Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Zacchaeus is a person in the Bible you may have heard of; maybe in Vacation Bible School. Do you remember the song? “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…”
He was a tax collector from Jericho and of short stature. When Jesus came to town Zacchaeus ran and climbed a sycamore tree. As Jesus passed, he looked up and said: “Zacchaeus hurry and come down for I must stay at your house today.” So Zacchaeus scampered down and prepared a feast for Jesus.
Something must have happened over that meal because at the end of the story Zacchaeus decides to give half his wealth away, and to reimburse anyone he cheated four times the value.
That’s the story. Zacchaeus, this goofy little guy, this wee little man hustling around, climbing a tree to see Jesus. And Jesus notices him and honors him by going to his house. Is that how you know the story? Maybe. But today we are going to unpack it in a different way. We are going to look at who Zacchaeus really was, and why he climbed that tree, and how meeting Jesus changed his life.
You see the story I’m going to tell is about an anxious man; an insecure man; a man who sought to organize his life in such a way as to hide his fears and anxieties… and this made him mean and dangerous. His anxiety and fear turned him into someone he wasn’t, and then he met Jesus… but we’ll get to that.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. As you might remember from last Sunday to be a tax collector in the Roman Empire required political savvy, a mind for math, and the determination to break heads if need be. Tax collectors were smart, tough, and well-connected men… and Zacchaeus was chief among them. He was smarter, tougher, and better connected, and more willing to break heads than the other tax collectors. In fact, he was the one willing to break other tax collectors heads; which is what qualified him, I suppose, to be the chief tax collector in Jericho.
What makes this more remarkable is that Zacchaeus was a wee little man. That is what the Bible says. How often do we read about a person’s physical characteristics in the Bible? Almost never, which is why we should pay attention in this case. Zacchaeus was a wee little man in a big mans world. When I think of Zacchaeus, I don’t think of Barney Fife, I think of Napoleon.
Can you imagine Napoleon climbing a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of an itinerate preacher wandering through Paris? I can’t. Here is why: to climb that tree is to admit to everyone the thing that everyone already knows… that you are a wee little man. And if Napoleon where to admit what everyone else knew, it would undermine his ability to bully and abuse and oppress in them. It is hard to be tyrannical if people say; here comes little Napoleon; he’ll probably have to climb a sycamore tree to see the parade. And you can bet no one was saying: “Here comes wee little Zacchaeus.” He was the chief tax collector of Jericho. People moved out of his way. They avoided him. He was a dangerous man.
Then Jesus came to town, and the world flipped upside down. People were different. On that day, as he gave his usual command to move out of the way, people ignored him, as if their fear faded; as if they had something more important to do than to worry about his wrath. Something had captured their attention and passion. Something more powerful than Zacchaeus, and this rattled him. The anxiety that usually only haunted him at night, now surfaced in broad day light. What if people saw him as he was? What if they teased him, and taunted him, and patted him on the head as they did when he was a boy? That was a world he brutally suppressed long ago. Though it did sneak back in the middle of the night, as a bad dream or a spinning thought that wouldn’t leave him as he lay awake.
Now, on the day Jesus came to town, that nightmare came to life. And like in a nightmare Zacchaeus started to thrash about. He needed to regain control of the situation, so he needed to assess what was going on… and he couldn’t see; he couldn’t see; people wouldn’t move, like they usually moved. So in his spinning anxiety he ran ahead of the crowd, forgetting himself and his carefully crafted façade and he climbed a tree, a sycamore tree. Up the tree he went, like he had done when he was a wee little boy.
Can an adult look dignified climbing a tree? Maybe? But can a man in a long dress?
Anxiety can make us do things we wouldn’t naturally do. It can spin in us, like a song on repeat. It happens when expectations are put upon us, then get internalized, and we live as if we must meet them. And that can make us anxious. That can keep us awake at night; with a voice whispering: you should do it like this, but you’re not good enough are you? And that voice can drive us, like a tyrannical master, to be someone that we are not.
Anxiety makes us do things that we would not naturally do… like climbing a sycamore tree? No. More like bullying; like cheating and stealing and suing and demeaning anyone who doesn’t do what we say. That was the life of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, and it kept him awake at night… in fear and anxiety, what if the world found out that he was a wee little man?
On the day Jesus came to town, this spinning anxiety spun out of control, causing Zacchaeus to reveal himself by climbing that sycamore tree. And by the time he realized what he had done; it was too late. Jesus was under the tree looking up at him, and so was everyone else. Then, to everyone’s surprise, including Zacchaeus’, Jesus called him by name. And then a miracle occurred. “Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house?” Jesus honored Zacchaeus. He honored the small man in the tree; not because he was the chief tax collector, nor because he was feared and dangerous, but because he was Zacchaeus, the beloved child of God. There, up in the tree, at his weakest, most vulnerable moment, in the midst of his worst nightmare, Jesus was there for him, honoring him in front of all of Jericho, which is all he ever wanted.
It was a big WOW! for Zacchaeus. Something flipped in him. The anxiety and fear that made him someone he wasn’t, mean and dangerous, now encountered Jesus, the living God, and he knew in an instant that he was not only saved from himself, but from the pressures, and expectations of the world as well.
And more than that he knew that the skills and talents he did have, like managing money and doing math, could be employed for the benefit of others, even by a wee little man who climbs trees.
That is what life in the kingdom of God is like. Can you imagine? Can you imagine a world where we never lay awake at night, anxious about who we are, or what we need to do? Can you imagine? That is the world God wants for us. That is the Kingdom of God. That is the world were peace and equinity erase insecurity and anxiety. It is a place where we trust God more and worry about the expectations of the world less.
We started today with a song: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…” We learned it by heart as children. What this means, to learn something by heart, is to have it permanently embossed deep down inside on the other side, below and beyond our spinning minds.
Life in the Kingdom of God is lived from that deeper place. The spiritual life, the religious life, the spiritual exercises are about learning to listen to and by guided by our hearts. The Apostle Paul says it this way: “with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.” (Col 3:16b)
If you have a spinning mind; if you find yourself laying awake at night under a pile of anxiety sing from your heart psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. Go below and beyond your spinning mind, to the center of your being, and hit the play button on something beautiful recorded there. It might be the Lord’s Prayer, or the Jubilate. For me music with words works best, like Hymn 380 we’ll sing today. And if there is nothing recorded there, do something about it.
There is a place behind our spinning anxiety; it is the place that Zacchaeus found by pursuing Jesus. It allowed him to be his authentic self. It allowed him to be a man of peace and equanimity and societal productivity.
That is life in the Kingdom of God, below and beyond the expectations of the world, to place where our hearts meet the love of God.