“Zacchaeus was a wee little man. . ..” Was this his real problem, given a cultural bias toward height? The Zacchaeus story in Luke 19 does deal with cultural biases. It is usually interpreted as a conversion story. This sinful, rich, thieving, collaborating, powerful, tax collector is converted by Jesus’ call. This reflects the bias of the crowd, and this interpretation reflects biases in the church and culture today.
There is often a bias against wealth, although many want to be rich. Many churches see the needs of the poor, ignoring those of the rich. Culture considers power abusive and taxes bad. Those who disagree with us are collaborators with evil. We are divided into “us” and “them,” maligning the other.
Jesus and Luke mess with our categories in the Zacchaeus story. The character’s name should catch our attention and raise a question. His name means “clean” or “innocent.” Do we see Zacchaeus that way? Why does this outcast want to see Jesus? Short in stature or in years, a youngster (another bias), does the crowd exclude him intentionally?
Jesus includes Zacchaeus. He must stay at Zacchaeus’ house that day so Zacchaeus can be restored. That is Jesus’ mission. Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was, and Jesus had to show what his mission is. Jesus’ mission is to overcome the barriers that divide us from God and each other. Hospitality is the best indicator of this.
Paul wonderfully states Jesus’ mission in Ephesians 2:14-17.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. . .. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.”
Hospitality with the wrong people can bring hostility. The crowd had made its judgment about Zacchaeus. He was a sinner. Now they are ready to make a negative judgment on Jesus for hanging out with him. They do not really know Zacchaeus, but they have made their aberrant judgment.
Zacchaeus defends himself. He uses a present tense verb to state his on-going practices (not a future tense as it is often translated). He is and has been giving half of what he has to the poor, and, if anyone has been cheated, he goes above and beyond to make it right. Zacchaeus is a man of charity and abundant justice. He has been falsely maligned and excluded.
Jesus vindicates Zacchaeus. Here is a son of Abraham, living in the world to bring blessings to others. Additionally, Jesus declares his restoration, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus has not been saved from his sin. He has been saved from the divisive consequences of his community’s sinful judgment. Salvation here is the restoration of community with God and each other, today. This is Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost, the excluded, the judged.
In the worship service where I heard the traditional interpretation of Zacchaeus, the liturgist stumbled during confession. She said, “Let us confess the sins of others,” instead of “confess our sins with others.” Too true. We proclaim the sins of others and exclude them.
I saw this quotation etched into glass at the Clinton Library,
“We have been divided in this country for too long between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Each and every election we see a fresh new slate of arguments and ads telling us that ‘they’ are the problem, not ‘us. . .’ But there can be no ‘them’ in America. There’s only us” (Governor Bill Clinton, 1992).
I am not sure this is true for America, but it should be true for the church. Let’s restore Zacchaeus to his full stature.