Zacchaeus was a wee little man. Many of us, even if we know nothing much of the Bible, can connect Zacchaeus with that familiar ditty; we know about the wee little man. The song helps us remember the basic outlines of the story: Zacchaeus, the little man, couldn’t see Jesus, so he ran ahead, climbed a sycamore tree, and got called out by Jesus who planned to stay at his house.
This morning I want to think with you about this story but to ask a different set of questions then we normally pose. And I want to do so because I wonder about this story. Why did the crowd ridicule Zacchaeus as a wee little man? What did he see from the sycamore tree? And how did Jesus staying at his house change him?
First, why does this story emphasize Zacchaeus’ small stature? Why a wee little man? Folklore tales - and Zacchaeus is more folklore than history - often emphasize a physical quality of the character. Political satire does the same. During the recent campaign, President Trump used nicknames to devastating effect against his opponents. Just last year he called Marco Rubio “little Marco” and started off an internet meme of Rubio depicted as a child. Rubio never recovered from this infantilization of him. Rubio tried to strike back by referring to Trump’s “tiny hands,” a comment which has taken on its own life but could not save the life of Rubio’s campaign.
“Little Marco.” When we hear it, we know Rubio’s being roasted. And I think we ought to hear something of the same in the crowd laughing at Zacchaeus as the wee little man. They called him that to try to humble him, bring him down a notch, because of course Zacchaeus lorded over them as a tax-collector.
Ancient tax-collectors, as Brian Dettmering explained in our weekly email, operated as a privatized agency of the government. The Roman’s sold tax-collecting monopolies and the people who won these monopolies then collected all the taxes they wanted in that region. This ruthless system made tax-collectors both very rich and very hated. The crowd hated Zacchaeus; wanted to shun him. Calling him a wee little man helped release their anger.
Luke, as a storyteller, developed this anger towards Zacchaeus into a complicated meme. It revolved around the description of Zacchaeus. “There was a little man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich.” Now, in looking at this description, it’s important to know that the name Zacchaeus means “righteous” and “justice.” And there was no office of “chief tax-collector”; no other ancient Greek text mentions it; Luke just meant he was a ‘head-honcho.’ And of course the wealth of Zacchaeus came from the oppressive, extortive practice of over-taxing the poor. So Luke’s audience heard, “there was a very little big tax-collector; he was called justice despite his unjustly gained money.”
The story seemed to build on this animus towards Zacchaeus, seemed to be another version of the wee little man meme. We heard of Zacchaeus running. Wealthy men didn’t run in Zacchaeus’ day; it was beneath them. But little Zacchaeus scampered along and then climbed a tree. Not even a man but a kid! A ridiculous man-child; the tax-collecting infant, preposterous.
And just as the crowd thought this way, we must know Jesus is up to something. Astute readers will remember what came just before this story. Just a few verses before the story of wee little Zacchaeus who couldn’t see Jesus because of the crowd, came the story of another crowd who prevented the little children from coming to Jesus. To them Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And now we have Zacchaeus acting like a little child.
Suddenly the disparaging nickname of the crowd came back on it. Turns out everyone must become a wee little man. I love political satire, but I wonder what Jesus might say about it. Of our laughter at wee little men, at Little Marco, and tiny hands?
This story of Zacchaeus reminds me of the limits of humor. Jesus wanted to change Zacchaeus, to convert him, to transform him. The crowd laughing at scampering Zacchaeus didn’t change the heart of the tax-collector. Ridicule rarely creates change. Jesus, as the story unfolds, sought out a relationship.
The crowd wanted to disparage Zacchaeus, to physically and symbolically freeze him out of the community; to punish and shun him. It all came as an attempt to put Zacchaeus in his place. And yet, it didn’t transform Zacchaeus. Jesus wanted change. “I came to seek out and save the lost.”
What would we do differently if we took “seeking out and saving the lost” as our primary mission? Would it change our humor? Motivate us to connect across the lines of ideology and conflict in our culture? How would we reach out to the Zacchaeus’ in our lives?
This story also makes me wonder about the sycamore tree. Why did Zacchaeus climb it and what did he see from it? At a practical level, the sycamore tree had sturdy branches which grew close to the ground. Perfect for a child, or a wee chief tax-collector, to climb.
But why a sycamore tree? At first I thought it might be connected to one of the sayings of Jesus. At one point the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith, to make them stronger believers. But Jesus replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Did Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree symbolize how faith moved him from exploiting the poor to becoming their benefactor?
Then I learned that the sycamore tree, also known as a mulberry fig tree, produced small figs which the desperately poor gathered for food. The figs weren’t very good; but they provided some nourishment to the very poor. So Zacchaeus, the man who got wealthy defrauding the poor, came to climb a tree that feed the poor. Perhaps a few of the poor that Zacchaeus exhorted into poverty were gathering a few figs as he climbed up to see Jesus. It would be like a merciless landlord climbing up on top of a food pantry’s roof to see a parade. And while there, noticing all of the desperation of his tenants.
