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.
Maybe it’s the children’s song, but I’ve always pictured Zaccheus as a laughable cartoon character. Luke tells us that he was so “small in stature” he had to scurry up a tree just to see Jesus. When I imagine the scene in my head, it seems comical and a bit ridiculous.
I can’t help but wonder if deep-down Zaccheus thought of himself as a joke too. I imagine him as someone who longed to be noticed, but whom no one really took seriously. Maybe that’s what drove him up the ranks to become the powerful but hated chief tax collector. Perhaps he said to himself: “Yes, there may be stigma and ridicule, but at least there is power and wealth. And maybe, at last, I’ll be able to find that sense of significance I’ve longed for.”
Yet, in Luke 19, something drove him to climb that tree to see the Savior passing through. Perhaps he had reached a dead-end in his search for significance. His job had given him power and wealth. But it also led him into a lifestyle of sin. Further, it had not given him the significance he desired, but drove him further into isolation.
Rich Tax Collector Zaccheus was as pathetic as ever. He was still “wee litle” Zaccheus – someone who was, in every sense of the word, small.
What do you do when you feel small?
I see a lot of myself in Zaccheus. I feel small most of the time too. Like Zaccheus, I find myself flailing to ‘stand tall’ among my peers or hiding away when I feel like I’m still the same “wee little” Chris I’ve always been.
How much of our lives are spent trying to make something out of ourselves? “At all costs, I will not be pathetic!” we say, with shaky and unsure voices. We try to build ourselves up so we’ll be successful in our careers, worthy of romantic love, and worthy of admiration from those we love.
However, any search for significance apart from God is sin and leads only to more sin. Our sin may not be as blatant or stigmatized as Zaccheus’ tax-collecting, but we are building our own nicely decorated towers of Babel. Ultimately, these searches are idolatrous and disastrous. There is no significance to be found outside of Jesus. And so, like Zaccheus, we find ourselves just as lonely, insecure, and empty as we were before.
Weakness is the Way to Jesus
What if, instead of trying constantly to make something of ourselves, we let our smallness drive us up the tree to catch a glimpse of the Savior?
The wonderful truth of the Gospel is that Jesus welcomes the pathetic, helpless, and small. “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says.
Zaccheus had just wanted to see Jesus. Yet, here was Jesus treating him like someone who mattered- like someone significant. Him! The man who everyone looked away from in disgust when they passed him on the street; the liar, the thief, the pathetic joke of a life. Out of everyone, Jesus wanted to stay at his house.
The truth that Jesus came not for the well, but the sick – not for the righteous, but for tax collectors like him – moved Zaccheus so deeply that he declared, suddenly and joyfully: ‘I will give everything back!’ In a moment, he left behind his old life and everything it represented.
“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham,” said the Savior, “for the Son ofMan came to seek and save the lost”
Compare Zaccheus to the rich young ruler who had come to Jesus just one chapter earlier. If Zaccheus was the kid in high school who ate alone at lunch, the rich young ruler was that rare guy with the distinction of being genuinely nice and a handsome rich stud at the same time.
While the rich young ruler came to Jesus sincerely, he also came confidently. He was not in the tree like Zaccheus. He was not ignored and ostracized by the crowds. Everyone viewed him as an asset. A successful and godly man whom Jesus would be lucky to have as a follower. Subtly, maybe even subconsciously, the rich young ruler believed that about himself too.
And so, when Jesus told him to keep the commandments, he instinctively answered: “All these I have kept from my youth”, not realizing what a bold and proud statement that really was. He had none of Zaccheus’ brokenness. He did not know what it felt like to be unclean, ignored, lonely, and utterly pathetic.
Jesus, to the everyone’s surprise, does not invite him to dinner. He responds with a backbreaking request for radical generosity and turns the rich young ruler away.
Weakness is just weakness
I need to be careful when I talk, think, and write about Jesus and weakness.
My sinful hearts wants to use Christianity as revenge for the losers. Christianity flips the script! Now weak and insignificant people like me and Zaccheus matter, and the people I always envied (like the rich young ruler) are on the bottom. I co-opt my weakness and turn it into a badge of righteousness to search for significance in the same old ways.
“Look at me! Look how weak I am, but how I still depend on Jesus. I’m honest and real, yet I’m not trying to present myself as strong. Aren’t I wise? Humble? Worthy of admiration and respect?”
But weakness is just weakness. There is nothing special about weakness. Weakness feels pathetic because it is pathetic. And weakness only matters if it leads to repentance and joy in Jesus.
Zaccheus’ weakness made him realize he was the worst of sinners. It taught him the spirit of the tax collector, who stood far off with lowered eyes, beating his breast and saying , “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Weakness taught Zaccheus that he belonged in the tree, not at the front of the crowds. He knew Jesus had every reason to pass him by. Jesus should have passed him by.
That’s why Jesus’ grace affected him so deeply. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, it seemed ridiculous him. But Zaccheus does just that in his joy, without even having been commanded by Jesus. It was the fruit of repentance. He couldn’t believe that Jesus would call someone so weak, so insignificant, and so sinful down from the tree.
Would we embrace weakness instead of trying so hard to show that we’re not weak. Would we let our smallness lead us up the tree to see Jesus. And we will find joy, when he invites us down to follow him.