Luke 19:1-10: He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
One of my favorite Jewish Seder Passover traditions is Elijah’s cup. At every Seder meal, there is an empty chair with an untouched glass of wine in front of it. The tradition is that at the appropriate time in the Passover reading during the meal, someone goes to the nearest door and opens it for Elijah to come in and join the Seder. It is said that Elijah comes to comfort us with tidings of deliverance and promises of all good things of God to come. It is a sign of hope, mystery, and wonder. But for my sister and me, it was also the coolest part of the Seder- opening the door for the spirit of Elijah to come in. One year was the most unique out of all the others- we were celebrating our Passover Seder meal in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the middle of March over our spring break. Jackson Hole, WY is often covered in a few feet of snow in the middle of March! So opening the door for Elijah meant braving the elements and also bringing in the wind, cold, and blowing snow! I’m not sure if he chose to join us that night or not! Either way, once the door was opened for Elijah, we would sometimes have imaginary conversations with him, sometimes even asking him questions about the mysteries of life, faith, and God. Sometimes they were just silly conversations. But the point is that we opened the door in the first place and welcomed this mysterious and wondrous guest into the home- a mixing together of heaven and earth.
When we meet Zaccheaus today, he unknowingly about to open his door to an honored guest, but when we first encounter him, he is “up a tree” (literally and metaphorically!) Sometimes we hear this phrase used for when someone is in trouble or stressed out- “He just got in a car wreck and his insurance company won’t cover it all- he’s up a tree!” Or “She just found out that her job is on the line and her family just purchased a new home. They are “up a tree!” Zacchaeus is “up a tree” in more ways than one: he is looked down upon both literally and metaphorically…he is short, but is also looked down upon because he is seen as a morally deficient tax collector- one who was greedy, unfair, a bully- one who would perhaps go into homes unannounced to collect for the oppressive Roman government- not just that, but tax collectors were notorious for cheating the people. He had many strikes against him- rich, a tax collector, and short, so he couldn’t see above the crowd who was definitely not about to make room for him to see Jesus. Being short myself, I definitely relate! So he took a chance and went out on a limb (pun intended!) He climbed the tall sycamore tree in order to see this Jesus that everyone had been talking about (picture). Having learned that Zacchaeus is not liked, I’m sure that this gesture wouldn’t do much more for his reputation, but I’ll give him this- he knows how to take a risk to get what he wants, which is a glimpse of Jesus- just to see him, is all we are told. There is always risk involved when climbing a tall tree…
I have a friend who went to seminary in Nashville, and learned that President Bush was coming through town one day, so he went to catch a glimpse of the motorcade as it drove through town. By the time he got there, all of the streets were packed with people, so he couldn’t see anything- so he innocently climbed a tree to get a better view. It was only after a few seconds did he realize that a guy in a tree with sunglasses and a beard might not look so innocent to the government officials monitoring the area for any signs of harm to the President of the United States! So he wisely climbed down and went elsewhere to find a view.
In Zacchaeus’ case, his tree climbing perhaps was out of desperation, or out of mere curiosity, or even perhaps trying to get away from the crowd or not been seen as well hidden in the branches of the tall tree. Sycamore trees can grow over 100 feet in height and had branches low to the ground, easy for even someone short to climb. In the culture of the day, this childish act would have been an embarrassment, an act that would put Zacchaeus even lower on the social scale than he already was. As a short person myself, I think it was actually pretty smart of Zacchaeus! Want to see Jesus? Want to see that movie star about to pass by? Climb a tree to catch a glimpse!
Perhaps Zacchaeus only wanted a glimpse of Jesus that day- to see the person that had caused such a stir in and around the area with his teachings, his healings, his misunderstood love for tax collectors and sinners- Zacchaeus would have heard these stories and wanted to see this man for himself. I don’t think he was counting on actually meeting Jesus or having a conversation with him. After all, he was safe up in his tree, looking from above at the happenings below. “Jesus probably wouldn’t even notice me,” he thought. “I’ll just climb down after he leaves and the crowd disperses.”
