Commentary on Luke 18:31—19:10
“See,” said Jesus, “we are going up to Jerusalem … ” (Luke 18:31).
Jesus’ journey to the holy city had begun long ago (9:51). This is the third time he has told his disciples exactly what would happen once they got to the city. He speaks of himself in third person: “the Son of Man will be handed over to the Gentiles. He will be mocked, insulted, spat upon, and flogged. They will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again” (18:31-33). But the disciples understood nothing Jesus said — and it’s not the first time.
Jesus is intent on reaching the city, but there will be two interruptions before he gets there — a blind beggar and a rich chief tax collector. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Twice, a blind beggar cries out, even though people tell him to shut up. (This will happen next Sunday, too, when the religious leaders tell the multitude praising Jesus to be quiet.) “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind man. “Lord, let me see again.” Could the man be speaking also for the disciples who still don’t understand? Could the man be speaking for us? “Receive your sight,” Jesus said, and it was so.
Now, Jesus has reached Jericho and plans to pass through. But there’s another interruption because Jesus refused to pass through Jericho without stopping. This all happened because of Zacchaeus who was short in stature. I don’t know if he thought much about it but we loved it in Sunday School. Our teacher put the little cloth man on the flannel board, then up the tree and out on a branch waiting for Jesus to come by. We sat on our miniature chairs and sang: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man/A wee little man was he …” Or maybe you never saw a flannel board and you never sang that song. But you might have heard that Zacchaeus was short. Maybe being short didn’t bother him. Maybe he didn’t think about it.
He probably thought more about being a chief tax collector. It wasn’t just that collecting taxes was unpleasant, but it meant being part of the Roman system. Zacchaeus was an agent of the state, a Jew turned oppressor of his own people. “Somebody has to collect taxes,” he told himself, “If I don’t do it somebody else will — if I quit, it won’t make taxes go away.” He still had that conversation with himself almost every morning.
At least, he was well off. “Rich,” according to the story. Short of stature, but rich. Some days it was almost enough, but not every day. He tried to list the positives: I’m a good supporter, my family has a roof over their head and food on the table, and I don’t have to beg in the streets. He knew people despised him but he also knew more than a few would take his place if they had the chance. Work, even unpleasant work, was better than no work. And so it went, one day upon another upon another.
Zacchaeus longed for something more. He didn’t talk about it with anybody but he knew that making a living wasn’t the same as making a life. Then one ordinary day he heard shouting in the street: “Jesus of Nazareth is here in Jericho!” A few days before, Zacchaeus had overheard somebody say, “Jesus of Nazareth? Yeah, I’ve heard of him, but I’d stay clear. He’s a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” What if it was true?
Though he usually tried to avoid crowds, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. But people were already standing three-deep along the road. Then he saw the sycamore tree he had climbed as a child. He didn’t care who stared or laughed. He hooked his legs around the bottom branch and hoisted himself up. He felt like he could see all the way to Jerusalem. He’d tell his family, “I saw Jesus, today — you know, the prophet everyone’s been talking about. He was so close I could have touched him.”
Just then, Jesus stopped and looked up. It was probably a second; it could have been a lifetime. “‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’” Some things you can never explain. Zacchaeus couldn’t explain why he climbed up in the tree or why he came down — or how Jesus knew his name. That day changed his life in radical ways: he gave half of his possessions to the poor and promised to pay back fourfold anyone he had defrauded. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus said, “for he, too, is a son of Abraham.” Jesus had called the once-bent-down woman “a daughter of Abraham” (13:16). I guess she and Zacchaeus were now related.
We don’t know if Zacchaeus left his job, but if he stayed, he would have completely changed his business practices. Jesus was passing through Jericho, but perhaps Jesus never passes through any place without stopping. He saw a short tax collector up in a tree. He stopped. He looked up. Then, he called Zacchaeus to come down. Jesus found him that day and Zacchaeus found that life was more than making a living.
Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. That’s not a promise postponed until we die. It’s a promise now to those who have lost jobs and those who no longer find meaning in their work. Those who will change careers many times and those who feel so angry they have to find somebody to blame for everything that has changed. Jesus stops today to meet us wherever we are — proud of our successes or ashamed of our failures. Something inside us knows that making a living is not the same as finding your life.
“Come down,” says Jesus. “I have a surprise for you.”
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of the lost,
We are quick to judge and slow to accept those whom we consider lower than ourselves. But you show us the way of acceptance, forgiveness, and peace. We honor your name for teaching us to love, for the sake of the one who is the essence of love itself, Jesus Christ our loving Lord. Amen.
City called heaven, arr. Josephine Poelinitz