November 3, 2013 - All Saints Sunday
How many of you have
known a “little person?” I mean folks who have more or less adopted that term
for themselves, people who are not just a bit shorter than average, but people
who have what is now called “dwarfism,” which happens for a variety of reasons.
They are generally less than four feet, eight inches tall. Do you know a person
I knew a little saint
named Ellis in my teen years. He was a middle-aged man who was about four feet
tall. He came to our church as the family friend of our new pastor, and our
family gave Ellis a ride from their home in the Bay Area to his new home in Santa Monica. I learned from Ellis to respect and understand the challenges of little
people and I also learned something about being a saint from his patience and
good humor about his stature.
My guess is that until
Jesus came along Zacchaeus was not so patient and good humored about his
height, rather his lack of height. Those of us who grew up singing “Zacchaeus
was a wee little man…” need somebody like Ellis in our lives to understand just
how hard and frustrating it is to be a little person in a big person’s world.
Like some little
people, Zacchaeus managed to overcome his challenges and become fairly
successful in his community. Verse 2 tells us he held a government job and was
wealthy. This is the only place in ancient texts where someone is called a chief tax collector, so we can assume he had a prominent place in the Roman tax
system. He used that position to raise his status, if not his height, in the
From what we know of
how Roman tax collectors operated, we may assume Zacchaeus did not get rich
through patience and good humor. He was a sawed-off runt with an inferiority complex
who got back at all the bigger people who made fun of him by swindling them on
their taxes. His name means “pure,” which must have made the other citizens of
Jericho laugh even more, and it made him all the more determined not to live up
to his name or his size.
He was a despised
little crook. So when we see Zacchaeus in verses 2 and 3, trying to peer over
the heads of the crowd around Jesus and catch a glimpse of the Man from Galilee, let’s not give him too much credit. He’s not feeling genuine spiritual hunger as
he grabs hold of the conveniently low branches of a sycamore tree and climbs up
through the leaves, nor is he experiencing a deep life crisis making him seek a
glimpse of the Savior. He’s just curious… or worse.
My guess is that
Zacchaeus was trying figure the angle on Jesus, trying to calculate where and
how he could make some money on the crowd’s enthusiasm. Maybe he thought Jesus
and his twelve disciples had collected some large offerings for their miracles
and hadn’t paid any taxes lately. Perhaps he could squeeze a few coins out of
The truth is we don’t
know what the short man thought as he sat in his tree. But I doubt it was
anything really righteous or kind. He just liked keeping tabs on what was
happening in town and making sure no opportunity for profit was missed. All we
can give him credit for is what is implied here. He wanted to have a look at
Jesus, it turns out,
wanted to have a look at Zacchaeus. With unerring accuracy, Jesus homed in on
and found the worst and most disliked guy in the crowd. The little guy probably
imagined the Prophet would just pass beneath him as he straddled a branch way
up in the leaves. He would see Jesus, but Jesus would never notice him in all
the foliage. But verse 5 tells Jesus stopped right there and looked up.
There’s a word to us
on two fronts here, good words for All Saints Sunday. The first is a question
for all of us who are big people, whether literally or more likely
figuratively. In the Bible, whom does God regularly seek out and call into His
plan of salvation? We’ve been looking at some of the men of the Old Testament
on Friday mornings. What we keep seeing is that most of them are not great role
models. They aren’t giants of faith. They sin, they lie. Jacob who we’re on
right now is a deceiver and a coward and a mama’s boy. In comparison to his
brother, he’s puny, both physically and in his heart. Yet God chooses him. Over
and over, God comes to people like that, the little ones, the despised ones.
Our roll call of the
saints today might make you think we’re here to celebrate the heroes, the
giants of Christian faith. But even the giants were smaller than we often
remember. St. Thomas Aquinas who Beth talked about in Sunday School was both
big and brilliant, but he was socially backward enough that folks called him
“the dumb ox.” Whoever wrote our psalm today said he was “small and
Jesus keeps aiming for
the littlest and least people He meets. The previous chapter in Luke starts out
with that story about a poor widow. Then Brian last week preached to you Jesus’
story about another tax collector. Matthew was a tax collector. Jesus liked
hanging out with bad dudes. And in Luke 18 we see Jesus blessing little
children, and trying to help another rich guy see the light, and healing a
blind man. Jesus didn’t come to skim the cream of the top of humanity. He came
to scrape the bottom of the barrel. That’s why He told Zacchaeus in verse 5
that He would be going home with him that day.
And the good people,
the people like us, often don’t get it, don’t get what Jesus is up to, just
like in verse 6, where the good people of Jericho grumble, “He has gone to be
the guest of one who is a sinner.” Are you and I going to grumble when we see
Jesus ignoring us and going home with sinners?
Who would Jesus want
to go home with if He came walking down the middle of Eugene? For that matter,
where would He walk? Would it be down Coburg or Cal Young or 30th Avenue or Valley River Way or even along West 11th or 18th?
