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Luke 19:1-10

“Falling Short”

For many of us, we cannot help ourselves. When the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Jericho is told, the children’s chorus about a “wee little man” by the name of Zacchaeus starts to play over and over in our heads. And we hear about this short man who wants to see Jesus but cannot because of the crowds. So he does the unthinkable. The chorus chimes in:

He climbed up in a sycamore tree,  For the Lord he wanted to see.  And when the Savior passed that way He looked up in the tree.  And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, For I’m going to your house today! For I’m going to your house today!”

This is a happy chorus about a happy event! And it brings a smile to our faces just remembering the fun and joy of singing about Jesus meeting Zacchaeus that day.

Much has been made of the fact that Zacchaeus was unable to see Jesus the day he passed through Jericho because of the crowds that blocked his view. As Luke notes in verse 3, the crowds prohibited him from seeing Jesus. It may be that the crowds took some pleasure in elbowing the chief tax collector back when he tried to inch his way to the front of the crowds. After all, Zacchaeus would have been seen as something like a traitor, since he would have been seen as a corroborator with the Roman oppressors. Added to that was the notoriety of tax collectors as corrupt and dishonest in their means of collecting tolls or taxes, because Rome permitted these collectors to add a “commission” to whatever revenue they collected for the empire. When Luke adds that Zacchaeus was both “wealthy” and a “chief tax collector” (19:2), this sets him up to be among the most despised persons in town! It is no wonder that the crowds would not give him space to see Jesus!

Yet Luke also mentions that Zacchaeus was “short in stature” (19:3, NRSV). Although the common assumption is that Zacchaeus’s lack of height was the primary contributing factor in his inability to see Jesus passing through town, this need not be the case, even if the children’s chorus plays off that detail of the story. But why does Luke mention this? In ancient descriptions of physical appearance, smallness in physical stature was generally seen as being indicative of “smallness of character” or being “small in spirit.” Such persons were typically seen as deficient of character, which revealed itself in low self-expectations, pettiness, and greediness. For first-century tax collectors who made their living by overcharging others on taxes and keeping the extra funds for themselves, such character traits would have been most visible. Someone like Zacchaeus would have been conditioned to have low expectations of himself. Having a name that is a diminutive form of the name Zechariah (which means “innocent” or “pure”), he (ironically) seems to fall short of living up to what has been “called” to be, so that he appears to be anything but “innocent” in the eyes of those who think they know him best.

It is no wonder that Jesus’ invitation provoked such drastic responses. On the one hand, Zacchaeus responded by doing exactly as Jesus told him to do (19:6). Although translations vary the wording describing Jesus’ command to Zacchaeus and his subsequent response, the Greek terms for both mirror each other to show the tax collector following Jesus’ call to the letter. In addition, the narrator describes Zacchaeus as “welcoming” Jesus, using the Lukan terminology reserved for hospitality and the reception of the gospel. This was more than a mere “hello” moment. From Luke’s perspective, this was a gospel moment, as Zacchaeus embraced Jesus and the gospel he embodied.

On the other hand, Luke also tells about “all” who “began to grumble” (NRSV) when they saw what was happening. The “all” are not specified, but it probably includes the townspeople and even the disciples following Jesus. This echoes the reaction that the Pharisees and the scribes had toward Jesus that precipitated his response of the parables that emphasize the rejoices that occurs when one that was lost is found (see 15:1-32). Everyone—even those closest to Jesus—assumed the worst when they looked at Zacchaeus. With one glimpse of him, not merely as a despicable tax collector but a chief tax collector … making him the worst one of them all … they saw Zacchaeus for who he was. And that is why they spoke about Jesus having “gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (19:7, NRSV). Like all the other “sinners” that others had condemned throughout the Third Gospel, Zacchaeus had already been added to their number as one who was hopeless … one condemned as worthless in the eyes of God. The irony here is noteworthy. While Zacchaeus rejoiced because of Jesus’ welcome and verbal embrace that made him feel ten feet tall, the response of everyone else fell short of what would have been hoped from them. All others could only see the person who fell short before them … the person Zacchaeus had been; Jesus saw the person Zacchaeus could be.

Zacchaeus’s response to Jesus reflects the kind of radical transformation that comes with the gospel that Jesus embodies. Zacchaeus’s words have confused readers of the Third Gospel. Some translations (e.g., NRSV) convey his declarations about giving to the poor and paying restitution in the future (a futuristic present)—“I will give to the poor” … “I will pay back” (19:8)—as signs of his confession, repentance, and moral transformation. Other translations (e.g., CEB, NIV) render Zacchaeus as describing what he was already doing, either as his regular practice or what he was now doing (a focus on the present tense of the verb). The former (traditional) view contrasts the tax collector’s negative characterization of his reputation and prior life with this transformed life. The latter view may even serve as a protest against the crowd’s assumptions about him as a sinner.

Although the rest of the passage supports the traditional view of Zacchaeus’s repentance here, the specifics of his declarations reveal how much change had occurred in his life. For instance, not only was he now giving to the poor, but he was giving half of his possessions … and he did so voluntarily. In addition, this wealthy person who was likely motivated by greed now voluntarily resolved to pay double restitution and more to anyone he cheated (and the Greek wording of the conditional clause of 19:8 suggests that he certainly had!). That is, this one who had been defined in the beginning of the story by his wealth is now defined by giving it away. It is no wonder that Jesus declares in response, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. The Human One came to seek and save the lost” (19:9-10, CEB; emphasis added).

Too often, our expectations of others and of the gospel fall short of what God can do. Our view of God and the ways that God can transform others and society falls short of what God can do. And so brush others aside … maybe not directly but more subtly … in ways that suggest, “Some people never change,” or, “Maybe someday it will happen.” But here and elsewhere in the Third Gospel, the word “today” comes up: “Today a savior has been born” (2:11); “today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43, emphases added). It refers to what God is doing now … despite our shortsightedness. The good news is that today still comes because God will not be held back by us!