If you ever went to Sunday School as a kid, even once, you probably know the story of Zacchaeus -- mainly that he was SHORT, which is a kind of sad thing to be famous for.
His story is toward the end of the gospel of Luke, toward the end of Jesus' journey, with his disciples, to Jerusalem. He knew what was waiting for him there. Much of this part of Jesus' journey is a story of "last things." And the story of Zacchaeus is no exception.
Zacchaeus wasn't only unusually short; it seems he was a tax collector, a Jew who was employed by the oppressive Roman government to collect exorbitant taxes from his fellow Jews. A whole lot of thievery went on, and tax collectors were hated for not only their dishonesty, but also for their treachery against their own people. Short or tall, Zacchaeus was undoubtedly an outcast, much hated, a sinner.
But even sinners can get curious. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but he was so short, he couldn't see over the crowds, so he climbed to the top of a sycamore tree, where he probably thought he was safe not only from Jesus, but also from his countrymen, who hated him and couldn't stand being around him.
But then, just like the old Candid Camera motto: "Someday, when you least expect it ..." There was Jesus, directly under the sycamore tree, calling his name and giving him instructions. "Hurry and come down, Zacchaeus!" And, in so many words, "What's for dinner? Because I'm coming!"
If we're up a tree of some sort, hoping to stay on the outskirts of things, we may think we're safe. Trees can be all sorts of things in our lives. Some folks make it their business to stay as far away from church as possible, way up high in their tree. But actually, we can come to church every Sunday, and STILL never come down from our tree. Some of us can even come to Bible study, or join the choir, or bring a casserole to the covered dish dinner, and still keep our distance. It's amazing the lengths we can go to to still, sort of, see Jesus in the distance, but keep ourselves -- our hearts, our commitment -- separate, safe.
But look what happens. Jesus comes right to Zacchaeus, calls him by name, and invites himself over for dinner. And there Zacchaeus is, busted, in front of everyone -- pathologically short, a wicked tax collector, hated and ostracized, a sinner.
And yet ... Jesus knows his name. Jesus halts his journey, seeks out Zacchaeus, and moves on in. You know, don't you, there's no real point in trying to keep your distance. Jesus knows your name. He knows where you're hiding, he knows WHY you're hiding, and he's not even a little mad at you. All he wants is for you to come on down from your tree and let him in. He'll take care of the rest. And you get to be happy!
You can tell from the story, Zacchaeus is already there. He hurries down from his tree and welcomes Jesus, happily. Do you know what's going on here? He's actually starting to change! The love and grace of Jesus are hard to resist. Zacchaeus may have thought he wanted to keep his distance, but he didn't stand a chance against the love of God.
There's something about being close to Jesus -- forgiven, approved of, loved -- that begins to change us. Zacchaeus, right away, begins calling Jesus "Lord" and promising to give away half his possessions to the poor. Because joy and generosity go hand-in-hand, he wants to make amends for the wrong he's done. Coming down from that tree was the best thing he ever did! Forgiveness where there was condemnation ... inclusion, where there was exclusion ... happiness instead of misery and guilt.
This is a very good deal. For Zacchaeus, and for us.
What ARE we afraid of? Why on earth do we try and keep our distance? Are we afraid of being honest, of feeling something, of changing? The truth is that Jesus will never be satisfied till we come down from that tree and welcome him in! Let today be the day that change begins. No one expects us to be perfect overnight! But, just like Zacchaeus, the joy and freedom are here for us NOW.
One of the very last things Jesus did, before arriving in Jerusalem, was reach out to yet another sinner, another someone who needed his forgiveness. It was his mission then, and he's still doing it today. If it's YOUR tree he's standing under, don't waste another minute! Hurry on down and invite him all the way in.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.