In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“And there was a man named Zacchae’us; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for Jesus was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchae’us, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he made haste and came down, and received him joyfully.”
No doubt some of you remember the song from Sunday School: Zacchae’us was a wee-little man, and a wee-little man was he! He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see! and so forth.
Zacchaeus, we are told, was a tax collector. Tax collectors in the first century were about as popular as they are now.
The Gospel says he was “small of stature.” And this lends vividness to the portrait St. Luke paints of the petty little bureaucrat who had grown rich by bilking struggling, hard-working people, on behalf of the government.
But Zaachaeus had heard about Jesus. And now he hears that Jesus is coming to town, that he will be passing by. So this petty, corrupt little bureaucrat goes out into the crowds seeking TO SEE WHO JESUS IS (19.3). But he can’t. He runs up against two obstacles. First, there is a jostling crowd, pushing and elbowing him – a crowd of people like himself who were curious to see this healer about whom they had been reading in the newspaper. Secondly, he runs up against his own smallness of stature. Being “small of stature” is no good in thick crowds of jostling people.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Zaachaeus runs ahead (19.4), and climbs a sycamore tree by the road, and waits there to see Jesus. And Jesus does pass by. And imagine the shock, maybe the glee, when Zaachaeus sees Jesus stop under the tree and look up at him, and speak his name. “Zaachaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Not only does Zaachaeus get to SEE the man he had heard so much about – he gets to talk with him, to listen to him, to be his host – to share his food and his house and, for a night or two, he gets to share his life with Jesus!
But beyond the easy lesson of the general badness of petty bureaucrats who grow rich off the backs of hard working people, and the general goodness of having changes of heart about such things, what is the story of Zaachaeus saying? What does it say to those of us who are not petty bureaucrats, and who are not small of stature?
First of all we should notice what the text says (v. 3): Zacchaeus SOUGHT TO SEE WHO JESUS WAS. This is the center of the spiritual life: seeking to see Jesus, and having an open heart about what and whom you will see at the end of your seeking. Jesus said “seek, and you shall find.” I think we’re prone to read this as though it were a conditional statement: IF you seek, THEN you will find. But that’s not what it says. The mood of the word “seek” is imperative. It’s a COMMAND. SEEK, and you will find. In light of the Lord’s imperative, therefore, Zaachaeus can be seen as answering the summons of the Lord in his heart. Zaachaeus is obeying the inward compulsion of the voice of God. He is SEEKING the Lord. He doesn’t know what the Lord will be like, but he WANTS to find out. His heart is open and eager. And we get a sense of his excitement and yearning in Luke.
We all have a duty as human beings to search for what is ultimately good, true, and beautiful. We don’t have a duty to attain it – seeing to the attainment is the Lord’s job – but we have a duty to seek it, to stir up within ourselves a desire for ultimate reality; and this requires an open mind and an open heart. Often, when we take an honest look inside of ourselves, we will find that we DON’T desire ultimate reality – the good, the true, and the beautiful – that we’re more than willing to settle for much less. When we see that this is so, we can perhaps at least stir up within ourselves the desire to desire ultimate reality. That’s a good first step. It leaves room for the Lord to work.
But Zachaeus could not see Jesus on account of the crowd, and because he was small of stature. There are two impediments to seeing the face of Jesus. One is the opposition of the crowds. The crowds in our day might be the culture and the media, the gawkers and gadflies and the murmurers – the people who have indestructible preconceptions about who God is, who the Messiah is, or who he or she should be. These will not create a space for the openhearted seeker. They insist that we stay behind them and let them tell us about the Messiah. And what do they say he is or should be? Very often they claim that he is, or should be, the administrator of a social program, or the leader of a liberation movement of some kind, or a reformer of this or that, the architect of some kind of social change. At the very moment when the open-hearted seeker himself comes looking for the face of Jesus, he is shoved back by the foregone conclusions of skeptics and ideologues, the predominant voices in culture and the media. What we NEED is salvation, but what we get is unbridled sexuality, or fraudulent little “liberation” movements of one sort or another, or promises of tax cuts or healthcare reform, or some enhancement or restoration of the “American dream.” We live in a time when it seems like nothing is off limits; nothing is out of bounds. Yet nothing ever seems to satisfy. Its never enough. A wise man once said: if you have a yearning deep within yourself that nothing in this world can satisfy, maybe that means you were not created for this world.
Like Zachaeus, we are all small of stature when faced with the crowds of murmurers and skeptics, and the relentlessness of cultural propagandizing. We are all jostled and swayed on a daily basis. We all fall back. The truth is that as people of faith, we are all like Zachaeus: small of stature. Our faith is little, and whenever a History Channel program about the “historical Jesus” comes on television around Chrsitmastime, or an article about “the Real Jesus” appears in National Geographic, or the next installment of the Da Vinci Code comes out, or the next political debate gets going, our faith – that faculty by which we seek to see who Jesus is – our faith gives ground to the jostling of the crowd.
So what are we supposed to do? What did Zaachaeus do? He ran ahead and climbed a tree. He admitted his smallness of stature, and he rose above it. He rose above not only his own smallness, but above the jostling crowd too. He was determined to SEE JESUS FOR HIMSELF, and he would not give way to the crowds. He did not succumb to complacency. He was not deterred, but he PURSUED HIS PERSONAL QUEST FOR THE FACE OF THE LORD. And so must we. We will run up against opposition from the crowds, our faith will be jostled and shoved and elbowed, because we are all small of stature, spiritually. That’s alright. But we must not give up our quest because of the jostling, and whatever we do: we must not join the crowd. We must SEE JESUS FOR OURSELVES. As the Prophet Isaiah put it: we must seek the Lord while he wills to be found; we must call upon him when he draws near. And we must NOT accept from the skeptics and murmurers a second-hand substitute for faith, we must not allow the crowds to mediate the Messiah’s presence.
For us, this encounter, this struggle, takes place in the heart, as we prayerfully seek Jesus in the Gospels. We seek Jesus when we read the Gospels, and especially when we read them ON OUR KNEES – that is, when we read the Gospels with simple, humble, open-hearted DEVOTION.
When we seek the Lord, when we refuse to be deterred, when we find that place of devout seeking and waiting, above the fray of murmuring and conjecture, suddenly we will find that HE IS THERE. That he always was right there. That his presence with us all along was the material condition of our seeking him to begin with. And we find ourselves looking on his countenance – catching a glimpse of “the king in his beauty.” Today’s Gospel says Jesus “was to pass that way.” You may recall another passage where the Lord passed by. In Exodus, Moses asks to see the Lord on Sinai: “Moses said ‘I pray thee, show me thy glory.’ And the Lord said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. ‘But,’ said the Lord, ‘you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.’ And the Lord said ‘Behold… you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by… my face shall not be seen.’”
And this is the great mystery of what happened that day in Jericho for Zacchaeus, and what will happen for us when we seek Jesus with faith: No longer does God just pass by. Not on this side of the incarnation. Now he stops. He looks at us, and we look at him. We see the glory of God in the face of Jesus. And when he stops, he says to us: “make haste and come; for I must stay at your house today.”
The vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus – what was denied to Moses, is possible for Zacchaeus – and its possible for all who devoutly and open-heartedly search for ultimate reality by means of faith. Not only are we graced to see the face of God, but even more: God will come to us and lodge with us. He will take up his dwelling place in our hearts. In John’s gospel Jesus says “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
That’s the significance of the story of Zacchaeus. That’s what Jesus means. “Today salvation has come to this house.” Because Zacchaeus went looking for Jesus with faith and devotion.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.