“The Great Pretender”
That’s how most people know Zacchaeus. He’s a rich, short guy who wants to see Jesus. The crowd gets in his way. He climbs a tree to see Jesus. Instead, Jesus sees him. Jesus invites himself to dinner. Zacchaeus is so happy he starts handing out cash. Jesus says nice things about Zacchaeus. They all live happily ever after.
It’s a good story. But it’s not the story in the Bible. The real song for Zacchaeus is this one. “Oh, yes! I’m the Great Pretender!”
Have you ever pretended to be someone you’re not? Have you ever hoped people would see you as one person even when you know you’re another? Have you ever been an outsider looking in? Have you ever known that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never belong?
Then you “get” Zacchaeus. He’s the Great Pretender. But his pretending is ending.
Tomorrow is Halloween. It’s the high holy day for being something we’re not. We wear masks and costumes. Little tykes come to our doors. We ask, “Oh, who (or what) are you?” The kiddos are dead serious about their identities. Some of them really are, at least for the moment, Batman or Elsa or the Hulk or Moana.
Why do we like those masks and costumes? It’s fun to dress up and pretend. Psychologically, it’s also about escaping from ourselves for a while. That’s true for adults as well as kids. Historically, it’s about hiding from death for a while. If we have a good enough disguise, death might miss us – at least for the moment.
Pretending to be someone else. Hiding from death. We’re getting to know Zacchaeus a bit better.
Zacchaeus was head tax collector in the Jericho jurisdiction. He didn’t manage the regional IRS office. Zacchaeus was more like the local mob boss. Collecting taxes for the Romans wasn’t processing Form 1040s. It was more like theft, fraud, and extortion.
We shouldn’t be surprised that his neighbors spat on the ground whenever he walked past. We shouldn’t be surprised that they called him a sinner with their spit. We shouldn’t be surprised that they didn’t budge an inch to let him see Jesus.
We should be surprised that Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house.
Or maybe not. A few weeks ago, we heard two of the Lost and Found stories in Luke fifteen. We heard about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. You might not remember the verses that introduce those stories.
“But all the tax collectors and sinners wee coming near to hear Jesus,” we read in Luke fifteen, verse one. In verse two we read this. “And some of the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling as they said, ‘This one is welcoming sinners and sharing meals with them.”
As that great philosopher, Garth Brooks, might say, “Jesus has friends in low places.” We shouldn’t be surprised by Jesus’ actions. Welcoming and eating with miserable sinners is what he does. That’s always worth remembering.
Zacchaeus is the one who surprises us. When that crowd along the Jericho road saw what happened, they weren’t happy. The started grumbling. They were just like some of the Pharisees and scribes in Luke fifteen. Jesus had no business going to Zacchaeus’ house, they said. Zacchaeus was a sinful man.
At that point, Zacchaeus had had enough. He drew himself up to his full height. Of course, his full height might have been all of four and a half feet. Maybe he climbed up on something to be seen and heard. Anyway, he stood up and set the record straight. He was talking to Jesus. But he was addressing the crowd.
“Look,” Zacchaeus shouted, “I’m giving half of what I own to the poor. If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’m paying four hundred percent in damages. Get off my back, you ungrateful fools!” I added that last part. But I think Zacchaeus would approve.
The truth was out. No more pretending. No more hiding. No more masks. No more double life.
Zacchaeus had lived on the shadowy boundary between two worlds. When he was around rich people, he was the wealthy businessman. He was backed by the full might of the Roman Empire. No one messed with Zacchaeus.
But all the old money types in Jericho wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this new-money social climber.
Behind the scenes, away from the powerful, Zacchaeus tried to put things right. He kept poor people from starving. He paid restitution and reparations when his employees got too enthusiastic about their work. There were people in that Jericho crowd who had jobs and homes and food because of Zacchaeus.
But all his neighbors wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this thief, this fraud, this extortioner.
Zacchaeus was the Great Pretender. And all his pretending got him precisely…nothing. He was rich. He was powerful. And he was seeking something more. So, he climbed a tree.
But the seeker became the “seek-ee.” Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. But Jesus saw him first. There Zacchaeus was, in that tree, with nowhere to hide. He was exposed for who and what he was. He was revealed for what he needed. The Great Pretender could pretend no more.
Have you ever been up that tree with Zacchaeus? Have you ever lived in the world of “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”? This story is for you. Zacchaeus was a sinner. There was no pretending that away. But that’s not all he was.
“Each one of us,” Bryan Stevenson writes in his book, Just Mercy, “is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Zacchaeus needed to hear that message. So do we today.
Zacchaeus also needed to become a Beatles fan. He needed to learn that money can’t buy me love. “Look at what I’ve done!” Zacchaeus shouts in frustration. “Can’t you see that I’ve earned your love and respect? What else do you want from me?”
They don’t want anything from you, Zacchaeus. Money won’t buy you love.
Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house. He goes after he knows Zacchaeus is a sinner. He goes before he knows this man is a saint. Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house because God loves Zacchaeus no matter what. For even this man, this Great Pretender, really is a child of Abraham. He was lost and has been found. He was dead and is alive.
What are some take-homes from the Zacchaeus story?
First, each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes in Romans three, verses twenty-three and twenty-four, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” This is the great reminder of the Reformation we remember today.
Second, if we follow Jesus then what we do, we do for love.
We don’t do good deeds for God’s approval or for human rewards. Zacchaeus learned that money can’t buy you love. But it can buy food, clothing, and shelter for our neighbor in need. As Martin Luther often said, God doesn’t need our good works. But our neighbor surely does.
Third, doing justice for Jesus is more likely to get us rejected than rewarded.
Zacchaeus outed himself that day on the road out of Jericho. I imagine his Roman bosses weren’t very happy about his covert good deeds. When we challenge unjust and oppressive systems, those systems are going to hit back.
If you want some additional reading this week, read the Parable of the Pounds that follows our gospel reading. This is a story about what happens when brave people refuse to be part of corrupt systems. Jesus tells that story to help us understand Zacchaeus.
No more pretending for us. Through Jesus, we are freed from sin and freed for service. We are called to come down and rejoice. Jesus has come to our house today. Where will he lead us tomorrow?