One of the many things that draws me to Jesus is that he is both someone who tells parables and someone who lives parables. One moment Jesus will be hanging out with his friends and sharing his holy folk tales, his stories of transformation about a ne’er do well son being welcomed home by his staggeringly generous Dad, or a suspicious foreigner who is the only one to stop to help the wounded man beside the road, or – as we heard last week – a religious official who doesn’t understand much at all about God and tax collector who does. And the next moment Jesus’ very life will become a story of transformation: he will take us to a wilderness place where we discover that, in his hands, five loaves and two fishes are enough to feed thousands, we will follow him to a tomb where he invites the dead man inside to come dancing forth, we will watch from the foot of the cross as his dying changes everything.
Today, Jesus’ lived parable involves a guy by the name of Zacchaeus. Like the character whom we met in Jesus’ spoken parable last week, Zacchaeus is a tax collector – someone who is getting rich by collaborating with the occupying forces, someone whom most of the population hates and fears. Unlike the character whom we met last week, however, Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector, he is the one to whom the other tax collectors report. Maybe we could liken him to the Chief Executive Officer who accepts a salary of $37,000 a day while vigorously resisting any scenario in which his employees receive benefits or are paid more than the minimum wage.
Zacchaeus has gotten wealthy at the cost of his integrity.
Jesus is passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus’ hometown. Jericho is located about ten miles east of Jerusalem and about five miles north of the Dead Sea. It is situated in what, today, we call the West Bank: in Jesus’ time and now, Jericho is under occupation. And Zacchaeus is there. We can imagine him at desk counting his ill-gotten money, a first-century Scrooge.
Because it is the first century and there will be an almost 2,000 year wait before texting or Twitter is invented, Zacchaeus doesn’t find out that Jesus is coming through town by looking at his smartphone. He knows that Jesus is coming near when he detects a change in the air, an electricity. He understands it by feeling the hairs on his arm stand straight up. A moment later, Zacchaeus begins to hear the excitement in the street, he hears people speaking the name that he has been hearing in rumours for weeks, the name of the healer and the storyteller: Jesus. Zacchaeus looks out the window of his office and he sees the people being pulled like water across the beach when the tide goes out. They are headed for the main road.
Something is pulling Zacchaeus there too. He gets up out of his chair and starts walking.
When Zacchaeus arrives at the main road, the crowd is thick, and Zacchaeus can’t see. This is not an experience to which he is accustomed: his world is normally filled sycophants and with those who are afraid, people who are hoping to gain some advantage or to avoid some punishment. Normally, when Zacchaeus approaches a crowd, it parts before him the way the Red Sea parted for the Israelites, people are tripping over their feet to make room for him, people are asking if they can get him a cup of coffee or a newspaper. But not today. Everyone’s attention is turned towards the road and to the one who walks upon it. No one even notices that Zacchaeus is there.
Zacchaeus sees that some kids have climbed trees in order to see better. And an old muscle memory in his body kicks in. He was athlete as a child and, even though it has been years since he ran anywhere, a reflex sends a signal to his legs and he starts running hard, sprinting down the road to where Jesus and his friends are headed. And then, all dignity forgotten, he begins to climb a tree. His sandals push against the bark, his robe catches in the branches, his surprised hands – it’s been decades since there were callouses on them – take him, up, up, up.
Luke tells us that the tree in question is a sycamore. It is not, however, an American sycamore. Rather, Zaccaheus’ sycamore is a kind of fig tree, vigorous and bushy with wide spreading branches, growing perhaps thirty of forty feet high.
Zacchaeus reaches his perch. He is breathing hard: the running and the climb have very nearly winded him. But his location in the tree is perfect – perfect. He is well hidden within the trees’ branches, and the view couldn’t be better if he were in a sentry tower built for the purpose. The crowd, with Jesus at its centre, is approaching. From within the tree, Zacchaeus will be able to watch Jesus pass, he will be able to satisfy the strange, unnameable curiosity that drew him here. And then, once the crowd goes home, he will be able to quietly climb back to the ground and go home.
No one will even know that he was here.
Except that Jesus, as he gets near the sycamore, draws on that same holy intuition that tells him the instant that the woman with the hemorrhage touches his garment. He stops walking, he looks right up into the tree, and he says:
All of a sudden, without any intention on his part, Zacchaeus has become the main character in a parable about meeting God.
