"Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.' "
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."
Jesus said to him, "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 what was lost." Luke 19:1-10 (New Living Translation)
Some observations about this all too familiar story. I think we tell this story in fondness about the wee little man who climbed in a tree because he wanted to see Jesus so badly and meet him and how the city laughs about him and how they embrace their new brother in Christ. But, I think there is more to this story than we've grown up knowing.
Jesus has come to Jericho, a larger and more important town than the villages Jesus has visited previously. However, we haven't got it quite right yet, because Luke says that Jesus is passing through Jericho. Jesus has not come to spend time in Jericho. Instead, he has another destination in mind (Jerusalem) and it happens that he has to go through Jericho to get there and we know what was in store for him in Jerusalem.
Jesus was famous enough that something would arise as a result of Jesus' passing through the town with people gathering and crowding each other out to see the man and his followers. If that were not so, there would be no reason for a short man to climb a tree in order to see for himself what the fuss was all about. But were people cheering and laying their cloaks on the road for Jesus? Was the mayor holding out the key to the city? Luke gives no indication that Jesus was given anything remotely resembling a warm welcome. Why the stir, then? Our best hint comes from previous stories of the journey towards Jerusalem where Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees in front of a crowd. Such questioning is made with the intention of publicly discrediting the teacher by catching him in heresy. It happens that no such encounter is recorded for Jesus' visit to Jericho. Why? If lawyers and Pharisees were snooping around in Galilean villages on the lookout for heretics, surely they were on the lookout in the larger town of Jericho. Surely the Pharisees and lawyers were ready to hurl a challenge of some sort at Jesus, and the crowd was gathering in anticipation of an exciting debate.
Zacchaeus' act of climbing a tree to get a look at Jesus then should not be taken as an indication that he wanted to have his life changed by this man. Zacchaeus was eager to see and hear the hostility of his fellow townspeople. Zacchaeus' inability to get in front of them is enough to account for his action. And yet the anticipated debate does not occur. Why?
Jesus chose to stop the Jericho debate before it started. Seeing a well-dressed man perched in a tree, Jesus did not need supernatural knowledge to size up the situation. The signs that Zacchaeus was a rich man hated by everybody in town was obvious. This was the situation that Jesus chose to address. Once Jesus went down that road, there was no chance for another debate. Jesus could recognize the social matrix of Jericho immediately. We know this as soon as Jesus called out to the tax collector and invited himself to his house.
Luke says that, "all the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.' " Here is another example of Luke's insight. It isn't just the Pharisees and lawyers who grumble about Zacchaeus. It is everybody who grumbles about him. It is hard not to hear an echo of the words of the Pharisee Simon who had, like Zacchaeus, invited Jesus to his house. When a woman "who was a sinner" entered and Jesus allowed her to bathe his feet and dry them with her hair, Simon muttered to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner." (Luke 7:39) At the same time, the people of Jericho are thinking, if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of man this is who was sitting up in a tree—that he is a sinner. Jesus knew.
The earlier story showed the hatred of a rich and law-abiding citizen for a broken woman with a "notorious" reputation. Jericho would have been an unusual town to say the least if there were not many downtrodden people in the crowd, including more than one woman known as "notorious". For that matter, there would likely have been more than one deranged person like the demoniac from Capernaum. Such people could easily have been the communal scapegoat for Jericho, but it was Zacchaeus who gets it. It follows then, that women who were sinners and other downtrodden people were among those who grumbled that Jesus had "gone to be the guest of a sinner." One suspects that Zacchaeus deserved to be hated by everybody because, as a tax collector, he was profiting from Rome's occupation of the Jewish lands at the expense of his own people and garnering his own pay from what money he collected beyond what Rome demanded of him.
Perhaps in a small village there is only one person who stands out in so significant a way, but in a town like Jericho, they most likely had many people to choose from. We are left with the likelihood that downtrodden women and possessed men, if spared the ordeal of becoming the scapegoat, can just as easily turn against the scapegoat as anybody else. Luke shows us that anybody can be the scapegoat and everybody can be a persecutor if given the opportunity.
If Zacchaeus needed to be converted, we can be sure that Jesus desired that conversion, just as he hoped that Simon would be converted by the example of love shown by the woman who was a sinner. The challenge of this story, however, is not limited to the possible conversion of one person, but it extends to the possible conversion of the whole community. By singling out Zacchaeus and inviting himself to that man's house, Jesus has already robbed Jericho of its scapegoat.
Everybody turns to grumbling at Jesus for going to the house of a man who is a sinner suggests that Jesus is well on his way to becoming the object of hatred.
Not quite the same tale I heard growing up, but useful nonetheless.
What can we learn? I think that we need to recognize that people will be against us when we reach out to the "notorious sinners". Even God's people. In fact God's people will turn against us first. Should this hinder us from going forward and reaching the sinners? It didn't stop Jesus. I hear echoes of those in the church who still want the coolest programs, to grow wildly, to become people who are "friendly". To me these things are very typical. If we reach sinners, we may not grow because of the image that we might get. Does this mean we don't do it? Hardly.