But the thing about climbing a tree is that you eventually have to come down, and if we need help climbing down, we hope there is someone to catch us. So Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from his tree, calls him by name, and Jesus informs him that he will be a guest at his house today. I guess Zacchaeus’ plan wasn’t so great after all! One minute he’s up in the tree, and the next he has climbed down and is host to the man that had made headlines throughout the area! Jesus invited himself in as the guest of a tax collector- and as usual, the crowd made their displeasure unknown. But Zacchaeus had before him the challenge of opening his door to Jesus, this mysterious and wondrous person, and not only letting him into his home, but also into his heart and life.
When my family and I opened the door to let Elijah into our Passover meal, we looked forward to the mystery of the event and pondered what it meant for the hope of the future of the world and faith. When we open the door of not just our homes, but also our hearts, we allow ourselves to be changed from within and let God be the ultimate houseguest. The Zacchaeus story has a happy ending of course. This wee little man who was disliked by many opened his home and his heart to Jesus, and experienced grace- grace enough to change his life and give away his wealth to the poor and marginalized. In turn, Jesus, who called Zacchaeus to climb down from the tree, proclaims salvation, “for the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”
Jesus was the guest who changed the life of a man who was “up a tree.” Jesus was the man who caused a tax collector to open the door not just to his home, but to a new life, a new world, a new way of loving and living. Zacchaeus reminds us that no matter where we find ourselves, lost in the crowd, or hiding in the branches of a tall tree, that Jesus will find us and call us to come down to face the world and open the door for him to be our guest. Indeed, there is no hiding from the one who seeks out and saves the lost, no tree high enough, no sin bad enough- Jesus will call you down and invite himself into your life- we will decide if we will open the door or not. We will decide if Jesus will be the guest.
Who do you know right now who is “up a tree”? Who in our community is in need of Jesus to be the one to call them down from it? Who in our midst needs a door opened to them for conversation, for grace, for help, for a new way of life? There have been times in each of our lives when we find ourselves up in that tree, maybe catching a glimpse of the holy, but afraid of what it would mean to come down to earth and face whatever is on the ground. We are afraid of being laughed at, of being hurt, of being called “sinner,” of someone knowing our true selves, afraid of asking for help, afraid of the unknown. Maybe we are afraid to be noticed for fear of what that might mean for us- what will we be called to do? What will Jesus see in our hearts that might not be pleasing to him?
The good news that we hear today from Zacchaeus is that Jesus calls us down from the tree to be given new life, regardless of where we have been or what we are afraid of- Jesus calls us down and lets us be the ones to invite him in as the guest- the guest that will come into our lives so that we are never the same again. When we open the door to Jesus, we open the door to grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the challenges of discipleship. Jesus never promises it will be easy, but he does promise to seek us out, to save us, and call us to a new way of life. The only question is, are we ready for such a guest as this? We might have messy homes, messy lives, messy hearts, but Jesus invites himself in to be the guest- notice he doesn’t ask Zacchaeus if he can come over and hang out, but instead, he insists that he will stay with him that day. That’s the whole point isn’t it? That sometimes, whether or not we are ready, God shows up, messy life and all, and accepts us as we are here and now. God is the guest that comes to stay, regardless of how clean or messy things might be.
If God is our guest, we must make room for him in our hearts, our homes, our tables. Jesus prepares a table for us that we might partake whole heartedly, and that we also expect to save a place for him, the ultimate guest. On All Saints day we proclaim that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, that we are to run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the perfecter of our faith. We also stand on the shoulders of the ones who have come before us, remembering all that they taught us, the joys that we shared with them, and the hopes that we carry on from generation to generation. On this day, we celebrate those who came down from the tree and lived their lives honorably on the ground, unafraid of the ups and downs of life. On this day, we open our doors that their spirits may be among us. It is a day when heaven and earth come together and Jesus is invited in to this holy time, this holy place, this holy meal that we will share together. Hear the good news: there is a place at the table for you, for me, for those who have gone before us. There is a place at the table for Jesus (after all, isn’t it really his table to begin with?!), the most wondrous guest of all. So let us come to this place, let us come to the table, let us come down from the tree, shaking and trembling as we might be, ready to face the world below, and let Jesus catch us that we might let him be the guest. Amen.