Brief Synopsis of the Readings: In the Old Testament Book of Wisdom the author speaks of the immensity of God (“In your sight, Lord, the whole world is like a grain of dust that tips the scales”). God also overlooks sins and loves all that exists. Finally, God does this that we may abstain from evil and trust in God. Luke speaks of an encounter between Jesus and a tax collector named Zacchaeus. Zaccheus, wanting to see Jesus, climbed a tree as he passed. When Jesus saw him he told Zaccheus that he will stay with him that night. Hearing murmers about his sinfulness, Zaccheus protested by claiming that he plans to give half of his property to the poor “and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.” Jesus replied that Zaccheus that today “salvation has come to this house.”
I’ve always been interested when characters in the Gospels are named. We all know the immediate followers of Jesus, but there doesn’t seem to be a consistency with others. We know about the rich man (who isn’t named) and Lazarus (who is). In John’s Gospel (Chapter 2) we don’t know the name of the host at the wedding feast at Cana, but in the next chapter we know about Nicodemus, the pharisee, who asks Jesus about being born again. And we know the name of Zacchaeus. He is mentioned here and nowhere else in Scripture.
Now combine this with the fact that the Gospels were written decades after these events. The names we know are, perhaps, only a coincidence, or it’s because the Gospel authors simply had good memory for names. But I like to think it’s something just a little bit more.
As Christians in 2019 we have to remind ourselves that the authors of Scripture weren’t writing for us, people all over the world 2000 years in the future. They wrote for the audience in front of them and had no comprehension that their words would endure for thousands of years and be translated into hundreds of other languages.
Perhaps Luke’s audience knew or at least knew of Zaccheus. I’ve spoken about this before, but while we don’t know much about Zaccheus we know a great deal about tax collectors. Simply put, they were Jews who collected taxes for the Romans and they were hated. They were hated both because of their work for the Romans and for the fact that they often profited from their positions. In other words they extorted more than they owed and kept the prophets for themselves.
And to the extent that Zaccheus was described as a senior tax collector and a wealthy man, we can assume he was both wildly known and wildly hated. And yet he is seen as the hero in today’s Gospel: When Jesus sees him up in the tree he calls him by name and announces that he will stay with Zaccheus.
And when others criticize Zaccheus for being a sinner, Zaccheus says the magic words: “I am going to give half my property to the poor and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.”
Clearly Zaccheus didn’t become rich by his generosity. But maybe their encounter changed everything. There is something about climbing a tree that matters to us. In 2007 my wife and I traveled to Cooperstown, New York to see Tony Gwynn inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and it was the biggest crowd they’d ever seen. When the bus carrying all the members of the Hall of Fame turned the corner and saw the crowd, Johnny Bench yelled: “Oh my God, they’re in the trees!” It was a testament to how many baseball fans wanted to see Tony Gwynn (and Cal Ripken who was also inducted).
When we read this Gospel it sounds like Zaccheus is saying essentially: “You have me all wrong. I already give half to the poor and I already repay people I cheat.” But on closer look he said “I am going to give half my property to the poor and if I have cheated anyone I will four times the amount.”
Some of you may have figured out that I’ve been foreshadowing the Christmas favorite How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. You’d be right.
The Grinch spent his life looking down on Whoville with contempt and he developed a plan: he would ruin their Christmas by stealing all their gifts. But his plan failed on an event nobody could have seen coming. His heart was melted by a question by “little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two.” Thinking the Grinch was Santa she asked why he was taking their Christmas tree.
At that moment the Grinch had an epiphany. He recognized that his life of resentment and superiority toward others didn’t make him right, it made him pathetic. In that moment he recognized that Cindy Lou and the rest of Whoville had much to teach him, his heart grew, and they all had a wonderful Christmas.
Dr. Seuss wrote 2000 years after Zaccheus but I find a link there. I suggest that Jesus played the role of Cindy Lou Who. We don’t know what Zaccheus saw from the tree but maybe, just maybe, he didn’t just see Jesus but also those who blocked his view and mandated that he climb the tree. He climbed the tree because he was “too short in stature” but also because he needed the perspective that the Grinch had of looking down.
So did Zaccheus. From his perspective in the tree he not only saw Jesus, he saw the people whose poverty gave him his wealth. And he saw them in a new light: his heart grew three sizes that day.
Let’s grow our hearts too. Let us look on each other with love, and recognize by seeking Jesus we can look anew at even those who hate us. I never expected to say this, but let’s all be grinches.