Our gospel lesson this morning is one that we are all familiar with. It is one that we were taught as children perhaps in Sunday school or in vacation bible school. My first memory of this story comes from a felt or flannel board in the pre-school Sunday School class at First United Methodist Church in Greenville, Alabama. I remember the tree that she placed on the black board and the little man that she placed in the tree. This felt board story was only reiterated by the song recited over and over and over again by so many children. We all know it… Zaccheaus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.
The song is familiar, the story is familiar. We all know what happens. He climbs in the tree. He wants to see Jesus. Jesus looks up. Jesus tells him to get out of the tree because he is hungry and plans on eating in Zaccheaus home. Remember. “I am going to your house today…” We know the story. Even our children know the story. If you have ever stepped foot into a church you have probably heard of this story.
We often forget “the rest of the story” that radio personality Paul Harvey often shares with this audience. So here is “the rest of the story.”
You see, Zaccheaus was not simply a “wee little man,” a person short in stature but he was also short on honesty. A tax collector, he made a fortune on exploiting other people. The manner that we complain about the IRS does not even compare to those in Jericho’s dislike of Zaccheaus. He was simply awful, and rich. Rich and awful and dishonest. Thank about the manner in which people shudder when the name Bernie Madoff is mentioned. That might be the way that people felt when Zaccheaus would walk through town. In her sermon about Zaccheaus, Episcopal priest Rev. Ellen Purdman commented about why we teach our children that Zaccheaus was a “wee little man and a wee little man was he.” She said, “Probably because teaching children “Zaccheaus was a bad little man and a bad little man was he” would not go over well in most Sunday School classes.
And he was a “bad little man.” One of the wealthiest men in his town, he had few if any friends. Having few friends can be a lonely place. Because of his chosen profession, Zaccheaus family had deserted him. So this “wee little man” was really alone, even though so many people surrounded him. Each day he would go about collected “what was due to Caesar” and taking a bit off the top. Telling people they owed more than they did, he would profit from the excess. What if they did not pay? Well obviously they were sent to prison like any person disloyal to the Roman government. Zaccheaus, a Jewish man, had that power. He had that power and used it frequently. He would send his own people to prison for not paying what he told them they owed. He was a “bad little man.”
Well in such tight knit communities word spreads quickly. People hear that Jesus is coming through Jericho so a crowd gathers. A crowd gathers to see this man who has been healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and even eating with sinners. Just a few days earlier Jesus had picked the tax collector over the Pharisee. Jesus had said that the tax collector was justified because of his humility, not simply the Pharisee because of his good works. This is unheard of for a rabbi to say this to a man like a tax collector, so a crowd gathers.
We all know how this works. Think back to the 1996 Olympic games. When Atlanta got the vote to host the Olympics the entire Southeastern United States cheered with excitement. Never mind that the Atlanta delegation told the Olympic committee that the average temperature for Georgia is 74 degrees…yeah maybe in November. But I digress. As the torch and flame made its way to Atlanta, it first went through Alabama. In Wetumpka, Alabama the torch traveled with different individuals running with it, to Jasmine Hill gardens and a crowd gathered. A large crowd. They wanted to see this piece of history. Individuals who had grown up in Elmore County wanted to be able to tell their grandchildren that they had see the Olympic flame. They had seen the same flame that had been in Los Angeles, Moscow, and Rome. And they knew the flame would continue to travel to places like Beijing, Toronto, and Rio de Janerio.
We know how crowds gather, and this one is no different. Word gets out and it spreads like wild fire, so people come. People come to see this man who heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and eats with sinner. “Eat with sinners,” Zaccheaus thinks, “Maybe he will pay attention to me, the worst of the worst.” So along with the crowd, the crowd that hates him, he gathers to see this man they call Jesus. Because he is a “wee little man” and because no one will let him get to the front of the crowd, he climbs a tree.
