Who really knows whether Zacchaeus ever did what he said he would do? He seems like an impulsive character—his decision that he must go and get a look at this Jesus who is passing through town must have been made at the last minute, because when he gets there the way is already thronged with people. He certainly is a man of action—we can picture this short fellow jumping up and down at the back of the crowd, trying and failing to see what’s happening and getting more and more frustrated but also more and more determined. Looking about he gets an idea—way down the street there he sees a tree. And he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks of him, not just because he is chief of that universally despised class of people, the tax collectors, but also because here he is running through the streets of Jericho and clambering up a sycamore tree like a scared cat.
So he’s impulsive and devil-may-care and maybe even a little crazy, so when he says that he is going to give half of his money to the poor, and that he will pay back any that he got by fraud or extortion at 400% interest, it’s hard not to ask ourselves whether he ever really did. It’s hard not to wonder if, when the next day came, and Jesus was gone, or after word got back to Jericho, as it no doubt did, that when Jesus got to Jerusalem not only did he not throw out the Romans and set himself on the throne of his ancestor David, but he was arrested and handed over to the Romans and was crucified as a rebel and a terrorist; maybe after all that, impulsive, who-cares-what-anyone-thinks Zacchaeus changed his mind about what he’d said in the heat of the moment and just went back to doing the same things he’d always done.
Well, maybe he did, but I have a feeling he didn’t, and the reason is this: Something started to happen to Zacchaeus when he made that decision to leave off his tax-collecting and go see this Jesus of Nazareth people had been talking about. It was a sudden impulse, kind of out of the blue, and Zacchaeus was used to those—his ability to think on his feet and make spur-of-the-moment decisions was what had made him rich. But when he got there and found he couldn’t see the man, that impulse didn’t go away, and it didn’t change into something else. It got stronger and more focused. That desire became a need, and a driving need at that, and it sent him running through the heat and dust of a warm spring evening in search of a tree to climb. And when he’d done that, and it worked, and he saw what he’d wanted to, something else happened, something that revealed that the sudden impulse that had come over him was in fact the turning point of his life and there was going to be no going back.
Because when Jesus got to the sycamore tree he did the last thing in the world that Zacchaeus or anyone else in Jericho that day expected: he stopped. The crowd suddenly quieted, wondering what was going on. The great prophet looked up into the tree, and for the first time people noticed that lying, cheating rich little tax collector up in the branches like a monkey. And Jesus spoke, and the first word out of his mouth was his name: “Zacchaeus—hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” He spoke his name as if they were old friends, as if it was the most natural thing in the world that he should find him up in a sycamore tree in Jericho. And before he knows it, as if it is the most natural thing in the world, Zacchaeus is on the ground, smiling and greeting his new friend in welcome.
The gospels are full of accounts of people who need to see Jesus and go to extraordinary lengths to do it: a paralyzed man whose friends tear a hole in the roof to lower him down into the house where Jesus sits, surrounded by the crowd; the woman with a hemorrhage who presses through the crowd just to touch the hem of his robe in the hope that that will heal her. These are wonderful stories, but none of these characters are drawn quite like Zacchaeus, and in none of them do we learn their names. And the only miracle that Jesus does in this story is to recognize him. The one whose only desire was to see is seen, and in that seeing guilt becomes restitution, greed becomes generosity, and loneliness becomes community. Zacchaeus must have made good on his promises, and become a faithful disciple of Jesus, a benefactor of the poor and patron of the gospel community—otherwise we would not know his name.
This Sunday we symbolically gather together our community’s intentions of generosity and faithfulness for the coming year and offer them to God. We do this remembering that we looked for Jesus only to be met by him. We remember that he called us by name, and invited us into friendship with him. And we remember that he told us to make a place for him. While it is true that he has promised to be there whenever two or three are gathered in his name, it is also important that he have a place to stay, a place where, by his grace, he is visibly and audibly manifest in word and sacrament and in the community of his friends. Today we stand before him once again and offer our gifts to make this such a place for another year.
But we do not do this only for ourselves. Today we remember that Christ came to seek out and save the lost, and so we pledge ourselves to make this a place where he is served in the poor, whom he loved. And we declare our intention to make this a welcoming house, a place that people look to when the desire comes over them to see the Lord, a tree beside the crowded street that others can climb to see him, a place where they can hear him calling them by name, urging them to come down and be friends with him and take him home with them. Today we testify with our own promises that being found by Jesus Christ makes it possible for people’s live to change, for deceit to give way to sincerity, for sobriety to replace addiction, for giving to take the place of grasping, for gratitude and trust to come in where there was guilt and shame and fear.
Today we heard St. Paul’s news to the church in Thessalonika that he prays for them, “asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith.” This being the Eve of the Feast of All Saints’, which we will celebrate next week, we remember those words and dare hope that Paul is, even now, praying the same for us. We remember Paul and Zacchaeus and all those men and women who were found by Jesus Christ and whose lives were irrevocably changed by the experience. We remember the extraordinary commitments they made, and we celebrate the grace and power of God, who gave them what they needed so they were able, however haltingly and imperfectly, to accomplish what they had set out to do. It is because of their faithful witness that we have their names to remember—indeed, it is because of them we that we know the name Jesus. That, my friends, is the true measure of the contribution they made, and of what we do to carry it on.