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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 19:1-10
“Little Person?”
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 like that?

         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 world.

         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 them.

         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.

         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 insignificant.”

         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 hut?

         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 spiritual midgets.

         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.

         Generosity like 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.”[1] 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
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (New York: HarperOne, 2013), p. 194.

Last updated November 3, 2013