Perhaps this is where small children feel a kinship with this “bad little man.” I have rarely met a small child that does not enjoy climbing trees. In fact I have heard stories about how children from this congregation love to climb the well-worn limbs of the Magnolia tree in the side lawn of the church. As a child I loved to climb trees. My great grandmother lived on the main drag in Greenville Alabama. When I was growing up Fort Dale Road was considered a busy thoroughfare. In her large front yard I was not permitted to go past the magnolia tree. It is fortunate, for me that my parents permitted me to go up to the tree in her yard. I would have found myself in trouble much more often had this not been the case. The limbs of the tree reached to the ground and like any Magnolia tree they were great for climbing. My cousin, Virginia, and I would climb the tree each time we were at Mama Watsons’s house. Virginia would stop about half way up. I, on the other hand, would climb until I could see out of the trees canopy. All the while Virginia telling me I needed to come down. On one occasion my Aunt Rebecca walked out of the house to see Virginia on the lawn and me in the tree. She sternly, but without yelling, told me to “get out of that tree.” She said I was so high up it was not safe. I did as I was told but always waited until I would not get in trouble and climbed the tree as high as I could while no one was watching.
Jesus has a similar reaction to Zaccheaus. It did not matter that he was an adult and still climbing trees. It did not matter that he had joined in a crowd of individuals who hated him to see this man who associated with the likes of him. It did not matter that people pushed and shoved him out of the way so they could have a better view of the mane they called Jesus. What mattered is that he sought out the Messiah. He sought our Lord. He wanted to see Jesus. Just to just get a glimpse of him. He knew he was a “bad little man,” but maybe Jesus would be kind. Maybe he would smile at him and that would at least make this day of loneliness more bearable.
And so, Zaccheaus limbs up into the sycamore tree. It climbs above the people angry that he is even present at this event. He climbs high enough so that when Jesus walks by he can just catch a glimpse of him. And he does! He sees the Messiah! He sees this man they call Jesus! Jesus walks close to the tree. Zaccheaus can almost touch his clothes! Zaccheaus watches intently. Then Jesus looks up. He looks up and sees a strange little man in a tree. He looks up and smiles. Then without thinking twice says, “Zaccheaus! Get out of that tree! And Hurry! I am hungry!” Well, really according to Luke he says “Zaccheaus hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today!” But regardless, Jesus notices the “bad little man.” He notices the tax collector and despite his dishonesty, despite Zaccheaus’ sin, Christ offers love.
Saying you would eat with a tax collector, in fact the worst tax collector in the area was unheard of for a religious authority. Zaccheaus was unclean. He was a sinner, an unrepentant sinner. But regardless, Christ offered love. Christ beckoned him to come out of the tree. To get down because there was a conversation to be had. Christ needed Zaccheaus to know that he was not alone, to know that he was loved, and Christ needed the crowd to see that all were welcome to be part of the kingdom of God…even this bad little man.
Because of this extravagant show of love Zaccheaus heart is changed. When he gets out of the tree he knows there are things to be done. He knows that he had done horrible things to his community and so he repents. Our gospel says that Zaccheaus proclaims, "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." And he had enough money to live up to this promise. So Christ offers him forgiveness. Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house!”
The people in the crowd are astounded. They are amazed. They say among themselves, “Not only is this religious teacher, this rabbi, this Jesus speaking to Zaccheaus. Not only is he eating with him. But he is also forgiving him.”
When Zaccheaus gets out of the tree, he knows something has to change. He knows his life has to become different. He knows he must be redeemed; not only by the Messiahs but also by the community in which he lives. The community he has defrauded. So when he gets out of the tree his life becomes different. He becomes a follower of Jesus. He becomes a person who seeks Christ and he is incorporated back into the community.
And that, my friends, like Paul Harvey says “is the rest of the story.”
So what are you called to do? When Jesus tells you to get out of the tree what in your life has to change? What are you called to do? How are you called to be transformed for the kingdom of God. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is among us, there are people in our community that are in great need and we are all called to do something. Maybe you are called to cook for our meals on wheels program. Maybe you are called to help with our children. Maybe you are called to travel to Nicquaraga and serve God’s children in South America. What are you called to do for the kingdom of God?