Hi Zack! says Jesus. Come down! I’m going to stay at your house today.
What do you notice about the parable?
Well, here are a few things that catch my attention. First, notice that Jesus knows Zacchaeus and that he knows him by name. Here is an echo of the words from Job, words that are often paraphrased at the beginning of the funeral liturgy:
I myself shall see [God], and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.
Whether or not Zacchaeus recognised it before this moment, whether or not it has ever been part of his waking knowledge, God knows him. God has always known him. And, in some ineffable way, Zacchaeus has known God in return. Zacchaeus – just like you, just like me, just like everyone, even if they find the very idea absurd or offensive – is known by God.
Second, even though God knows Zacchaeus – and knows him completely – God’s love for him remains absolute. Jesus is aware of what Zacchaeus’ job is, he is aware that he is a tax collector, that he is a state-sponsored criminal. And Jesus calls to him anyway, he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house anyway, he treats him like a friend anyway. Listen to the crowd grumble: Jesus is going to be the guest of one who is a sinner. And their complaints are legitimate, they are reasonable: Zacchaeus has wasted no opportunity to exploit these people, to exploit his neighbours. But Jesus would call Zacchaeus “friend” even if he were a murderer or a war criminal or a child abuser, anything.
Stop and let that sink in for a minute.
The absolute love of God, well, it’s either the worst news or the best news that there is, it is either appalling or freeing. It is awful news when you realise that God’s love extends to the person whom you like and respect and trust the least in the world, when you realise that there is no one whom you could plug into the equation, no one whom you could put into the tree, and get Jesus to reject.
And it is freeing news when we apply it to ourselves. Many of us – maybe most of us – are carrying the cold and ancient fear that we are unlovable. The fear that if people found out who we really are – if God found out who we really are – no one, God included, could possibly love us. If people knew what goes on in my head or my heart, if people knew what I do at home after I close the door and pull the drapes, if people knew my past, if people knew my internet browser history, no one would ever love me. God would never love me.
But Jesus says: I know. I know everything. And I love you without reservation.
Third, meeting God changes Zacchaeus. Actually, I want to rephrase that, because I don’t want to imply that Zacchaeus is a passive observer of the change that takes place within him, that he is like a rock just sitting there while the tide erodes him into smoothness. Let’s try this: meeting God invites Zacchaeus to change.
Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree, out of this place of alienation and loneliness. And immediately, he repents. “Repent” which is an old word which literally means, “turn around.” Zacchaeus is suddenly facing a whole new direction.
Half of my possessions I will give to the poor, he says. And if I have defrauded anyone, I will pay them back four times over.
This is repentance. Not holy words or holy ideas, but holy action.
Now, I want to emphasise that Zacchaeus’ repentance, his choice to live and love in a Christ-like way, comes after he encounters Jesus’ love, not before. Again – and I’m going to risk repeating myself, but this is absolutely vital – God’s love is absolute. Jesus doesn’t love Zacchaeus because we are good. Jesus loves Zacchaeus because Jesus is Jesus. Jesus doesn’t look at our repentance and say, “Okay, that’s good enough: now I love you.” Before we say or do anything, Jesus says:
I love you.
God, to borrow a phrase from Richard Rohr, doesn’t love us because we have changed. God loves us, and that allows us to change.
Fourth – and last of all – notice that when Zacchaeus meets God, there is a abrupt reversal of Zacchaeus’ expectations: he thought that he was seeking God. But it turns out that, all along, God was seeking him.
There used to be a billboard about an hour to the East of my hometown Vancouver, BC, in a city called Abbotsford (insofar as the Vancouver area has a Bible Belt, Abbotsford is where it is). The Billboard asked a question. It said:
Are you ready to meet God?
I remember my late father-in-law, Bob – God rest his soul – seeing that billboard and remarking, “How could anyone possibly be ready to meet God? That billboard should say:
“God is ready to meet you!”
A lot of us describe ourselves as seekers: I have used that language to describe myself, I probably will again. What Zacchaeus discovers when Jesus calls him down from the tree, is that Jesus too is a seeker. And that what Jesus is seeking is communion with him.
And so Zacchaeus and Jesus walk to Zacchaeus house, where Zacchaeus family will be surprised to learn who they are hosting for dinner.
This is a parable about meeting God. It is a parable about being known, about being loved, about being invited into transformation, about seeking and being sought. It is a parable in which Jesus says to you and me.:
I’m coming to your house!