As we hear this story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, it might help to set the scene. Jesus is coming into Jericho. In the passage just before this morning’s reading, he’s healed a man who desperately wanted to see again. Jesus explains what’s happened by telling the man he’s not just healed but that his faith has “saved” him (Luke 18:42). It’s the kind of healing that goes beyond healing, the healing that restores our lives to the wholeness God intends – and it makes the formerly blind man join Jesus on the road. That’s what’s on Jesus’ mind as he makes his way into Jericho.
And how about Zacchaeus? What’s on his mind? Well, first we have to know who Zacchaeus is. He’s a Jew, but he’s also a “chief tax collector” and “rich,” the story says (19:2). Basically he’s a traitor, part of the Roman system taxing his people to support the brutal Empire … and, of course, enriching the tax collectors. You also have to know this man’s name is part of the story – “Zacchaeus” means “innocent” or “clean,” rather ironic given his life and work. But that’s how he sees himself.
So, this imperial collaborator is looking for Jesus. He’s heard the buzz, so Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree to see Jesus pass by. On one level, it’s a practical thing: Zacchaeus is short. But on another level, maybe Zacchaeus is climbing that tree because he’s used to getting what he wants. Zacchaeus is the kind of guy who stands in the “premiere” ticket line and sits in box seats at the amphitheater. When Zacchaeus wants to see, he gets to see.
Oddly enough, Jesus wants to see Zacchaeus, too – not to indict him but to spend time with him. Jesus has come to town to bring God’s wholeness not just to those who’ve been oppressed. Jesus wants to see the oppressor made whole, too.
And you know, I think, deep down, Zacchaeus wants to be made whole. Sure, he’s used to first-class treatment, but his conscience isn’t dead. Late at night, trying to fall asleep, maybe he sees the faces of the neighbors he’s defrauding. Zacchaeus knows he’s lost and needs healing. And Jesus doesn’t keep him waiting. “Zacchaeus,” Jesus says, “hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today” (19:5).
I imagine Zacchaeus frozen on his branch, the whole crowd now staring up at him. But something happens to Zacchaeus in that moment. Maybe he begins to see those people below him in a different light – shining with the dignity of the children of God. But he hears something, too – something about himself. Deep in his heart, Zacchaeus hears a shocking word of grace. He hears Jesus say, “You are just as worthy as everyone else who’s lost, and I have come to make you whole, too.” It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum – the exploited and those who exploit, the excluded and those who exclude. Zacchaeus is just as worthy of God’s forgiveness and healing as the folks he’s been robbing – because Zacchaeus, too, is a child of God. As Jesus tells the crowd and every one of us: “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost” (19:10) – all the lost.
This is the Sunday in our stewardship season when we highlight Outreach ministries, the work we do and the resources we give to serve the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the alone, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. We know that when we serve others, we serve Jesus himself, down the street and across the sea. Your Outreach giving provides food for hungry people at the Kansas City Community Kitchen. It provides food and books for students in Haiti and salaries for their teachers. It supports a social entrepreneur’s vision to train moms for living-wage jobs and break the cycle of poverty. It helps kids in Kansas City’s housing projects learn that God loves them and wants to see them well-fed and educated. It helps women and their kids break free from domestic violence. Your pledge of time, talent, and treasure supports all that work.
But, you know, our Outreach giving helps meet our needs, too. I would say our Outreach ministries are just as much about our healing as they are about serving Jesus in “the least” of his brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:40). And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s a lot right with that. Because, I have to tell you – I am Zacchaeus. Most of us here are Zacchaeus. And I’ve had to climb down from my safe perch in the sycamore tree for my own come-to-Jesus meeting.
I started climbing down was when Ann and I lived in Iowa City and I volunteered at the local food pantry. Now, mind you, I didn’t actually serve hungry people at the food pantry; I stocked shelves. It was a start, but I only climbed a couple of branches down the sycamore tree.
When we went to seminary in Austin, I got involved in the student-run feeding program. Actually the word “program” dresses up the effort too much; it was more like a guerilla campaign. We would make burritos for about 100 people, load them into a rusted-out pickup, and drive to the storefront where day laborers came to collect their pay. There, we gave the laborers burritos, bananas, and oranges until the food ran out. It was one of the best parts of seminary for me, talking with actual hungry people. They’re much more interesting than the abstraction of “hunger” I imagined when I stocked shelves at the pantry. They’re also more complicated. What do you do when a hungry person doesn’t appreciate the burrito you gave him? Or what do you do with the reality that all the burritos in the world won’t do a blessed thing to change the system that keeps the day laborers wondering whether they’ll even get work the next morning – and a system that will never pay them enough to live on. Asking those questions, I climbed a few more branches down the sycamore tree toward Jesus.
Here at St. Andrew’s, it’s been our partnership with St. Augustin’s School in Haiti that’s made the biggest difference in helping me climb down and meet Jesus on the road. I’ve been blessed to share time and meals and Eucharist with people like Pere Colbert, and the school’s headmaster Samuel, and the other teachers – people we’ve come to know. Through those relationships, our congregation has empowered kids at St. Augustin’s to learn, despite hardships I can barely fathom. But that’s not all. Through those relationships, I’ve begun to know salvation, along with Zacchaeus.
Here’s how that healing works for me. Even at the pantry in Iowa City and at the day-labor office in Austin, I could see there was a disconnect between my reality and the reality of the people being served. I couldn’t really frame it, but I knew it was there. I might now frame that disconnect, and my need for healing, in terms of privilege. I am tremendously privileged. I am American. I am white. I am male. I am straight. I come from a family that sent me to college. I start the game with the ball at midfield, while others are starting buried deep in their own territory. So, when I hear Jesus calling Zacchaeus to come down from the tree and change his point of view, I hear him calling my name, too.
But Jesus isn’t just yelling at me for my complicity in a series of broken systems. He’s asking me to see them and change them as best I can – helping to educate kids in Haiti, supporting training for women to find living-wage jobs, encouraging you to see the injustices that hurt God’s heart and then act to change them. But Jesus is also calling my name because he loves me and wants me to be made whole, too. He’s trying to help me see him in people I wouldn’t truly see otherwise. I can’t know what it’s like to be Haitian. I can’t know what it’s like to be a women at the Grooming Project. I can’t know what it’s like to be a kid at Gordon Parks Elementary, who can’t tell you where he lives but only where he stays. I get to start from the 50-yard line. I live in privilege I’m only beginning to see.
But Jesus asks me to climb down from my sycamore tree because he wants me to find the healing that comes from taking the journey with him. He wants to make me whole by bringing me into relationships I’d never know otherwise. Every step we take toward the other is a step toward seeing that person’s full humanity. Every step we take toward the other is a step toward honoring that person’s God-given dignity. Every step we take toward the other is a step toward building God’s beloved community. Every step we take toward the other is a step toward our own healing, healing at the hands of the One who comes to seek and save the lost – like us.