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Signposts: Daily Devotions

Written by Susan Hanson

Saturday, September 25

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When 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.”
—Luke 19: 1-5

Ask a roomful of church-going folks what they know about Zacchaeus, and they’ll probably start mouthing the words to that unrelentingly sing-song ditty they learned as kids:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in the sycamore tree,
the Savior for to see.

Even now, going over the story in my mind, I picture a scene both innocuous and cute—say, Danny DeVito playing the part of a somewhat klutzy Zacchaeus, and Sam Shepard as Jesus. I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with this image, but perhaps the very familiar narrative warrants a closer look.

Jesus has been traveling through the countryside, visiting towns and villages where he healed the sick, cast out demons, and preached the coming of the kingdom. He has been pursued by crowds and challenged by religious leaders intent on tripping him up and exposing him as a heretic.

In the chapters immediately preceding the incident with Zacchaeus, Jesus has been telling simple but cryptic stories, full of metaphor and rich in meaning—the parables of the wedding banquet, the lost coin, the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the rich man and Lazarus, and more. The sense of time here is no doubt skewed, but even allowing for that, it seems that Jesus is constantly “on”; he always has to be ready to respond to questions, and he does so at a rapid–fire pace.

During this journey, which will ultimately take him to Jerusalem, Jesus passes through Jericho, which sits on an important caravan route. As chief tax collector, Zacchaeus is responsible for making sure that tolls are paid on all goods entering Judea from neighboring Perea—and in the process, he also gets to keep a generous cut for himself, making him the wealthiest man in town.

Not surprisingly, Zacchaeus is despised by the citizens of Jericho, both because he works for Rome and because he has gotten rich at their expense. When Jesus announces that he’s going to the home of Zacchaeus, the crowd begins to “grumble,” saying, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

What are we to make of this event? Amazing as it is that Zacchaeus changes after being with Jesus such a short time, it’s even more intriguing that this is the sort of person Jesus enjoys being around. Again and again he seeks out those on the margins, people who have been ostracized for reasons of economics, politics, or health. Zacchaeus is certainly one of these.

It’s also likely that by this time in his ministry, Jesus takes pleasure in being with people who demand nothing of him: they ask for no miracles, they set no theological snares to trap him, they simply want to see him. Zacchaeus is one of these people as well.

O God, help me to know the joy of simply being in your presence, even when it means having to watch you from a distance, for I know that wherever I am, you will see me.

These Signposts originally appeared on explorefaith in 2005.