Or would we find Him strolling West Sixth in the Whittaker neighborhood,
finding some drug dealer or prostitute or one of the new residents of
Opportunity Village to spend the afternoon with in their 64 square foot little
That’s the first front
on which Zacchaeus confronts us. Jesus doesn’t necessarily come to the nice
people, the big people of our world. If we are honest, we have to admit He
might not choose decent, hard-working, important, righteous people like us. If
we want to see where Jesus is showing up, we may have to find and spend some
time with overlooked, dishonest, disreputable folks, people we might regard as
That first word from
this story is hard for most of us, but on the flip side of Jesus’ visit to
Zacchaeus, there is a gracious word for us all. Many of us may not be as
vertically or socially challenged as Zacchaeus, but we know what it feels like
to be disliked and ignored, disrespected or passed over by others who think
they are better or more important. Many of us have a feel for what it’s like to
have a small place in the big picture.
You could even say
that about our church. We’re pretty little. We’re always scrambling to cover
all the basics, to have a Sunday school class for all ages, to staff the
nursery, to just get the building cleaned every week and keep the plumbing
working. We’re always in the shadow of congregations that have more programs,
that can hire a janitor or two, that can field a big, flashy worship team.
Yet Jesus seems to
like dropping in on the little people, on the little places of this world. He
was born in a tiny village. He hung out mostly with the uneducated working
class and worse. Maybe, just maybe, He likes showing up here just because it’s
small and some of us are feeling pretty low now and then.
The second word, then,
is that Jesus is always ready to show up at your house when you are feeling low
and small, insignificant and lost. Zacchaeus is the promise that you and I
don’t have to be spiritual giants for Jesus to come and visit us. All we need
is to have an eye out for Him and be ready to respond when He arrives.
You might think the
little tax collector looks like a pretty big man in verse 8. He tells Jesus how
he’s going to straighten out his life and go way beyond what’s required in
making amends for his sins. He’s going to give away half of what he owns, and
make restitution of four times what he’s overcharged in taxes. In this verse, he’s
starting to grow up spiritually, starting to become a saint.
Notice the order of
things, though. Jesus came to Zacchaeus while he was still a little man, still
a sinner. Jesus invited Himself to Zacchaeus’ house before he had his
big change of heart. Zacchaeus did not earn Jesus’ favor. Jesus cared about him
before he ever promised to give away or give back even a nickel. All Zacchaeus
did in verse 6 was welcome Him. Jesus shows up for you and me and especially
for all the little sinners of this world way before anyone ever deserves it.
All we need to do is welcome Him.
Zacchaeus expressed is a great and wonderful response to God’s grace, but
that’s just what it is: a response. In and through the grace of Jesus Christ,
God is generous to us. He comes to us with grace while we’re still little,
still bitter, still dishonest, still unlikeable people hiding in whatever tree
we find handy. And when we suddenly see that Jesus is graciously there
regardless of our smallness, it sparks our own generosity toward God and toward
the other small and troubled people around us.
Verse 9 might sound
like Jesus is saying that Zacchaeus was saved because he, in spite of his sins,
was a Jew, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of
Abraham.” But no, it’s not ethnicity which saves anyone. Just read the Gospels
and see the people who are blessed and healed and saved. They aren’t all
Jewish. No, Jesus called Zacchaeus a “son of Abraham” in Paul’s sense in Romans 9:8, when he says that folks who receive God’s promise “are counted as descendants”
of Abraham. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house because he became a true spiritual son of Abraham, another person who started out as a little character in the
story until God came to him.
Lots of the saints we
named today did good things. Some of them did great things. Some of them gave
away more than Zacchaeus did, and more generously. Some of them gave up their
lives. But they are not children of Abraham, not children of God, not saints
because of what they did. They are saints because no matter how small or sinful
they were, Jesus came to them and when He did they welcomed Him into their
homes, into their lives.
In our book of the
month, Lauren Winner quotes Sam Bell who says, “the saint is just a small
character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God.” That’s Zacchaeus, that’s us, that’s “all the saints who from their labors
rest.” Little people in the big story of how God loves and saves us by the
grace of Jesus.
Verse 10 captures both
words to us from Zacchaeus. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the
lost.” The first word is that Jesus didn’t come looking for the big people of
the world, the people who have it all together, the people who are behaving
themselves. If we want to be where Jesus is most at home, we’ll need to be with
some of those little people, those disreputable people, those lost people who
wander our streets and rob us and even make us afraid. We will want to help let
them know Jesus is ready to go home with them.
The second word is
that you and I are really no different from those folks, no different from
Zacchaeus or all the other little, lost people of the world. Saints are made
out of little people, people who know they are small and God is big, people who
feel lost and helpless until Jesus arrives. All we need is to realize that’s
us. We are not big or good or great. We are little people, lost people, and
Jesus wants to come home with us and save us too.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj