Jesus is passing through Jericho. And with good reason. It was a Herodian stronghold, a sort of winter resort and part of Herod the Great’s extensive building program. He was the appointed client ruler for the Romans over what came to be called the Herodian kingdom – ancient Israel. He rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, the summer palace at Masada, the port at Caesarea – and it is Herod who ordered the Slaughter of the Innocents at the time of Jesus’ birth – the execution of all children in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the Holy Child, much the same as Pharaoh had done way back at the beginning of the story. Moses and Jesus survive.
Now Jesus is passing through Herod’s Jericho. It’s a dangerous place and he does not plan to spend time there. Zacchaeus is a local tax collector. Since Jericho is a wealthy resort town he is rich. Despite working for Caesar in Herod’s resort, Zack wants a closer look at Jesus. The text says he is short in stature so he climbs a tree. This does not necessarily mean he is physically short, but that faithful sons and daughters of Abraham look down on him. He was collaborating with the enemy, and taking as much money as he could for himself and Caesar – or so they thought. He knows people do not like him. So he climbs the tree to hide in the branches among the leaves to see the Jesus procession pass by. He does not want to be seen.
Imagine for a moment what it’s like to be Zacchaeus. He has obviously heard things about Jesus. He wants to see for himself. But he’s afraid to be seen amongst the “Jesus crowd.” Maybe he does not want to be a distraction. Maybe he doesn’t want to face all the questions others may ask about why he works for Rome in the first place. Perhaps he is embarrassed about who he is. He’s heard all the talk about him as a traitor, a collaborator. Maybe he just does not want to draw attention to himself. He knows he’s an outsider, an outcast separated from his own people – the people of God, the sons and daughters of Abraham.
To everyone’s surprise, Jesus calls him to come down from the tree and announces he wants to go to Zacchaeus’ house! The crowd sees this and grumbles and sneers, “He’s gone to the house of a sinner!” That’s his stature around town: a sinner. How could Jesus want to step into Zack’s house? It’s as if he is a Gentile, a Westerner, unclean, not the kind of person you want to be seen with. Evidently the folks in Jericho have not heard the news: Jesus regularly spends time with sinners of all kinds. As Luke puts it, he came to seek out and to save the lost.
Then comes the shocker. The impact of the shock depends on a correct translation of the text. The tax collector collaborationist, presumed extortionist, has some news himself. “Half my possessions I give to the poor, and those I defraud of anything I pay back four times as much.” Who knew? Zacchaeus is not only a good tax collector, he is a generous and beyond honest tax collector. He keeps the commandments and goes beyond the command of the 10% tithe – he’s giving 50%. He already gives to the poor and repays anyone who has had to pay too much into the Roman coffers out of his own wealth four times whatever they have lost. He does this now, not “he will do it,” but he is doing it now. Today.
The outsider of such small stature turns out to be an example to us all. He is deserving of a visit from the Jesus who sought him out. If it was shocking that Jesus called him down and went to his house, it is more shocking to hear that Zach is doing his best to compensate for the job the Roman legions had impressed him into doing. Now look at him. He is hosting the one who seeks and saves the lost.
Jesus is touched and confers, or perhaps re-confers is better, membership in the household of Abraham, and announces that salvation has come to his house today. Today. Not tomorrow. Not after leaving this earth. Today. Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus and bestows the hospitality of God upon the one all others considered unworthy of inclusion. Jesus the guest becomes the host.
Imagine just for a moment how Zacchaeus feels now – included, welcomed really, into the household of God’s eternal love and mercy and care. No longer does he need to hide from Jesus and the others. His stature has been recognized for who he really is here and now.
Salvation is not some future we are to wait for but is here and now. Today. And Zacchaeus does not need to be told, as other wealthy characters in Luke’s story of Jesus have, to use his resources on behalf of God and God’s inbreaking kingdom. He is already generously committing his money to causes of righteousness. Today. Jesus recognizes this and holds him up as an example of what it means to be a member of God’s house, God’s family, God’s plan for justice and peace for all people – not some people, not a lot of people or even most people, but all people.
What a day it has been for Zach! Imagine how he feels now. He once was lost but now is found. Once the outsider now he is part of the community again. We are left to wonder if the community of those who sneered and grumbled have accepted him back in. We are left to ask ourselves, would we?
It’s a story that raises more questions than answers. Do we, today, follow Jesus in seeking out and saving the lost? Do we seek and welcome into our midst those we otherwise see as outsiders? Do we commit our resources to the spread of God’s kingdom, seeking and serving Christ in all persons whatever the cost? When will we come down out of our trees and join the Jesus movement? Can we imagine our world no longer being a world of insiders and outsiders? Can we see ourselves being at all like Zacchaeus?
“Today” appears to be the operant word. It turns out there really is no time like the present. Jesus wants to welcome us all into the household of God’s eternal love and mercy and care. Jesus calls us to welcome others – all others – into the household as well. Here. Now. Today. Salvation can be ours today just as it was for Zachaeus in Jericho a long time ago. Amen.