Luke 19:1-10 (NRSV)
[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Hmmmm. Another tax collector.
Last week, we heard Jesus’ parable about a righteous Pharisee and a deeply penitent tax collector. As you may recall, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were often rich, but also were considered by their fellow Jews to be traitors, doing the work of an occupying empire. Today, we hear of an actual encounter Jesus had with one of these tax collectors—a chief tax collector, no less.
We know for certain this one, Zacchaeus, was rich, likely because his position allowed him to take a cut of the thievery enforced by the tax collectors under him. He was wanting something more, however, something he could not buy.
This man Jesus, a prophet and healer, a speaker of words of love and grace, intrigued the little tax collector. As you may recall from the old Bible school song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man,” unable to see Jesus for the crowd following. So he climbed up in a sycamore tree, “to see what he could see.”
As I think of Zacchaeus scrambling upward with searching eyes, I imagine him as one of the great examples of the power of desire. Desire is a feeling God actually encourages us to have, assuming we can learn to desire what is right.
We of course often desire the wrong things: money, possessions and status are good examples. We’ll just call those desires “worldly,” as they are for objects, people or ideas that are of this world and remain in this world. They are possessions we are sure to lose even if someone stuffs them in our graves.
What’s interesting about Zacchaeus is he already knew worldly pleasures. He at some point had disregarded fidelity to his God and people to pursue the things of this world he thought could make him happy. And yet, he was not happy. Otherwise, he would not have been looking for answers from a penniless prophet being followed by the rabble Zacchaeus routinely taxed.
I’ve known other people who have traveled down the path of “more, more, more” only to find themselves more lost than ever. For a couple of years, I wrote a newspaper column detailing the career-ending antics of Georgia lawyers who had been disbarred, meaning they had done something so bad they lost their licenses to practice law.
You would think they would not speak to a reporter after such an experience, but I was always surprised at how open many of them were when I called for a comment. Some of them had simply fallen into addiction, certainly a misguided desire. I’ll always remember the one lawyer who told me, “It’s not my fault! It was my partners, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.”
Others told me stories that followed a surprisingly similar pattern built from greed. Despite earning very good livings, often $300,000 or $400,000 a year, they worked for and circulated among people who made millions a year, and felt like they somehow needed to keep up.
So they lifted money from trust funds and escrow accounts, investing it for their personal gain, thinking they would keep the profit and put the “borrowed” money back. I was talking to the ones who had seen their schemes come crashing down, and they were deeply, deeply chagrined. And yes, having hit bottom, some of them had turned or returned to God, seeking forgiveness and trying to make amends.
Zacchaeus still had all his money and stuff, but he must have felt as empty as those disbarred lawyers I interviewed. I suppose one way or another, the meaninglessness of money and possessions either owned or desired must dawn on everyone.
Perhaps we are like the lawyers and feel foolish at how hotly we have pursued wealth; perhaps we are like Zacchaeus and simply realize the money and stuff won’t fill the empty place in our souls.
Certainly, the futility of worldly desires must dawn on us when we are near death, that moment we realize we cannot take with us even the sheets to which we cling, no matter how nice the thread count.
Our deepest desire can be fulfilled only by Christ, through the simple faith-based relationship our savior promises us. And here’s the most fulfilling aspect of the good news I preach today—this is not some sort of delayed gratification, offered to you only at death. The sense of fulfillment can be experienced now. The joy is for now, as well as for eternity.
This promise is in the Zacchaeus story. The grace Jesus extended by simply going to Zacchaeus’ house changed the man, and his happiness and gratitude came bubbling out.
Half of what he had went to the poor. The other half was put completely at risk, as Zacchaeus promised to radically overcompensate anyone he had defrauded. We see a man who no longer cared about the worldly things, knowing that through Jesus he had found something better, something for now and all time.
The featured image is “Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus,” James Tissot, painted between 1886 and 1894.