Jesus and the Wee Little Man
Some of the stories about the events of Jesus’ life and teachings are easy to understand and applaud. The difficulties only arise when we take the next step and ask ourselves how the stories and teachings ought to affect us. So it is that today, the Lectionary brings us to one of the most well-known of all gospel stories. Simple yes, but in application almost mind altering, perhaps even life-changing.
Let’s go right back to the beginning. I don’t know about you, but one of the very few Sunday school songs I can remember goes something like:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.
And when Jesus passed that way
He looked up in the tree.
And said, “Zaccheus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house you see!”
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
Now a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a very happy man was he.
That story of Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus is of course one of the best known and possibly even one of the best loved in the gospels. I am guessing most of us remember Zacchaeus as that “wee little man” who came to see Jesus pass by when he visited Jericho. I guess the part of the story we prefer to ignore is not the question of how Jesus treated the social misfit – but rather the question of how we as the followers of Jesus are inspired by this story to make our own connection with serious rejects from society.
So to the story. Here we presume that as a tax collector – well actually a Chief Tax Collector, would most definitely qualify as a social pariah, and as a consequence for him to be mingling with the crowd to get closer to Jesus might not even have been an option.
You probably already know the tax collectors at that time were seen as collaborators in that they served the Roman invaders, and as a good number were also known to skim something off the top for their own gain, it is very likely Zacchaeus would have been greatly distrusted. This distrust was probably all the greater because in a Jewish society one known to handle money on behalf of gentiles was technically unclean in a religious sense.
Another reason why the tax collectors were deemed unclean was that they were expected to base their assessment on people’s possessions and this involved handling goods that were not owned by them – again forbidden by Jewish law. We might also note in passing that because Jericho was a prosperous centre of Balsam trade, it is also likely that Zacchaeus would have had ample opportunity to make himself very wealthy indeed from fleecing the rich merchants, which of course is not a good recipe for getting himself liked by those who were less well-off.
According to the story he was unable to see Jesus over the crowd and I guess the logical inference was that he was indeed a short man. We note in passing, that there is much evidence to show a good number of people from that time and region were often considerably shorter than they are today.
(Some commentators quite reasonably suggest that the same problem might have arisen if Jesus was the short person(!)) But regardless of his arithmetical height, Zacchaeus was looked down upon in every other possible way – perhaps this is what one commentator, tongue in cheek, called the Stature of limitations (!) In any event Zacchaeus climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus and no doubt to everyone’s surprise, Jesus not only takes notice of him up there, even addresses him by name and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ place for a meal. Zacchaeus, apparently overcome with Jesus’ accepting attitude, is sufficiently contrite to offer to reform and not only promises to repay those he had cheated, but to give back more than he had taken.
In terms of our modern understanding of what traditionally used to be termed sin, this repayment plays an important psychological role. Jesus in effect nudging Zacchaeus towards this opportunity for redemption should not be underestimated. The famous Psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, in his book Whatever Became of Sin?(1973, New York: Hawthorn Books) suggests to us that feelings of past guilt can cripple unless an opportunity is given for some sort of act of restoration. He further suggests it is inappropriate to downplay the notion of sin or alternately try to pretend it doesn’t exist, because the individual needs to identify what it is that casts the shadows that distort the personality. While it is true that Jesus does not appear to have done anything particularly dramatic to bring Zacchaeus to his moment of redemption, Zacchaeus nevertheless chooses his own form of restorative justice as a result of Jesus’ intervention.
Although the Gospel account leaves the story at that point, just for the record, some early Christian writing takes the story further. For example Clement of Alexandria in his book Stromata claims Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias by the apostles and took the place of Jesus’ betrayer Judas Iscariot. The later writing called the Apostolic Constitutions identifies the first Bishop of Caesarea as “Zacchaeus the Publican”.
Although we can readily see the compassionate wisdom shown by Jesus in the story, less obvious is the contrast with what most of us might have done in the circumstances. Pariahs are typically shunned – after all that is what the term normally means. When we spot someone in the crowd who is normally rejected by decent society, by convention, we are not expected to show them recognition or acceptance. I would go so far as to suggest this would be more unlikely on an occasion when we ourselves are surrounded by friends and even in this case by admirers.
And did you notice….. Jesus knew Zacchaeus by name. Again beggars and other forms of society rejects do not normally attract our personal consideration to the extent of discovering and using the names of the so-despised.
Furthermore it is one thing to show ourselves to be sufficiently generous to stop to talk to someone unworthy of our trust. It is quite a different matter to offer to dine with them.
Certainly we can see why this recognition and acceptance by Jesus may have been likely to have made such an impression on Zacchaeus – and with a little reflection we can also probably see that these actions were entirely consistent with the message Jesus represented.
The question then becomes: how may we represent this same message to others? It is reasonable to assume if we left it at following custom, we most certainly will not be conveying by our actions what we learn about Jesus in this story. So simply re-telling the story is not enough. Talking about it or reading about it to others won’t help either, particularly if others see us, the self-appointed messengers of the one who reached out to pariahs, rather as the sort of people who themselves prefer to join the crowd and identify and shun pariahs. If pushed, we are probably only too aware that there is a technical term for the sort of people who claim to represent a message in words yet contradict the message with their own actions, but the question each of us must answer for ourselves – is do we really want that term …. of hypocrite…. applied to us?
This applies to our Church and even our nation. All around us we hear talk of pariah religions and pariah states. Islam, some say, encourages terrorism yet despite the talk of inter-faith dialogue we stand by passively when we notice actions that are anything but accepting of many, who despite being Muslim, are clearly innocent of terrorism. Similarly in our society and in our Church congregations we occasionally hear talk of reform of prisoners, yet from the limited action we typically offer in support of this policy, the net result is that reform effort offers minimal assistance to released prisoners.
By way of example, I remember when in a nearby suburb, five counsellors who had been running anti-violence courses in a combined Churches establishment called Friendship house had to be dismissed because the Government as a cost cutting move decided to discourage the Courts sending those identified as violent to such courses.
I must have missed the expected widespread Church protest, despite the frequent reminders from the pulpit that we Christians must be leaders when it comes to social action.
It is unrealistic to assume we might ever reach a degree of perfection in our attitudes to the less fortunate. Nevertheless if our sense of direction is so muddled that we are uncertain what values we are attempting to stand for then it might be time for some self appraisal. And if our faith has anything at all to do with the world in which we live, our attitudes to others, including to the often un-loveable might be as good a place as any to start.
Fortunately, although I can find many examples of instances where we are reluctant to call the pariahs down from their metaphorical sycamore trees, I can also think of those among us who do care enough to offer a degree of acceptance and friendship. There are some among us who are the epitome of acceptance and who win the right to be messengers of Jesus by their living of his message. We can be grateful that not all servants of the Church are focused on personal advancement and respectability.
As a non-Catholic looking at the present Pope, Pope Francis, I have to admit what I see is a humble man who truly attempts to live the gospel he has encountered. I cannot truthfully say that I see the same consistency in all other religious leaders, or more to the point, if I were backed into a corner, nor can I claim with any certainty that others would come close to seeing that same consistency in me. Would they with you?
Karl Menninger reminds us that the first step in redemption is in first acknowledging what some would call our sins. But that is not enough. Having acknowledged our weakness, just as Zacchaeus showed by his actions, next is to make the first tentative steps towards restorative justice. If we can only step back a little to reflect on how we individually reach out to whomever our church and society appear to treat as pariahs, perhaps we too may be in a better position to acknowledge we too may need some acts of redemption.