Understood this way, the sycamore tree represents Zacchaeus’ confrontation with the effects of his own greed. It changed him.
We all need those Zacchaeus moments when we see and understand the life experience of other people. As I’ve mentioned to you over the last few months, Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum from Congregation Shir Hadash and I wanted to get outside our usual political bubble. We wanted to hear and listen to the concerns of people in “Red Wisconsin.” Earlier in March, Tiferet and I took our first trip.
We went up to Juneau, Wisconsin, the county seat of Dodge County. The school district grew as a cobbled together merger of small towns around Juneau. It’s one of the poorer school districts in the state. Rabbi Tiferet and I met with the superintendent of the district, Dr. Annette Thompson.
We talked about the district and specifically how her students experience poverty. The contours of poverty in her rural district differed some from Milwaukee. But not that much. The district lacks employment opportunities; some large farming and production facilities exist but they have trouble getting workers to come in. A cheese making factory is even exploring how to run a bus service. Transportation issues; it’s one of the same issues we debate in Milwaukee.
As Dr. Thompson ran through the challenges of poverty in her district, I asked, “What’s the biggest challenge you face as a leader?” Without a pause she said, “apathy.” And then Dr. Thompson told us the story of the strip clubs. For one way to measure the problems in her district - over a hundred square miles - comes down to 1, 2, 3. One grocery store. Two strip clubs. And three gas stations.
At some point strip clubs started opening in rural Wisconsin as a way to launder money; the cash business offered an easy way to make illicit money legitimate. The state government warned rural towns to enact or even just consider restrictions on strip clubs. Nearby communities passed these laws. But not Juneau. The town council couldn’t rouse itself to consider the issue and so two strip clubs soon opened up.
Apathy felt almost tangible across the rural area. Tangible in the town of Lowell, where all of the once grand brick downtown is now condemned as uninhabitable, but still people squat in them. Or in the park of another small town, where children can’t play because of the drug dealing. Or in the family farms falling apart as big-ag takes over the landscape.
I didn’t leave Juneau with a solution. But I saw there some of the same problems we face here in Milwaukee; apathy. What can we do in our lives to climb sycamore trees? What can we do to gain insight in how others live? And how will that change our lives?
The awakening of Zacchaeus’ consciousness that began in the sycamore tree ended with his invitation to his own home. I say it that way, because I want to underscore how odd Jesus’ speech to Zacchaeus would have sounded.
Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” I must stay at your house; Jesus invited himself over. A very odd request, one that confounded the patterns of hospitality and broke the rules of class.
It’s part of a larger pattern of rule-breaking that happens in this story. Zacchaeus broke several rules of decorum by acting like a child, running and climbing. And now Jesus does the same, inviting himself to dinner. What kinds of social rules does faith call us to break?
For breaking rules seems to underlie what Jesus said in his invitation to Zacchaeus. Our translation renders the Greek word katalou into the phrase “stay at your house.” But the verb literally means “to unbind.” It has the sense of removing a harness, unyoking an animal, loosening a bit, untying. It’s as if Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, it’s time to become unburdened.”
And that’s how Zacchaeus heard it. For the invitation to unbind and to loose burdens led him to a remarkable announcement. “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.” Zacchaeus, whose name meant justice, finally lived up to his own name; he made right all the wrongs he did.
Again, astute listeners to the Gospel will hear in Zacchaeus an echo of an earlier story. Before Jesus got to Jericho, he encountered a wealthy man who had a lot of possessions. The man wanted to find the secret to eternal life. Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the money to poor, and join his movement of liberation. The man left sad. Jesus noted then, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Now, with Zacchaeus, Jesus found a rich man ready to go through the eye of the needle, ready to make right his wrongs, to embrace justice.
In this moment, we see something of the kind of conversion Jesus sought. Jesus didn’t work for some spiritual insight on the part of Zacchaeus. Jesus didn’t work for some intellectual or dogmatic affirmation. Jesus wanted Zacchaeus to change how he lived with other people. Zacchaeus made an ethical conversion, changing how he related to the people around him, especially the poor.
In Christianity our greatest debates concern dogma, intellectual and spiritual debates. But again and again in the Gospels, Jesus only concerns himself with actual people: what’s happening to the poor and vulnerable, the lost and the forsaken. What would change in our faith if we took ethical questions as our most important? Meeting Jesus changed how Zacchaeus lived with the poor in his city; how will our encounters with Jesus affect how we live in this city?
These are the questions I wonder about when I hear about Zacchaeus. Amen and Amen.