Why is Zacchaeus short?
If you’re not familiar with the story, the gospel of Luke records that Jesus was passing through Jericho and the local chief tax collector, a guy named Zacchaeus, comes out to see him with the rest of the crowds. Jesus meets him and invites himself over to his house for supper, something which upsets the crowd, of course. Tax collectors are evil. (No offence to Revenue Canada. Please don’t audit me.)
Zacchaeus, though, joyfully declares that he’s giving away half his fortune to the poor and paying back anyone he might have over taxed. Jesus responds that “salvation has come to this house” because he came to seek and save the lost. Mission accomplished. The end.
Except. There’s some added detail. First of all, Zacchaeus gets a name, something that doesn’t often happen when Jesus meets people. More often than not, they’re “the rich man” or “the blind man” or “the lepers” or even “a Samaritan.” Zacchaeus means “innocent” or “pure,” by the way.
And he’s short. “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.”
Listen, I’m not being ridiculous about this. More often than not, the gospels tell stories with a certain economy of detail. One of my favourite things to do is try to figure out how what’s missing in the story might help us understand it better or at least give us another avenue to explore. But this time, it’s the opposite. Why do we need to know he’s short and has to climb a tree to see Jesus? And what’s with the name? He’s a tax collector, isn’t that all we need to know: he’s “a sinner?”
Here’s a thought. Maybe it’s not about being able to see, but rather be seen. By Jesus. As the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been well enough known by the community, but being of diminutive stature would have helped him hide in the crowd. Being in a tree, though, would have made it not only easier to see Jesus, but for him to be seen by Jesus. And it works, of course.
He’s also seen by everyone else, though, and the crowd’s not happy about Jesus going to his house for supper. Not only is Zacchaeus not intimidated – either by the crowd or Jesus – he has an announcement to make. Maybe he’s a better man than we think.
There’s some question as to the tense of his declaration in different translations. Is he saying that he will give away half his fortune and will pay back others in the future or is he saying that he does it already, in the present, as part of how he does business? Either way, he wants both Jesus and the crowd to know he is not what they think and Jesus is happy to accommodate him.
We sure know what the crowd thought of Zacchaeus before, but we don’t get to see if their view of him was changed by this moment of embracing Jesus. I wish we could, because I wonder if this story is about Zacchaeus being the lost who is found or the crowd. If the real Zacchaeus was invisible to them before, has he been seen now? Have their assumptions – and ours – been tested and have they found a way to see him differently?