You know that song? Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. I don’t like it. It misses the point of the story. Zacchaeus’ defining factor was not his height. Like Napoleon: no one cares about his height, but for the irony that he is Napoleon. No one would give two sycamores how tall Zacchaeus was, if not that he was rich, too.
Zacchaeus was rich. And he didn’t have many friends, because no one noticed that he was in the tree. If they did notice, they just pointed and laughed with their neighbors. No one said, “stand next to me and I’ll tell you what Jesus looks like.”
Zacchaeus went up the tree because “he was trying to see who Jesus was.” But instead, Jesus saw him. Jesus saw him not as a benefactor or a patron. Jesus didn’t say “I’m going to your house because I know you’ve got high thread count sheets and I could use a good night’s sleep.” Jesus did the thing he always did: he looked for the people on the margins and pulled them to the center. It just so happened, in this town, the one in the margins was the wealthy tax collector.
But Jesus doesn’t tell him “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” like he does to the rich man who asks about eternal life—which happens, by the way, in Luke 18, the chapter right before this one! Jesus switches his mode. But he doesn’t change his message. It’s still a challenge to all of us, to sell what we have. But before that, Jesus loves us. Jesus meets us where we are at. The incarnate God brings us the word we needed.
The word Zacchaeus needed is friendship. Zacchaeus isn’t asking about eternal life or the finer points of pacifist theology. Zacchaeus just knows he has everything, and it’s not enough. Until Jesus sees him. Any Christian transformation in our lives comes from the conviction that we are loved. Our creator created us and called us good. Everything else stems from this truth.
Do you remember the song by Blessid Union of Souls? It’s called “Hey Leonardo,” but you might only know it as “She likes me for me.”
“She don’t care about my car
She don’t care about my money
And that’s real good because I don’t got a lot to spend
But if I did it wouldn’t mean nothin’
She likes me for me
Not because I look like Tyson Beckford
With the charm of Robert Redford
Oozing out my ears
But what she sees
Are my faults and indecisions
My insecure conditions
And the tears upon the pillow that I shed”
A couple friends texted me this week and send sympathies that my poor team lost the Superbowl in such catastrophic error of judgment. It was a little rough for me. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I like my city because it’s my city. I don’t like them because of the way they pass or dance on a touchdown or how many games they win. They’re still mine.
Isn’t that what Marshawn Lynch is asking for when he does press conferences? Don’t like me as a media figure, just respect me for what I do. I get on the field, I go to work, and I go home and don’t want to talk to anybody. Like me for me.
When Jesus calls Zacchaeus out of the tree, the tax collector looks around and realizes: he likes me for me. He doesn’t hear the people in the background whispering “Jesus is gone to stay with a sinner.” He just realizes for the first time, someone likes him for him, and this feeling is better than anything in the world. This is the moment of transformation. Out of this realization, Zacchaeus declares to the Lord—not to the villagers around him grumbling, he says to Jesus—“Half my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.” They don’t mean nothing compared to you.
Transformation doesn’t happen because it’s Stewardship Sunday. It happens because we have glimpsed Jesus Christ and all our priorities have changed. We are free from our need to keep up with the Joneses. We are free from standing in line for hours just to get our iPhone 6—look, there’s so much more I’d rather do! I’m not validated by my Prius or handbag. I’m validated by the love of Christ.
Jesus likes me for me, even before I changed a thing! Hallelujah. And this changes everything. Because with all your wealth, there’s no one left to impress.
[This is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on Feb. 8, 2015. The full sermon is here.]