what pictures pop up in your mind? Do you see an auditorium filled with people all singing “Just As I Am” and the aisles are filled with persons filing forward to accept Jesus at a Billy Graham crusade? Do you see the cross or perhaps imagine the scene of the execution of Jesus? Do you see an Easter morning scene with the empty tomb and a stone rolled away? Perhaps you see a lake of fire or some other torment in hell as you imagine hell to be and you see yourself escaping from that torment. This was a popular topic of many artists a few centuries ago and many of the paintings on the ceilings and walls of the cathedrals around Europe depict this sort of imagery.
The word salvation can bring forth many pictures in our heads. But not one of the pictures that I mentioned is what Jesus would have seen in his mind’s eye. So when we read the gospels and read the words of Jesus, we need to try to imagine what pictures Jesus saw in his mind when he spoke the words we are reading. In this case Jesus said salvation had come to this house; what do you suppose the pictures were that went along with the words?
One thing that can help us to answer questions like these is to look at a history of a word, or follow it back to original languages or original intent. In the original Greek the word is sótéria, and it is pronounced (so-tay-ree’-ah) and it generally means things like welfare, prosperity, deliverance, preservation, or safety. If we look at the Latin, the root is “salvus” and is generally translated as whole, sound, safe or well.
These are more likely the types of pictures that Jesus would have had in his head when he spoke the words salvation has come to this house today. The house had been delivered from greed, the house had been preserved from the anger of the crowds, the house had been restored to wholeness from the brokenness caused by theft or oppression or questionable tax gathering techniques.
This is a very different message than the contemporary understanding most people hold of the word salvation-and it is important for us to recognize that difference and be clear about what Jesus intended when they were spoken. The modern evangelical soul-saving from the pits of hell definition is a very different interpretation than what the text here really indicates-and that is worth thinking about and worth remembering.
What I now find particularly interesting is how related these last two points truly are; that is the idea of our egos getting in the way of seeing Jesus and our collective misinterpretation of the word salvation. You see, I believe, that the interpretation of salvation as eternal life or being saved from hell plays directly into our ego. When we are saved and others are not, that is a very self-identified ego centric type of attitude. That ego clouds our vision of Jesus-so the very thing that we think draws us closer to Jesus, actually separates us further from that goal. When our own ego allows us to believe that we are chosen, or loved more by God, or are a follower of the one true religion or are saved from eternal punishment and judgment because we have done the right things and we believe the right things and we are right with God and that others are not, that becomes problematic. That ego centered attitude which we think defines us as close to God, actually separates us further from the true Divine connection that we seek.
So the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus is really about overcoming our own ego-centric behavior and bringing us to a place where we can truly see Jesus, and when we see him, we are then restored to wholeness.
Food for thought. Go in Peace. Amen.