There are some cities that are famous for a specific thing or two. For example, the cities of Boston, New York, and Pittsburg are famous for their love of sports (baseball, football, basketball, the marathon etc...). The cities of New Orleans and Memphis are famous for their love of music and festivals (Mardi Gras and Elvis Week). The cities of Chicago and Austin are famous for their love of food (deep pan pizza and BBQ).
So, if I ask you this morning what the cities of Milan, Italy, and Jericho are famous for you might be a little stumped. I know I would be. Actually, they are the locations of some of the greatest spiritual conversions ever recorded in history. St. Augustine of Hippo, in 386 A.D., came to faith in the city of Milan and, from our passage this morning, we know that the chief tax collector Zacchaeus came to a fullness of faith in the city of Jericho through Jesus.
Before I continue, let me give you a little backstory. The city of Jericho has experienced a long and vibrant history. Archaeologists believe that the first humans settled in the city around 9000 BC making it one of the world's oldest cities. Most of us remember Jericho being the location of one of the most famous military battles in the Bible. Jericho was the first town captured by Joshua and the Israelites as they came into the Promised Land.
Historians tell us that around 35 B.C. Mark Anthony presented the city as a gift to his wife Cleopatra. Cleopatra believed that the persimmons that grew around the city's oasis produced a perfume which reputedly would "drive men wild". Later on, when Cleopatra needed money, she leased a portion of the city to Herod the Great for an exorbitant fee. Reportedly, it cost King Herod almost half of Judea's income to lease the land. King Herod wanted Jericho for its economic, political and military importance. Following the deaths of both Anthony and Cleopatra, Cesar Augustus awarded the city of Jericho to King Herod for his faithful allegiance. Josephus records that King Herod enriched the town with a number of public buildings, including a hippodrome and an amphitheater, together with a winter palace for himself and villas for the Jewish upper class in the new town west of ancient Jericho.
Jericho, in Jesus' time then, was a thriving and prosperous city. It was a city with which Jesus was well acquainted. It was near the area where John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. It was also near the wilderness where St. Luke tells us that Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days and had His encounter with Satan. Jesus also made the road leading down to Jericho the scene of one of His famous parables, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
It is here, on Jesus' last trip to Jericho as He is making His way to Jerusalem, that we find our story. It is a story that reminds us of the tremendous power and possibility of sudden conversion. There is something incredible about hearing the story of someone coming to faith, especially someone no one would have expected.
Surprisingly, in one way, and yet not in another, Zacchaeus’ name means "righteous one". For many years, it appears that he did not live up to his name but as we heard in this morning’s Gospel reading, all of that changes. This morning, let us look at some of the qualities that Zacchaeus possessed that can help us in our own spiritual formation journey.
We see first of all that Zacchaeus possessed an intense desire to see Jesus. From the number of stories that St. Luke shares with us about events that happened in and around Jericho, it goes without question that Zacchaeus most likely knew something about Jesus. It is not beyond the thought that he had heard Jesus preach and teach over the years. No doubt, the story of a fellow tax-collector being a part of Jesus' disciples had stirred his curiosity along with his heart. With Zacchaeus being the chief tax collector of that region, we would not be wrong to assume that he might have even been a part of Matthew's transition party when Matthew retired from being a tax collector to become a disciple of Jesus. Tax collectors had a habit of spending time together. After all, they were not liked by very many people at that time.
St. Luke tells us in Verse 3 that Zacchaeus was doing his best to see Jesus. He wanted to make sure that he did not miss Jesus as He walked through Jericho. Luke uses the word “zētéō” which means to search with a passion, with a craving, and with an intense desire. The idea is that Zacchaeus is out on a mission and that mission is to see Jesus.
It reminds me of the passion I saw in the football fans of North Carolina State during the North Carolina State and Notre Dame football game in October 2016. What amazed me was that the game was being played at the same time Hurricane Matthew was pounding the east coast. The news reported that nearly 60,000 people tolerated torrential rain and potentially dangerous winds just to attend the game. During the second half, wind speeds were clocked at over 50 mph, the steps of the stadium were being overrun with rainwater and there was even a call for a voluntary evacuation. What is amazing is that each one of those 60,000 fans could have sat in their homes and watched the same game in the comfort of their living rooms but there they were getting soaked to the bone watching two teams go back and forth in the slosh and mud. Now, that is some crazy and passionate dedication. Their desire to watch that game was off the charts. So, too was Zacchaeus' desire to see Jesus. He was not going to allow anything to keep him from seeing and hearing Jesus.
Zacchaeus possessed a deep spirit of humility. Once again St. Luke provides us a great little detail in our story that we might miss if we are not careful. We find it in verse four, where he once again mentions the sycamore tree. We first noticed this tree back in Luke 17:5-6 where it was called a mulberry tree.
It is a tree that grows to be about 30-35 feet tall and produces fruit about 4 to 6 times a year. The ancient rabbis tell us that over time the tree became a symbol of two great things: the first one, of course, was that it was seen as a tree of bitterness because of its fruit. Secondly, it was also seen as a tree of humility because only the poor and the disenfranchised would eat its bitter fruit or allow it to grow in their neighborhoods. The affluent and wealthy people could afford the luxuries of growing high-quality fig trees for fruit. They would even avoid having a sycamore tree grow around their area.
