What difference does it make?

by jacobjuncker

This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, November 3, 2013.

 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10  The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”

Luke 19:1-10, Common English Bible

Let’s pray.

Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear so that together, we might be inspired to live your Word in the world starting today.  Amen.

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When I was a child, I went to “Linda’s house” while my parents worked.  Linda provided daycare services out of her home.  I have many fond memories of my time there—playing kickball in the backyard, getting to stay up and watch tv during nap time or going to the basement to play video games—but the one thing that lives deeply in my memory isn’t any particular event.  What I remember most is the way Linda talked.  She had grown up in Scotland.  She visited there often; and even though she’d lived in the United States for quite some time, her accent remained strong.  It held my attention hostage.  And, as I was preparing for today’s message, I couldn’t help but here Linda’s voice—in her strong Scottish accent—say, “Zacchaeus, he was a wee little man.”

“And a wee little man was he.”

Wee Zachaeus is such a peculiar little man…  Even though he was a social outcast at the time, it is fun to think of wee Zacchaeus relaxing with the great saints and apostles of the early church.  In a group photo, he would either be sitting in the front of the group, or better yet, still hanging out in a tree with a very big smile on his face.  In ten short verses (no pun intended) we learn a lot about this little man from Jericho.  Not only is he rich; as the chief tax collector, he is particularly despised by his fellow Jews.  The chief collectors were known for colluding with Rome and for taking advantage of others to make a good profit for themselves—think corrupt subprime mortgage agents on steroids.[1]

Zacchaeus was a wee little man: a man of small moral stature who stole from hardworking people to become rich.

Reading through the Gospel of Luke up to this point, we don’t expect Zacchaeus’ story to end well.  Luke’s Gospel has some pretty harsh things to say about rich people.  Jesus, writes Luke in Chapter 4 (quoting the prophet Isaiah), came “to preach good news to the poor” (see Luke 4:18).  It’s in Luke Chapter 6, where Jesus says, “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours…  But how terrible for you who are rich, because you have already received your comfort” (see Luke 6:20-26).  In Luke 12 (15-21), Jesus tells the story of a rich farmer who has a bountiful harvest and wants to build bigger barns so that he can store his crop and live a life of ease, but that night he was called to account by God.  In Luke 16 (14-31), Jesus tells the story about the rich man and Lazarus; and in Luke 18, we find the rich young ruler walking away from Jesus sad.

Reading through the Gospel of Luke, we cannot expect Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus—a rich, chief tax collector—to end well.  But there was something different about Zacchaeus.

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Jesus was making his way through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem.  Word of the radical rabbi’s arrival had caused a stir in the city; and, Zacchaeus had become enthralled with the stories of Jesus’ teachings and miracles.  He wanted to see this traveling preacher for himself—he wanted to see if the things he had heard could be true—but when Jesus arrived in town the crowd quickly swarmed him.  Jesus embraced the crowd.  I can imagine Zacchaeus jumping up and down in the back trying to catch even the quickest glimpse of Jesus.  But, nothing worked.  He was simply too short and too far back to see anything.  He had to think of something.  That’s when he noticed a sycamore tree a little way down the road.  The crowd was already beginning to gather there, but he was certain if he could just get a little ways up the tree that he’d be able to see Jesus for himself.  So he ran as fast as he could and climbed as high as he could up the sycamore tree to see Jesus.

The view was spectacular.  There he was—the one everyone was talking about—Jesus.  And, what a shock it must have been not only for Zacchaeus but also for the crowd, when Jesus stops at the base of the sycamore tree, looks up and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for a sleepover.  Zacchaeus, the wee little man…

The social outcast responds to this with great joy!  When the good church folk grumble that Jesus is staying with a sinner, Zacchaeus stands up on his little feet, stretches up as tall as he can, and declares that he will give half of his possessions to the poor.  What is more, he will repay any fraud fourfold.  This goes far beyond what Jewish law demands.  Furthermore, Zacchaeus makes this commitment not with a frown on his face, but with a light heart and a smile.[2]

Zacchaeus’ curious desire to see Jesus is commendable.  The length to which he goes to get just a glimpse of Jesus—humbling himself and climbing a tree—is admirable.  But, what makes Zacchaeus’ story so powerful is that his encounter with Jesus actually changed him.  Zacchaeus’ interaction with Jesus—God-in-the-flesh…

It made a difference.

So often we catch glimpses of Jesus and it doesn’t seem to change anything.  Like, Zacchaeus when he climbed the sycamore tree, we make efforts to see Jesus.  We go to worship, we pray, we read Scripture, we sing Christian music loudly in our cars and at home; but, when we leave worship, when the praying stops, when we close the Scriptures (either the book or the app), when the music fades—there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that anything has changed in our lives.  That wasn’t true for Zacchaeus.

It made a difference in Zacchaeus’ life.  Encountering Jesus changed Zacchaeus’ life so much so that it also changed the world around him.

Zacchaeus didn’t just seek Jesus out, he allowed the encounter to influence and transform his life.  Where once we was dour, now he was joyous.  Where once we has a miser and a thief, now we was generous and repentant.  Zacchaeus’ life was transformed and because of that transformation, Jesus tells us that for Zacchaeus, “Today, salvation has come.”  On that day when wee Zacchaeus met Jesus, his life began to change; because, his encounter with Jesus made a difference.

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In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes,

God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others.15 Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ…

Ephesians 4:13b-15, Common English Bible

After his experience with Jesus, Zacchaeus wasn’t the wee little man he once was.  In fact, he was beginning to grow—measured not in inches, but according to the standard of the fullness of Christ.  In his joy and in his generosity, Zacchaeus was becoming more like Christ, because his encounter with Jesus made a difference in his life.

The question for us is: will we allow our encounters with Jesus to transform our lives and the world around us?

I pray so.  I pray that we all might be a bit more like Zacchaeus: that we might allow our encounters with Jesus to transform our lives and the world around us so that the world might see that our encounters with Jesus really do make a difference—not only in our lives, but in the restoration and reconciliation of the world.


[1] “Luke 19:1-10: Pastoral Perspective” by Laura S. Sugg in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 260.

[2] Ibid., 262

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