The irony of it all is that his name means “pure”, yet Zacchaeus had become anything but pure.
His career had pushed him to the outer fringes of good, Jewish society, and even on that day, when Jesus took the Jericho road on his way to Jerusalem and the crowds began to gather to see this rabbi who did miracles. Zacchaeus wasn’t near the edge of the road, but rather climbed a tree just within the city limits to afford a better view.
The city of Jericho was built upon the ruins of the ancient city of Jericho. Its history was as checkered as Zacchaeus’. All of the traffic from Capernaum and the towns in Samaria and Galilee destined for Jerusalem passed by Jericho. This being Passover season meant hoards of pilgrims were streaming on the roadway toward Jerusalem, the City of David. Lots of taxable income pouring into Jericho this time of year. That was a boon, since the height of balsam season piqued later in the year.
Yes, Zacchaeus did well for himself as a tax-collector in such a prominent city as Jericho. It didn’t hurt that he was a Jew himself and Jericho boasted a busy temple that maintained over 10,000 priests. He had connections, he had ambition, and he mused, a short man can have long pockets.
His purse jangled against his thigh as Zaccheaus climbed the tree and wondered about this Jesus who healed the sick and the lame and even the Gentiles!
What brand of outcast hadn’t this rebel rabbi embraced? Zacchaeus heard there was even a tax collector among Jesus’ disciples and, gasp!, a prostitute in the midst of the women who traveled with this rabbi and waited upon him. Hmm, a Jew the Jews themselves loved to hate. This I gotta see.
Zacchaeus had nearly given up on the religion of his people. What good had it done him? To be sure, the Jews were a lucrative bunch to tax. They did possess a certain knack for profit. And profit for them meant profit for him. Zacchaeus was building himself quite a nest egg. In fact, he had enough saved away to hang the whole tax career and buy a little vineyard near the sea and retire in solitude and luxury. Ah, that’d be the life. No rules, no Jews, no nasty looks and spittle from the haters shot maliciously toward my face. Good riddance.
Jesus moved through the throngs of people on the roadway and Zacchaeus spotted him. A bit of a clearing encircled him, thanks to his disciples whose presence doubled as crowd control. Every now and then, Jesus would stop and listen to a beggar or place his hands on a child. People cheered. Just to his left, in the shade of his sycamore tree, stood a cluster of Pharisees, robed in pristine white and frowning like their phylactery boxes were tied on too tightly. Wow, they really do hate this guy.
Jesus stopped and looked up and then, turned off the road and headed straight for the Pharisees. A wry smile appeared on his rough, Galilean features.
Zacchaeus could stare openly at the rabbi, and did so in order to sum up the man. Swarthy and dark, his hands that handled people gently were obviously working hands, large and muscular and dexterous—hands than could handle a hammer and a carving chisel. His cropped hair sat like a birds’ nest turned upside down on his head. His robe, a simple, white linen, was dusty on the edges from his travels, but otherwise unremarkable. He seemed, to Zacchaeus, a good enough guy, but certainly not temple material.
As the rabbi, whom Zacchaeus had heard was a carpenter of all things, approached the Pharisees, he stopped, right beneath the Sycamore tree, in the exact spot of Zacchaeus’ shadow! This Jesus looked up and called out, “Zacchaeus! Come hurry down from there. I really need to come to your house today.”
Zacchaeus looked everywhere but at the man’s friendly face. He heard the movement in the crowds and heard the muttering. Here it comes. Stinking grapes! Now I’m not only a tax collector, but someone this joker points out in a crowd. Go away, Jesus! Let me be.
But then he did it. Why, really, he’ll never know. The man knew my name. And he had said his name as if he was saying it’s meaning–“pure”. No one ever spoke his name without a note of spite in it, not even his wife.
He looked down at Jesus’ eyes and at that moment, Zacchaeus was utterly ruined. His soul felt fresh as washed linen dancing on the line, drying in the breeze. His heart felt light as down feathers, and his purse, hanging on his waist felt heavy as a boulder and burned like a smoldering coal.
He heard the hissing voices as in a current, hamartolos, hamartolos, sinner, sinner. But like clear bells pealing he heard Jesus say, Zacchaeus, pure.
And it was all over. Everything he’d ever known to be true about himself was gone, lost in the fragile beauty of the voice that spoke his name. Pure. Everything he ever possessed or had wanted was submerged under the beauty of this truth-Zacchaeus is pure. Nothing and everything suddenly made perfect sense.
Zacchaeus grabbed his purse and pulled it off and thrust it toward Jesus as he nearly fell out of the tree in his desperate scramble. He stood and now the eyes, as deep as heaven and kind as an infant’s, looked down at him.
“Here! Take it! Look Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor,” because Zacchaeus knew he had nothing other than badly gained wealth to bring to the table, “And, if I’ve cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Because you have given me the only thing I’ve ever really wanted, now that I think about it: an identity that lived up to my name.
Jesus threw back his head and laughed and then drew Zacchaeus’ small frame into an expansive bear hug. And, holding him by the shoulders he said, barely above a whisper, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)
This world has a way of redefining us in the most deceptive terms. And then, like a cruel master, this world demands that we improve ourselves, this way and that way, in order to overcome the monikers that guide our existence: failure, overachiever, drama-queen, jock, gamer, nerd, loser, privileged, try-hard, addict, slut, murderer, no-good, workaholic.
But there is One who knows our truest identity and he calls us by name and he knows us by heart. He was born in the crudest of conditions, grew up with the working poor, and always, always knew that he was God’s first-born, the dearly loved and valued king who had the incredible purpose of loving the world. Oh, he knows us, he loves us so much.
And on this day five of advent, Jesus came at what we call Christmas, in order to give us back our true identity. Pure, beloved, forgiven, chosen, graced, valuable, good. What a gift, one that inspires tears, faith and action. Like Zacchaeus (whose story we read about in Luke 19), when we know the heart of heaven has found us, is there anything we have in this world that even comes close to that miracle?
Let’s be like Zacchaeus and bring Jesus home, into our hearts and our bank accounts, into our families and our pasts, into our minds and our relationships.