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A Gift of Forgiveness, Hope, and Love: A Reflection on Zacchaeus

October 29, 2022
This belted kingfisher was high up in a tree during a recent ramble Denise and I took through the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge in coastal Alabama

As a young child in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, I remember singing the song about wee little Zacchaeus up in the sycamore tree. The emphasis in the song was how wee Zacchaeus was when compared to the rest of the crowd who had gathered along the street to see Jesus walk by. 

He is described as short in stature but back then such a phrase wasn’t a simple descriptor; being short was looked upon as a defect or a handicap. In the Levitical laws concerning priests someone who was small of stature was disqualified from being a priest. Daq, the Hebrew word used in Leviticus 21:20, is translated into English as small. Mikros, the Greek the word used in Luke 19:3, is translated into English as small. This background is important if we are to understand a possible reason for Zacchaeus working for the Empire as a tax collector. 

Zacchaeus must have been teased by the neighborhood kids and bullied while growing up. The old rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” that I heard growing up is an absolute lie. The words cut and they cut deep for the one who is being bullied. As he grew up I imagine that he figured out that if he wasn’t going to be respected by people, they were going to fear him. Despite his success as a very rich and powerful chief tax collector (who had other tax collectors working under him and giving him a cut of their “profits”), life still must not have been very pleasant. 

He made his money by cheating the common folks who were his neighbors. He was a traitor to them because he not only stole from them, but he was also an agent of the Empire which was oppressing them. More than likely, Zacchaeus spent a good deal of time looking behind himself to make sure he wasn’t going to be attacked. Did having all that money and power create a nice life for him? I doubt very much it did.

This reminds me of Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, and the main character Ebeneezer Scrooge. Scrooge was quite wealthy and made his riches at the expense of Bob Cratchit and others, yet he was a man who lived a lonely life surrounded only by his money. It took three ghosts in the tale to transform Scrooge from the greedy miser to the good Uncle Ebeneezer at the end of the story.

In the case of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, it was an encounter with Jesus that changed his life. Swallowing his pride, he climbed up the sycamore tree to be able to look over the crowd to see Jesus. What did he possibly think that Jesus could do for him? Did he think that Jesus would give a traitorous tax collector the time of day? Did he know that Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples had been a tax collector before Jesus called him to be a disciple?

Whatever the reason, nobody was more surprised than Zacchaeus when Jesus told him to hurry up and come down out of the tree. The crowd didn’t like that one bit and they grumbled about Jesus’ poor judgment… eating with sinners? Oh my! It was the gift of love and forgiveness that transformed the chief tax collector into a man who said in front of Jesus and all of the gathered people: Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much. (Luke 19:8) His life had been transformed by that one encounter with Jesus. 

Zacchaeus experienced the joy found in Psalm 32: Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered…  I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (verses 1 & 5) In that moment his life was transformed by the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God which Jesus gave to him.

In a talk on prayer that Thomas Merton gave to the novices at the monastery (as shared by one of his former novices, Dr. James Finley in his podcast Turning to the Mystics: Season Four, Episode Eight, A Coaching Session on Lectio), Merton shared these thoughts on prayer. The way we would begin in prayer is that we belong to God. And all the prayer starts and unfolds out of that knowing that we belong to God. We are trying to get past the topic of prayer to this deep experience that we belong to God. We are God’s beloved. Renewing our faith that we are sitting there in God’s presence, God is all about us and within us, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

We belong to God; we are God’s beloved. That is what Zacchaeus experienced as he climbed down from the sycamore tree and shared his transformation with all who were in earshot. What a radical transformation! I invite you to join me as together we climb out of our own sycamore trees, experience the radical love that Jesus offers, and share that love with others! 

  1. pynkoski2 permalink

    OMG, I remember that song so well. Michael, thanks for this – the suggestion that Zaccheus had been bullied had never occurred to me.

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