However, for poor people, the sycamore tree provided some basic food and nutrients even if the fruit was bitter and hardly edible. It also provided some needed shade from the harsh sun. If you were in the area of a large gathering of sycamore trees then you most likely were also in an area where the poor lived and worked. It was in this area that we find Jesus walking down the road. He is walking among the poor and the disenfranchised.
For Zacchaeus to climb up a sycamore tree was to either display a spirit of humility or a spirit of recklessness. It would either mean that he was sending Jesus a message that he wanted to be a different person or like any of a number of rich people he did not care how people looked at him or what crazy things he did. If he wanted to climb a tree, then he would climb a tree.
I tend to think because St. Luke recorded it here as he did that he wants us to understand that there was a specific reason Zacchaeus climbed that tree. He could have gotten a better view of Jesus from any number of housetops that lined the road that Jesus was traveling. By climbing the sycamore tree Zacchaeus was already signaling to Jesus that he was ready for a change. By climbing the sycamore tree Zacchaeus was signaling that he was comfortable about being among the poor and disenfranchised. We will see just how comfortable in a few minutes.
Zacchaeus displays a radical openness to receive Jesus. He not only welcomed Jesus into his home, he also welcomed Jesus into his heart and life. He put aside all the ridicule, the embarrassment, and the opposition and opened his home, his heart and life to Jesus.
St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus not only opened his home and his heart, but he opened them with joy. His passion to see Jesus was met with his joy in receiving Jesus. When Jesus told Zacchaeus that He wanted to come to his house the man could not have been more pleased. No doubt with the location of Jericho and the high position this man held there had been many heads of state and heads of finance that had been in his home. We could even assume that given his title and riches, Zacchaeus had hosted family members of King Herod Antipas, some Roman officials associated with Pontius Pilate, and other dignitaries and VIPs. Now, he opened his home to the only one who would transform his heart and his life, and he does so with joy and delight.
St. Luke begins his Gospel this morning by sharing with us the intense desire Zacchaeus possessed to see Jesus. He then shares with us the humility of Zacchaeus. He goes on to share with us the openness of his heart and life as he welcomes Jesus. And now we see where Zacchaeus not only allows Jesus to transform his heart but his life as well.
We all know the saying: "The proof is in the pudding." It is a shortened version of an ancient saying that went like this "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". It has nothing to do with the sweet pudding we eat today. Instead, it referred to what was called pudding back in the 17th and 18th century. Back then, pudding referred to a type of sausage. You would take the intestines of some animal and fill them with minced meat (pig, beef, lamb or goat), blood, spices and some other things. Because of the unsanitary conditions of the time, one had to be careful since eating rancid "pudding" could prove to be fatal. So, the "proof is in the pudding" or "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" referred to the fact that over time one would see if, in fact, the "pudding" was good or bad. If it was good, then you lived and if it were bad, then you either got sick or you got sick and died.
When it came to Zacchaeus the "proof is in the pudding" happened very quickly. He began to visibly live out his conversion. No doubt Zacchaeus wanted to help alleviate all the opposition that Jesus was already receiving from the Pharisees and others as he publicly proclaims that he is not the sinner they have labeled him. He declares openly to all that 1/2 of all his goods will go towards helping the disenfranchised, the marginalized and the poor.
Even the most dedicated of rabbis at that time dared only to give 20% and here was Zacchaeus publicly proclaiming that he would give 50%. Coupled with that he would pay back to any person that he had defrauded 400%. We see here very quickly three great steps that Zacchaeus applies to his life: 1) He repents, 2) He practices the spiritual ministry of restitution, and 3) He lives out his faith personally, domestically, socially, and economically.
Now, a great many people make rash faith statements at times. And a great many of those type of faith statements fall by the wayside. But according to Church Tradition, the ones made here by Zacchaeus did not. He was seen as living out the rest of his life practicing his faith not only in his heart but in his everyday actions. He was seen not only being faithful to Christ but sharing his goods with the poor and making good on any restitution that was necessary. He was a transformed man living out a transformed life.
According to the Early Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, Zacchaeus not only experienced a heart change but a name change as well. In his book, Stromata, Clement writes: "So Zacchaeus, whom they call Matthias, the chief tax collector, when he had heard that the Lord had esteemed him highly enough to be with Him, said, 'Behold, half of my present possessions I give as alms, and Lord, if I ever extorted money from anyone in any way, I return it fourfold.' At this, the Savior said, 'When the Son of Man came today, He found that which was lost'" (Stromata 184.108.40.206). Zacchaeus is also said to have become the first bishop of the city of Caesarea (Apostolic Constitutions 7:46).
This morning, we started out with a story about a man who passionately wanted to see Jesus, a man willing to endure ridicule and embarrassment to achieve his objective, a man who humbled himself and a man who rejoiced over being able to welcome Jesus in his home and in his heart. We end today with a man transformed and living out a life of transformation. We end with a man who lets us know that today is the day of salvation. We end with a man who lets us know that it is never too late to repent of our ways, turn back to the Lord, and find life in Him. We end with a man who let us know that conversion is God's gift to everyone, liberal or conservative, rich or poor, young or old. We end today with a man who, if he were here, would ask us this question: Today, how is it with your soul? Today, have you allowed Jesus to come into your heart and life? Today are you living out a life of Christian transformation?
We end today with a man who would be the first to invite us to come forward and to pray for Christ to come into our heart and lives. We end today with a man who would be the first to testify how God can give us a whole new start. We end today with a man who would remind us that today is the accepted time and the accepted hour.