Sermon: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Text: Luke 19:1-10

“ZACCHAEUS was a very little man, and a very little man was he.” Probably we should stop singing that rollicking chorus, for two good reasons. First, short people are not figures of fun. Secondly, Zacchaeus is not just an entertaining story for the Sunday school.

We are told about Zacchaeus in his sycamore tree because we need to hear what it costs to repent, especially to repent of the kind of deliberate, committed, and sustained sinning that only we grown-ups are good at. Tell the children the story, by all means. If they enjoy it, fine. But it is not children whom Luke has in his sights, but us iniquitous adults. And we should not be laughing, but squirming.

Zacchaeus was “of small stature”. In Luke’s Greek, as in every language, the adjective “small” can have a pejorative suggestion. Luke does not expect us to rid our minds of that suggestion. Zacchaeus would still have been a mean little man had he been two metres tall. To his victims, his diminutive physique simply made him the more despicable.

Was, I wonder, his exclusion as a Roman collaborator an extension of his exclusion already meted out as a short person. This is indeed something for us to think about as society continues to maginalise the poor, the young and the already disaffected – do we as a society push them, just like Zacchaeus, away further?

We have to remember that the first-century citizens of Jericho would not have backed our legislation on equal access for the disabled. Those “differently abled” had to keep their distance. “For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch” (Leviticus 21.17-20).

Zacchaeus, the dwarf, climbs his tree so that he can see Jesus, but also because he knows that many in the crowd below would have regarded contact with him as contaminating. We have here someone doubly offensive and doubly detested. He is shunned because of what is perceived as his disfigurement, and loathed because of his co-operation with the occupying powers.

“I must stay at your house today,” says Jesus to Zacchaeus. Luke’s “musts” matter. For Luke, it is divine necessity that drives Jesus to Jerusalem. “I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem” (Luke 13.33).

That imperative determines what will transpire there. “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again” (Luke 24.7). The same necessity – written from the foundation of the world, written for the salvation of the world – requires Jesus to enter the house of Zacchaeus and dwell there.

It is no light thing to have Jesus move in. When he does, he takes possession. Zacchaeus himself would have done some “taking possession” in his time, invading the homes of those who had defaulted in their payments, and distraining their goods – or, as the chief tax-collector, getting his heavies to do so. Now the invader has been invaded. Such is grace, freely given but infinitely demanding.

Remarkably, one of the best recent commentaries on this story has come from 10 Downing Street. In one of this year’s BBC Lent talks, Cherie Booth QC, wife of the then Prime Minister, suggested that what Jesus required of a repentant Zacchaeus was that he should submit to a process of “restorative justice” – the approach to the righting of wrongs that has proved so powerful in post-apartheid South Africa.

Zacchaeus’s victims needed the chance to tell him what had been the impact of his extortionate treatment of them. Zacchaeus himself had to understand the real consequences of his rapacity, to express true contrition, and, so far as possible, to make amends. That was the repenting he had to do – and extremely uncomfortable it must have been.

Why did Zacchaeus want a good view of Jesus? All Luke tells us is that he sought to see who Jesus was – as we all do.

Luke presents Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus as the culmination of two quests. Zacchaeus was looking for Jesus. Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus. Beneath the sycamore tree they find each other.

Luke uses the same word for Zacchaeus’s search (“he sought to see who Jesus was”) as he does for Jesus’s search (“the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”). The artistry and depth of Luke’s telling of the story is in this deliberate use of the same verb.

There is not just one “long search”. There are two. We seek him who seeks us. The promise of the story is that, one day, we shall fall into each other’s arms

Seek him, and you will find.


(with thanks to John Pridmore, Church Times, 02/11/2007)