Sinner or Child of God? Luke 19.1-9 Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Childhood song: 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 came that way he looked up in the tree, And he […]
Sinner or Child of God?
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
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 came that way he looked up in the tree,
And he said – “Zacchaeus, you come down from there”
For I’m coming to your house today,
For I’m coming to your house today.
The story is memorable, especially when put to music and when Fosse-esque choreography is added.
According to the story, Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors were notorious for collecting more than was fair from the people and pocketing the difference. They were basically considered robber barons and were, therefore, called “sinners.”
However, we know that while groups are often labeled and condemned for the worst actors in the group, in every group there will be people of integrity and goodwill. Zacchaeus is labeled a sinner because other people in his profession are unscrupulous, but we don’t find Zacchaeus being unscrupulous. People judged him because of his profession; they called him a sinner…but Jesus called him a child of God.
So, this isn’t a story about a vile person who gets saved from his depravity…
This is a story about an innately good person who is willing to grow and become even better; it’s a story about someone who has been prejudged and condemned by religious fundamentalists but who hears from Jesus that he is a person of sacred value – he is God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
The first thing I want us to notice is that he’s short.
Who cares? Why is that important? Surely there were other short people in Jesus’ circle of friends and in his travels. What makes us think Jesus was super tall? Why point out Zacchaeus’ stature? I think Luke is making a point.
In the bible there is a story about Moses sending scouts into Canaan to check out what they were getting ready to encounter. The scouts came back with this report:
The land you sent us to explore is rich and wonderful; it flows with milk and honey.
But the people there are giants. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we appeared the same to them.
Moses’ scouts felt insecure, and as a result they assumed that others looked down on them as if they were insignificant.
Isn’t that Zacchaeus’ experience? Hasn’t it been ours a time or two?
Zacchaeus is called one of those sinners.
Those sinners shouldn’t be allowed to use public restrooms.
Those sinners should be deported.
Those sinners shouldn’t be allowed to worship freely.
Those sinners shouldn’t be allowed to marry.
Zacchaeus has been reduced to one of those sinners. He’s been shamed, wounded, demeaned by his own religion, which, we will soon see, he actually practices pretty faithfully.
He hears that he’s a sinner all the time. He knows he isn’t highly regarded in his community. He feels small, insignificant, unworthy. His lack of height probably symbolizes the way he feels in his community. He may be 5’9” – but he feels like a wee little man in his own estimation and in the judgment of others, but Jesus reminds him that he is a child of God.
I said earlier that Zacchaeus may be a pretty faithful person. Why do I think that?
We know he’s heard of Jesus, he went to some effort to catch a peak of him.
But apparently, Jesus has heard about Zacchaeus, too. He recognizes him, and calls him by name!
How did Jesus know who Zacchaeus was unless he had heard something about him? And maybe, along with all the “sinner” talk, he’s also heard some good things about Zacchaeus.
When Jesus says, “Come down and let me hang out at your house!” Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “Excuse me? Who are you to invite yourself to my house?”
No, he rushes down to entertain Jesus in his home. Jesus must have had some reason to believe Zacchaeus would be a generous person. And Zacchaeus does show hospitality to someone he just met.
Now, Jesus doesn’t preach to him. Jesus doesn’t tell him he’s a bad person. Jesus doesn’t say much of anything other than, “What’s for lunch?”
It is Zacchaeus who says to Jesus, “I am willing to give a lot of my wealth to good causes, and if I have cheated anyone I will try to repay them.” In fact, the text actually says, “I will pay them four times over!”
Zacchaeus wants to make a positive difference; and, maybe he already is doing good things.
What if in earlier versions of the story Zacchaeus doesn’t say, “I will give money and repay those I’ve hurt” but instead says, “I do give money and try to repay those I may have hurt.”
If he’s the wacky tax collector who shakes people down for appearances so that the establishment won’t hassle him, but who then goes back and gives some of the money back to the people he took it from and on top of that gives a lot of money to charity, then that would explain why Jesus knew who he was. This is Zacchaeus, the one others call “sinner” who is in fact very kind and caring and generous. Of course Jesus wants to meet him, wouldn’t you?
And more than being generous, Zacchaeus is a spiritual seeker. He apparently knows his bible.
I will repay them four times over isn’t some random thing he blurts out.
Exodus 21.37 says that if someone steals a lamb and sells it, that person has to repay the person he stole the lamb from with four lambs. To make it right when you steal from someone, Exodus 21 says pay it back times 4.
Zacchaeus knows the biblical mandate, and he wants to follow it.
He knows what the bible says about treating one’s neighbor fairly and about being consistently generous. He wants to make amends if he has hurt people, and he wants to share his resources. He wants to use his privilege to help others who have not been as lucky. He doesn’t want to exploit people; he wants to make the world better.
Luke, using Zaccheus, shows us how we who are in so many ways privileged are to use our good fortune.
~ Don’t exploit people.
~ Be generous with our time, talent, and treasure.
~ If we have benefited from systems that have hurt others, admit it and start working to change those systems.
Zacchaeus went to a lot of trouble to climb higher in order to get a glimpse of holiness. What he got was an affirmation of his own innate goodness and sacred value and blessing for the love he shared.
Zacchaeus was called a sinner, but Jesus called him a brother, another child of God. That’s what Jesus calls all of us, and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2016
I am a child of God,
Forever loved by God.
This fills me with joy.