The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Where's the miracle? Before Jesus entered Jericho he had done some pretty spectacular works – showstopping stuff. He healed lepers. He restored the crippled. His touch made the sick well. He cast out demons and renewed tortured minds. He even raised the dead, brought dearly departed people back to life. And just before today's story, in the previous tale found in Luke's Gospel, Jesus made a blind man see.
And when he wasn't performing some miraculous healing, Jesus was blowing minds with his profound teachings. He told brilliant parables. He bestowed timeless wisdom. He challenged the entrenched religious and political systems in clever and often devastating ways.
But now he walks into Jericho and he sees Zacchaeus. And no one is miraculously healed. And there is no amazing sermon.
But there is some controversy – which is, I guess, the other thing Jesus does well in the Gospels. The crowd is grumble-y. It sounds like it was a pretty big crowd and in that crowd there must have been good people, righteous people, people with the best beliefs and the sound thoughts. So many from which to choose, good choices, and Jesus chooses Zacchaeus – picks him right out of the tree like a bad apple.
And that, that is when the grumbling begins. They do not like Zacchaeus. And they do not like that Jesus has entered willingly into Zacchaeus' den of iniquity. Once again Jesus is a victim of the company he keeps – not that he seems to mind.
Probably most of us only know this story from the popular Sunday School song. In the song Zacchaeus sounds adorable; he's wee little, after all. We might be tempted to then pity Zacchaeus, as if he was a victim of short shaming, as if the crowd's problem with Zacchaeus was one of stature. But no one was grumbling about his height; it is only mentioned because Luke needs to explain why exactly a wealthy, adult business man was up in a tree. Now, the crowd did have a problem with Zacchaeus; theirs was a character concern. What defined Zacchaeus in the eyes of the crowd was not his size, but his ethics – or his apparent lack there of.
Luke actually tells us very little about Zacchaeus. We do not know if he was married. We are unaware of any hobbies. We have no idea if he attended synagogue or said his prayers. In fact, outside of his short stature, we only know his occupation and financial status: chief tax collector and rich.
And so while we know little, the little does tell us quite a bit – especially why this crowd is so upset with Zacchaeus and his special guest. Zacchaeus was a tax collector – actually his business card read chief tax collector, a chief among tax collectors, which sounds better but to the gathered masses was actually way worse. Tax collector was hardly a respected job in this Jewish community; Jewish mothers were not pushing their baby boys into tax collector school in first century Palestine. And this has nothing to do with a distaste for money or math. And I want to make that clear because we're still taking an offering today and I don't want the ushers to feel weird about that. Basically, Zacchaeus was contracted to collect taxes from his own people to support the Roman occupation – like an oppression tax – the people paid good money to not have freedom. So if you think you don't like taxes today, imagine how these Jews felt. And then imagine how they felt about the people who made that system possible.
It was a rare person who was willing to go door to door extracting these taxes. There were no good work days, no pleasant interactions. A tax collector was a traitor who peddled treachery like a kid on Halloween who only does trick and never treat. Like many scoundrels over the centuries, Zacchaeus built his fortune on a foundation of questionable ethics, oppressive politics, and a willingness to be hated. And so while he was rich, he was, at least in the eyes of the crowds, less human than terrible, despicable caricature.
And Jesus was going to his house - willingly. We might say: guilty by association. It was as if kindness was an endorsement, as if compassion was some dirty deed.
And because the crowd refers to Zacchaeus only as sinner, that is the label that sticks. Zacchaeus has been stuck with that for centuries. But it is, interestingly, a label that Jesus never applies. In fact, there is no confession or absolution in this Gospel text. And while it is understandable that the crowd dislikes Zacchaeus and his chosen profession, Jesus never addresses that either.
If we look only at the text, without the songs, without the history of interpretation, what we find is a man, a desperate and flawed human being, who longs for Jesus. I mean, he climbs a tree, a grown man in front of a crowd, to see Jesus. He happily welcomes Jesus into his home. And before Jesus says a word, he pledges half of his possessions to the poor and promises that if, that if he defrauded anyone, and we have no idea if he did or did not, that he would make it right – four times over.
This is not a healing story. This is not another great parable. No one is raised from the dead.
But also all of those things happen when Jesus sees Zaccheaus. And it is so simple that they all happen in plain sight – and no one notices; in fact, they only grumble. They miss the miracle.
It is amazing what can happen when someone is seen – as a person. Zacchaeus had been noticed in the past. Folks recognized him; they knew enough about him to be angry that Jesus was visiting his home. They saw him as a sinner, as a terrible, despicable caricature, as an enemy. But they forgot something very important: Zacchaeus was also created in the image of God, he too was marked by divine fingerprints. He was one of them. He was their brother. He was a person.
I was once visiting an organization that worked with the homeless and while I was there touring the facilities, a woman, herself homeless, took some time to talk with us, to share her story. What I best remember from that day was something she said. She confessed to us that the hardest part of homelessness for her was not sleeping on a park bench, was not finding food or clothing, the hardest part was that no one ever looked at her, passersby would always look the other way, avoid eye contact.
This woman was poor; Zacchaeus was rich. Both longed for the same thing: to be seen. It sounds so simple, so unremarkable. But not every miracle is spectacular. Some are just little. Sometimes people are brought back to life with a word or a hug or even with a smile. It can sound trite, I know; but for a person forgotten or despised, ignored or alone, it is anything but. In fact, it feels like salvation, like resurrection.
Zacchaeus was brought back to life with a glance. He was saved when his eyes met Jesus' eyes. He was seen. And he was treated with dignity. And his basic humanity was acknowledged. That simple miracle changed his life.
Christians have been long so focused on saving lost souls that we forgot that there are lost people, people who simply need to seen. You see, not everyone remembers they were created in the image of God. Not everyone remembers they are wearing divine fingerprints. Not everyone is treated with human dignity. Sometimes miracles are so simple. Sometimes salvation comes through seeing.