“He 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.”
Luke 19:1-6, NRSV
If it’s been said a thousand times before, I’ll say it at least one more time – scripture is notorious for what it does and does not say.
Luke 19:1-6 is the first half of the story about Zacchaeus’ encounter with The Lord, Jesus Christ. The details are quite fascinating. Jesus enters Jericho but is simply passing through it on his way to Jerusalem. And, we know what happens there. Jericho was a place that God showed Moses in Deuteronomy 34:1-5. He showed him this land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the Israelite Patriarchs), even though Moses himself would not get to enter it. Of course, we know that the people of Israel go on to inhabit the land and establish a great kingdom. Unfortunately, it did not last. That is why Luke 19:1 is a warning to us all. What was once a promise, paradise, and a dream can quickly fade away if we mishandle it. The people of Israel mishandled what God blessed them with. Their paradise became a nightmare under the rule of an oppressive and occupying foreign force. We must take care of our blessings. There are gifts and talents that we did not cultivate. Nothing became of them and no one was impacted. We get our dream job, but we can’t be bothered to show up on time or even send a decent shady email. Some of us may have been blessed with children we thought we would never have, a home we couldn’t afford, and good credit. But we belittle and dim their light, can’t be bothered with upkeep, and don’t pay our bills because our money can be found at every department store in town. Don’t let your blessing rot away. Handle your business!
Jesus is now passing through an afterthought of a place that was once a blessing. There was a man named Zacchaeus who is described in three ways:1) Chief Tax Collector 2) Rich 3) “short in stature.”
He was not only a tax collector; he was the chief tax collector. That means he was the CEO, CFO, and/or COO, if you will, of the operation in Jericho. He’s “large” and in charge. He is also described as rich, which directly correlates with his occupation. Tax collectors were typically Jewish (Israelite) born persons hired by the Roman Empire to collect taxes from the people. They were often known, not for skimming off the top, but for overtaxing the people and pocketing the excess revenue. That is how they became rich. Zacchaeus was chief among them. Lastly, he was described as “short in stature,” which is descriptive of his physical height but also indicative of his place among the community. It is a contradiction. He is a wealthy man, but he is lowly in stature – level of achievement. Tax collectors were not admirable in this community and would have been looked at as fraudulent. They were in it for themselves at the expense of others and the community. As a result of this, he is unable to encounter Jesus, who he has undoubtedly heard about.
Whether by our own doing or as a result of the pressures and chaos of the world around us, we can find ourselves lacking and seemingly unable to encounter The Lord. There may be people all around us who seem to be blocking our pathway to Jesus. They could be family, friends, intimate partners, coworkers, bosses, neighbors, and even church folks! We may have surrounded ourselves with these people or, in the case of family and folks in the workplace, inherited them. The reality can often be the same. They can stand in our way with their judgment masked as “keeping it real,” their shade camouflaged as support, their cruelty misrepresented as motivation, their micro/passive aggression couched in bonding, and their toxicity under the guise of love. Additionally, there are decisions we have made that seem to prevent us from encountering Jesus. There are selfish decisions that we have made that have disconnected us from community that can be a vital force for us encountering Jesus. We can be so singularly focused on ourselves that we don’t even consider The Lord, let alone The Lord’s people. Even dwelling on our mistakes from the past can be a barrier to us encountering Christ. In the midst of all of this, however, there is good news.
Zacchaeus, who is unable to encounter Jesus partly because of the crowd itself, who is undoubtedly hostile to his very presence, and partly because of his stature gives us a clue into what we should do. Faced with forces seemingly coming together to form a perfect storm against him in the form of a barrier to Jesus, he takes it back to the childhood days. We are told, “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him…” Sometimes, in order to encounter The Lord, we have to change our perspective! Zacchaeus’ perspective, like many of ours, can be blocked by the people around us and even the reminders of how we have been so singularly focused on ourselves at the expense of The Lord and community. Zacchaeus doesn’t concede, however, and he shifts his perspective. In the text, this takes the form of him climbing the sycamore tree. Now, he is able to see clearly! He is now able to have an encounter that he would have not had otherwise.
Now, I hear you asking, “Reverend, this sounds good for a Sunday morning holla, but how am I supposed to change my perspective?” “What are the practical ways I can begin to do this? After all, we’re not talking about climbing trees here.”
I’m glad you asked. . .
Those notorious details strike again. Not only does it say he climbed the sycamore tree, but it tells us why he did it – “because he (Jesus) was going to pass that way.” In order to effectively change our perspective, which means seeing beyond our current situation and the barriers that have developed, we have to go to the places we know Jesus will be. These are both figurative and literal prescriptions. We can encounter Jesus when we go to the word of God. We can encounter Jesus when we go to Him in prayer. We can encounter The Lord when we go to fast and engage with other spiritual disciplines. We can encounter Jesus when we go to worship service, bible study, fellowship opportunities, to serve in the community, and share our faith with others, just to name a few.
By going to the place where he knew Jesus would be, Zacchaeus’ perspective shifted. Better yet, he gains a new perspective. This shift and gain in perspective is subsequently rewarded with an encounter with The Lord! Verses 5-6 read, “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.””
We can be so consumed by the barriers in our lives that prevent us from truly encountering Christ Jesus in the ways that we so desperately need. When we go to the places where we know He will be, we gain new perspective. This new perspective allows us to have the encounter we want and need from the King of kings and Lord of lords. We find that we have a savior who is adamant about being and staying with us! In the final four verses of the passage, we come to understand that he hears our repenting hearts, he provides us with salvation, and restores our lives here on this earth in preparation for the life to come.
Let’s make the shift today away from focus on the barriers to gain greater perspective on Jesus so that we can continuously encounter Him in our lives.