There are a lot of places the preacher can go with this text, and I suspect many of the hearers and readers will have been exposed to most of them.
One of the traditional, and absolutely valid and true, expositions includes Jesus’ choice to minister to those who were outsiders. Tax collectors were, indeed, absolutely despised in Judaism – tax collectors and prostitutes. Zacchaeus wasn’t just any old tax collector – he was the chief tax collector, responsible for his own perfidy and that of others. He was a powerful symbol of the injustice meted out to the Jewish people. His wealth just made it worse – rich because of his collaboration with the powers of occupation and repression. Mercifully, his fellow Jews might have thought, at least he wasn’t physically impressive (he was short). His money didn’t get him any favours in this context – he couldn’t breeze through the crowd and expect his importance and wealth to get him an audience with Jesus. As an aside – how different that is to the way many contemporary religious leaders behave. If you’re rich and powerful, you’re pretty much guaranteed attention from our religious leaders. If you’re poor or an outsider, you’re unlikely to get the time of day. Anyway, back to the story. He has to do something silly and undignified to get to see Jesus. He climbs a tree. Jesus sees him – really sees him. He is known inside and out, and Jesus accepts him. He didn’t say ‘get right, and then I’ll come to visit you’. He invited himself home, and was welcomed by Zacchaeus into his home. While they’re there, Zacchaeus promises to make right what wrongs he’s done, and Jesus declares Zacchaeus’ new state – saved, restored, and no longer lost.
But, I don’t want to labour that exposition, because we get it. Jesus came to save the lost – people like us – and he often preferred the company of people like us, rather than the socially important.
I want to touch on two things. The first is to take very seriously the imperative for all of us to change. The second is that it is Jesus who does the changing, and being in real relationship with Jesus effects the change.
Do you want to change? Zacchaeus might not have known that an interaction with Jesus would lead to the radical reordering of his whole life. He may have had people who depended on him – a wife, family, servants – and here he was, giving away his money, his position, his security. He was willing to make himself foolish and undignified to see Jesus, and the result was, a few hours later, to be changed.
We can’t play at this. Coming to worship each week, praying, reading the Bible, fellowship, giving financially and of your time, receiving the sacrament. We can’t play at it. All of these things are meetings with Jesus, and if we take that at all seriously, we’re going to be changed. It can’t help but happen, because Jesus means change. Jesus means a radical reordering of who we are, and what we do, and it isn’t a game. If you’re not willing to be changed, it is time to stop. You can do better things with your time.
Do you want to change? I ask myself that a lot. Do I really, seriously, want to be changed, with all of the implications that has. Do I want to give up the security I have, the position, the trappings of my life, the idea of who I am, the idea of who God is, in order to accept Jesus call to be saved? I hear Jesus saying, all of the time, ‘Come on Colin, I must stay at your house today.’ Jesus asks me if I’m willing to have him come inside, if I’m willing to welcome him in, and allow him to heal me. Jesus looks into my heart, and sees me. Do I want to be known like that? When I’m honest with myself – and with you – I’ll admit that the prospect is very appealing, and immensely scary. Because I know that when I invite Jesus in the carefully constructed house that I am gets a very thorough going over, and the spots of rot get removed, often with a fair amount of pain.
The Greek of verse two contains a lovely little expression, which is tied in with my second point. It is slightly clumsy in English, so it often gets missed out, as it has done in the NRSV translation. ‘Zacchaeus was trying to see Jesus – who he was…’ Interesting, isn’t it. He wasn’t just trying to see this interesting person, he was trying to see who he was – trying to discern who this Jesus actually was. Zacchaeus’ desire to see who Jesus actually was allowed him to see Jesus, and the act of seeing Jesus brought healing and change. So it does in our lives. When we drop our expectations and filters, and see who Jesus actually is, we come face to face with the Christ, our Servant King, and nothing is ever the same again. Jesus is God, and an encounter with God must alter us profoundly.
Do you really want to meet Jesus? Do you really want to change? The two things are intimately tied together. We meet Jesus all the time, in others, in the sacrament, in the Bible, in our times of silence and prayer. When we allow ourselves to be real and vulnerable we can see Jesus, and we can be changed. Of course, we can fail to see Jesus in all of these ways – we can look past him, through him, or expecting to see someone else who fits our picture better, we can ignore him, and relate to someone who is not even there.
The challenge for us, just like it was for Zacchaeus, is to actually meet Jesus and allow him to heal and change us. It is the challenge that faces the church, too. The institution of the church often looks away from Jesus, preferring to follow someone safer and less challenging. One of the significant calls to us, I believe, is to be Christ for the church – pointing again and again to Jesus – gently, clearly, insistently and with love. Not pointing to ourselves, but only to Jesus, our Servant King.
So. Every moment of our lives is a time of new choosing. Will I be Zacchaeus, or will I be the rich young ruler? Will I give it all up to meet and follow Jesus? Very few actually do make the choice to do that. Will you?