LITTLE MAN, BIG GIFTS
A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, November 3 2013
“I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true… one was a doctor and one was a queen, one was a soldier and one was a priest,” one was a tax collector…ewwwww. That’s not how it’s supposed to go. Tax collectors can’t be saints. There’s no way that one of them would find salvation and be welcomed into the kingdom. Patient? Brave? True? Not a tax collector. No way.
Can’t you hear the crowd carry on like this, that day, in Jericho? They couldn’t believe that Jesus would single out a tax collector, especially one as infamous as Zacchaeus to receive his favor. That “wee little man, oh a wee little man was he!” Right, Naomi? He was not only small in stature, he was also small of heart, or so everyone said. He defrauded everyone to line his own pockets and his henchman both collected and protected at every turn. The term tax collector and the name Zacchaeus curdled on their tongues.
Now understand that, though most of them felt this way, they would never have said it to Zacchaeus’s face. He was in bed with the Romans and protected by his own crew. He was not only rich, he was powerful. No need to stir up unnecessary trouble. Ordinarily they would have bowed and scraped to him, keeping their resentment bottled inside.
But today was different. Today they were marching along with Jesus as he made his way steadfastly to Jerusalem. It was a day of celebration. They borrowed just enough courage from him to grumble when he stopped to address Zacchaeus, sitting undaintily on the long limb of a sycamore tree. A tax collector…ewwww. How could he engage such a scoundrel – and spoil their good time in the process?
Luke gives us more information about Zacchaeus than most of the characters that inhabit his gospel. First, we have his name and his occupation and his social status. He was rich and despised. He was not just any tax collector. He was wealthy enough to have bought up the tax collecting franchise for all of Jericho, a significant city on a major trade route. He was no small time thug. But he was small. Luke makes a point of telling us this. It seems a necessary prelude to Jesus finding him up a tree. A “wee little man was he!”
According to Mikeal Parsons, “Luke has spared no insulting image to portray Zacchaeus as a pathetic, even despicable character. He paints a derisive and mocking picture of a traitorous, small-minded, greedy, physically deformed tax collector sprinting awkwardly ahead of the crowd and climbing a sycamore tree like an ape.” In addition, Parsons “suggests that Luke’s audience would have heard ‘small in height’ and thought ‘small in spirit’—greedy, but also with low self-expectations, the opposite of ‘great-souled’” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Luke, p. 590). You get the picture. They saw Zacchaeus as an all around little man and there was no compassion in their assessment.
There is cause to wonder just what Zacchaeus was up to that day. Why was he out in the crowd alone? Where was the rest of his crew? Why did he not demand deference and move to the front of the crowd? Though thoroughly disliked, he wielded the sort of power with which he could easily have commanded the best position along the parade route. Why was he skulking around by himself?
Something was going on inside Zacchaeus that day. With the rest of the crowd, he would have heard the stories of this remarkable rabbi from Galilee – how he healed and freed and fed and taught and challenged local authority while claiming the authority of the coming reign of God. Something had seeped into the tax collector’s consciousness and into his shrunken heart. He was ill at ease. He had not slept well the night before. Something was gnawing at him and he needed to have answers. He needed to see for himself. Somewhere deep inside he knew he was venturing into territory that was completely incompatible with his daily routine. Everything he had heard about this Jesus disturbed his comfortable way of life, filled him with doubts about the path he was on, and disoriented his settled sense of himself.
In this troubled state he wandered down to the roadside. He saw the crowd had already gathered and it was too late summon his crew to clear the way. The buzz indicated that Jesus was very near. What was Zacchaeus to do? Being the highly resourceful fellow that he was (after all it does take brains and skill to be a highly successful tax collector, a “chief” tax collector,) he climbed up the nearest tree. He gave no thought to the indignity of this action. He had to see for himself. He had to have some clearer sense of what this Jesus was all about.
In Bible study, Alan thought that this behavior on the part of Zacchaeus required courage and that may be so. He certainly is putting himself out there, taking significant risks in his search for…what? What is it he’s searching for? There is more than curiosity here. His behavior indicates someone whose drive is far beyond curiosity. He’s looking for something, something more in his life, something that satisfies his deepest longing, something that wealth and power clearly cannot provide.
We know the rest of the story. We learned it early in Sunday School. There is Jesus, wondrously stopped at the base of the very tree in which Zacchaeus is ensconced. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Don’t you imagine that little man nearly felt out of the tree in his haste to descend? He didn’t have to be asked twice. The moment he saw that face fixed on him, looked into those piercing eyes, felt the commanding presence of the Christ, he sensed that he had found what he was looking for – way, truth and life.
Wouldn’t you have loved to have sat at the tax collector’s table that day as Jesus laid it all out for Zacchaeus, told him everything he’d ever done, looked at that longing in his little heart while it cracked open and grew three sizes, as he blessed that growth. As we’ve already affirmed, Zacchaeus may have been small, but he was smart and he was quick. It didn’t take him long to understand what was required of him.
Gifts, big gifts flowed from that house that day. Not only did he throw a feast for Jesus, he stood up from the table and gave away everything he had. Oh, I know preachers over the years have tried to make it appear that Jesus blessed Zaccahaeus in spite of his wealth and maybe it is possible to be rich and still love Jesus. However, if you analyze the formula the tax collector lays out, it ought to leave him pretty much penniless. First, and perhaps best, he’s going to give half of what he possesses to the poor, right off the top. Then he’s going to give a fourfold return on all the surcharges he’s added to the state’s tax burden.
Richard Vinson writes of these big gifts, “Start with the last statement: if he does not defraud, he makes no profit…The tax-farming system was based on greed and fraud, and if tax collectors only collected what was actually owed to Rome, there would be no incentive to collect taxes, and things would grind to a halt. So of course Zacchaeus has defrauded people; so have all the underlings who work for him, who actually collected the taxes. If he pays each taxpayer four times more than the difference between what he collected and what they owed, then he is returning 400 percent of his profits. And if he begins his giving by disbursing half of his savings, then he is going to end up poor” (Richard B. Vinson, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, Luke, p. 592). Regardless of whether or not we have ever defrauded anyone, just imagine what it would be like literally to give away half of what we have to care for the poor. Uncomfortable, yes? Yet Jesus blesses this very transformation in Zacchaeus.
These are not just big gifts from a little man, these are the joyful sacrifices made by a man who has decided to follow Jesus. Luke doesn’t tell us that Zacchaeus joins the entourage headed to Jerusalem, but it is surely conceivable that he goes with Christ – all the way. The little man has opened his home and his heart to the Christ. In joy, he has given big gifts and, in the process, found his way. In the end he receives the biggest gift of all – the gift of life abundant and eternal. “Today salvation has come to this house…” In our searching, in our giving, in all our living, may we come know that same salvation. Amen.