Zaccheus the Tax Collector

Nov 3, 2019 by

Sermon by Bob Bond


Gospel Reading:  Luke 19:1-10

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give[1] to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back1 four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”


Communion Meditation

Oh my!, what Jesus does for Zaccheus!  It is quite the play on words when Jesus, speaking Aramaic, declares “Today Jeshua has come to this house” (meaning both “Today Jesus has come <here>” and “Today salvation has come <here>”).  Scorned and side-lined Zaccheus goes from being the city’s brunt of jokes and anger and blame to being forever named, sung about, celebrated as a friend of Jesus.  Zaccheus has community now! – indeed, this morning’s reading brings him to be part of ours.  Zaccheus is a brother, says Jesus: “he too is a son of Abraham!”.

Can you imagine Zaccheus’s heart that day?  If he had ever prayed the words of Habbakuk for his own, “… there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay”, then Zaccheus could now rejoice that his day had come!

What we get to see in this story, my fellow-followers of Jesus, is a memorable “instance” (one of the dozens we have) of Jesus living out the basic call he owned for himself fifteen chapters earlier in Luke’s account, when:

He went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’


Zaccheus here has his “today!-with-Jesus”, his release, his freeing, his salvation.

The thing from which Zaccheus was freed – let us not lose track of this fact! – [Zaccheus’s captivity] was scripture-based.  The text which the people of Jericho could quote for you was alluded to, earlier, by me.  It reads, from Leviticus 21:16ff,

16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 17Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. 18For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles.21No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. … 23 … [H]e shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am the Lord; I sanctify them.


Oh my, the human lives caused shame, destitution and suffering because of lists like these.  This particular catalogue takes every person with disability, every person with a skin blemish, every person with mutilation or abnormality, everyone short like Zaccheus, and puts them to the side, and down.  It takes what is already bad enough about human reactivity against “that which is outside a perceived norm” and makes the situation’s hopelessness cosmic: these people are said to be offensive to God; profane!  Other scripture verses have been held up to do the same to other whole swaths of humanity … most currently (and on-goingly), in our broader denomination, the LGBTQ2S+ communities.  The inventory-across-human-history is long indeed of people denied power, denied resources, denied rights — indigenous peoples everywhere, women and girls as a whole, children used as slaves or warriors, the mentally ill, people whose colour or language or custom or belief isn’t “ours” — with the European men holding power oh-so assuredly and (Bible in hand!) feeling justified.

Yes, the people of Jericho felt oh-so-justified until Jesus came through.  “Come down out of that tree, Zaccheus, I’m going to your home to stay; I’m setting things straight fellow-son-of-Abraham, my brother; I’m securing you in community which is where you always belonged.”  I imagine Jesus continuing, “Listen up, Jericho!  God made Zaccheus (short Zaccheus!).  Have you people never heard Genesis 1? … what God makes, God calls good.  Clearly the Creator enjoys diversity!  So get with the program, and love what God loves.  Indeed, be very careful in this matter because – as I’ve taught you before – there is an unforgivable sin: and that is to cast aspersions on what is of the Holy.”

People, there is a progression, a learning, an evolution, a ‘becoming’ taking place across human history.  We know things our ancestors did not, could not know; we do things unimaginable a century ago; many achievements are good; some human mistakes get bigger and more threatening.  What I’m pointing to, here, is a phenomenon that can be observed across the generations of people within Scripture, front to back.  Humanity’s thinking about itself, and about God, grows across biblical time.  Early on it was figured that prosperity equated with goodness, and ruin surely equated with sin.  We watch the Old Testament take that thinking apart and put it away.  Early on we see occasional recognition that human scape goats have been wronged; move way forward and, in Jesus, it is made forever untenable to ‘scape goat’ anyone because it is made so clear the scape-goated one has what is actually most needed.  The work of the prophets (starting with Moses) was consistent in demanding justice and love for the widow, the orphan and the stranger; then came Jesus who radically integrated, fully embodied, and challengingly required this love to a degree never before realized.  Interestingly, Jesus’ call and expectation, at his life’s end, was for his followers to do more-so than he had done (we are expected to out-strip Jesus!; it is required that we progress).

So, then, don’t be too surprised we can read, in scripture’s third book, a law stating that a short man is a sinner.  And don’t be too surprised that by the end of the entire canon human slavery still exists with only minor challenge.  Instead, discover – this day discover afresh! – “Good News” in what Jesus did upon encountering short Zaccheus that parade-through-town day.  And take this with you to evolve yourself, especially relative to all that is ‘other’ in the grand diversity that God has made and that God calls good.


[1] There are very few translations that ‘get right’ the tense of these verbs.  (As a ‘for instance’, the RSV does get it right.)  In the original Greek text, these are continuous action verbs.  Zaccheus always has, does now and always will give half of his possessions to the poor; he always has, does now and always will pay back four times as much as he (mistakenly) defrauds.  Translators who make these verbs future tense, suggesting that the encounter with Jesus changed Zaccheus’ ethics and stewardship, have misrepresented the story (and flung at Zacchaeus yet another libelous insult!).

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