Pastoral Study Project Writing: What If Zacchaeus Was Your Neighbor?

* I'd like to thank the Louisville Institute for generously providing grant support through the Pastoral Study Project which allowed for this reflection.  

Luke 19:1-10

What If Zacchaeus Was Your Neighbor?

What it was like to live down the street from Zacchaeus.  Was he a good neighbor?  In the sense that he kept the dandelions out of his yard, got the trash out on time and always picked up after his Jack Russell Terrier on their walks.  Would you despise him?  I mean, what if he was the guy who always got the newest boat and was going to retire at 50?  Would you love to hate him?

Do you think he would have been a good boss?  Did he give direct explicit instructions for how to file the W-2’s?  Was he prompt and specific with feedback?  And would he write a solid letter of recommendation if you wanted to venture out of the government sector and apply for a job at the local Palestinian tax accountant’s office?  At the annual tax collectors convention, was he well-respected?  Would another tax collector we met in Luke 5, Levi, have stories to share about Zacchaeus? 

I wonder what it was like to have Zacchaues as your dad, I mean, would you be proud of him?  Would you have lots of toys but few friends?  Would you want the other kids to know who your dad was.  Or would you ask him to drop you off a few blocks from school so you could walk in anonymously.  

Have you ever thought, “what if Zaccheaus was my son?”  Were his parents grieved that he had found a path to wealth when so many around them were living hand to mouth?  Did they feel some humiliation because of his choices?  And, for them, had their sons’ chosen profession with its exploiting tactics - had this been the litmus test among their social circle.  The test that showed them which other couples really were true friends and which, seemed to always be too busy to get together or those who simply never returned calls or emails.  Did thoughts loop through their heads, “What did we do wrong?  We had dreamed he would make us proud.  We even gave him the name Zaccheaus - ‘innocent, blameless’, hoping he would live into and up to that.”  

I wonder what it would be like to be married to Zacchaeus.  You would be used to a life in which you always had enough - actually more than enough more than enough money, more than enough food, more than enough help around the house - with all the servants - and, so what? if the other spouses seemed to always move away when you entered the room.  So what if? from time to time anonymous mean-spirited memes using your husband’s image circulated on social media?   I mean, you get used it after awhile.  It comes with the territory.

And what would it be like to be Zacchaeus?  Wealthy but despised.  Successful but separate.  A powerful puppet viewed with contempt.  He wasn’t allowed into the Temple or the synagogue.  People viewed his money as tainted.  His word, every word, was viewed as corrupt - to the point that as a tax collector, he would never be allowed to serve as a witness in any court in Isreal.  

What kept him up at night?  Did he worry about his children’s safety?  Did they get bullied at school?  Did he feel distanced from God like he’d sold out his soul? or had he told himself enough times“You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do” that he was simply numb?  Did Zacchaeus like himself?

All of these questions have been set in a modern context in an effort to get Zacchaeus off the flannel board.  Let’s look beyond the lyrics“a wee little man was he” and see the whole dimensional person who lives in a community with relationships - broken, strained, relationships severed by sin. 

How many people had said to Zaccheaus through their actions and words, “While your name may mean blameless and innocent, we all know you are not. You are not blameless and innocent.  In fact, you should be ashamed of yourself.”  

Everytime it happened; perhaps Zacchaeus pulled into himself a bit more.  That is the thing with blame.  That’s the thing with shame.  It hurts.  It steals our humanity and chips away at being created in the image of God.  Shame grows when there is judgment, secrecy, and isolation.  It is that dark pit in our thinking that drives, “you are not enough.  you are not worthy.  You are an imposter.  You are a fake.”  Shame speaks lies about us.  Shame has no place in the Kingdom of God.  

Maybe trying to mute the voice of shame drove Zacchaeus to risk entering the crowd in Jericho in order to see Jesus.  

Risk?  Why would this be risky?  Since Zaccheaus worked for the Roman government and the Romans occupied Isreal as the conquering power, Zaccheaus was working for the enemy; he was as a traitor.  The Zealots, a religious group engaged in gorilla warfare tactics had a way of dealing with traitors.  In the cover of a crowd, they would quickly stab a traitor and then slip away, getting lost in the throng.  Zacchaeus doesn’t hide in the crowd but climbs a tree so he can see.  

Like Zaccheaus, we too, have to ask, how much of ourselves will we let be seen?  What limb are we willing to go out on, to see Jesus?  

Imagine someone in an Armani suit climbing a tree!  If that crowd had had smart phones, this would have given lots of material for the next round of memes.

Everyone now could see Zacchaeus.  But only one really sees him.  Maybe it was the first time in a long time he had really been seen.  And known.  And loved.  And cherished.  Moved from a flat character easy to pin one’s hatred on, to a broken man caught in the bondage of systematic sin needing more than what he could ever gain on his own.  

Because Jesus really sees and loves Zaccheus into new life, into living out a kingdom of God ethic right here and now,’ “I will give half of what I have” -  the crowd is presented with the truth that when Jesus calls you, you are changed.  You can almost here the tsk-tsking coming from the cheap seats; coming from those who would prefer to stay in the smugness of self-righteousness, that says, “as least I’m better than a tax collector - why is Jesus going to HIS house?” than make the vulnerable journey with Jesus to God’s righteousness.  Putting on the righteousness of Jesus - putting on the blamelessness and innocence of Jesus . . . putting on the Zacchaeus that Jesus gives.  A relationship with Jesus?  It changes people.  

Nine years ago, when our daughter was about 13 months old, it was clear that her verbal skills weren’t allowing her to express her full range of thoughts.  So we started teaching her sign language.  “More peas please.”  “All done.”  “Apple.”  and when it was time for a fresh diaper, “change.”  One day we were rocking and reading a big fold-out Bible story book.  It was a favorite book; one we had read many times.  When we got to the page that told the story of Jesus healing the man who was paralyzed and whose friends lowered him on a mat through the roof, Chiara looked at the picture of the man on a mat, laying in front of Jesus - much like the ritual parents and toddlers engage in when it is time for a change -  she signed, “Jesus changes the man.”  

In this Bible story she was making a connection to her toddler worldbut for the past nine years, I’ve been struck that what she signed is a statement of faith.  Jesus changes people. 

Perhaps Jesus has worked some of this life-giving change - that has been our prayer - as we’ve reflected together on Dr. Brené Brown’s research in light of the Gospel.  Perhaps it has been through a permission slip you’ve practiced.  Or by clarifying your core values.  Or turning judgment to wonder; what we just did with Zaccheaus.  I wonder if God had given him a 1st century version of resiliency like this quote from Dr. Bessel Van der Volk, “Resiliency is the ability of the imagination to project into the future, a positive reality beyond the stresses of trauma.” and thus through that holy imagination, he scampered up a tree.

No one in the crowd wanted to claim that man up in the tree; he wasn’t welcome; His house probably got egged at Halloween.  But Jesus gives him a place at the table, a place to be known in these words, “He, too, is a son of Abraham.”   This chief tax collector, He, too, is a son of Abraham, he gets to belong, just like those lined up on the side of the road, just like the Chief priest.  Jesus restores us to one another.  

Before Zaccheaus climbed the tree, God was stirring him to finally say no to what steals his joy and yes to what feeds his soul.  He says Yes! to the bread of life, to the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to the Saviorwho dealt shame a death-blow on the cross.  Shame doesn’t get to have the final word.  God does and that word is life - eternal, abundant, here and now.   

Like Zaccheaus, we too, have to ask, how much of ourselves will we let be seen?   And what limb are we willing to go out on, to see Jesus?  Amen.