They were sure they knew who he was. He was a bad man, a sinner if anyone deserved to be called a sinner. He was a collaborator with the Roman forces of occupation, collected taxes for them. He grew rich on the backs of his fellow Jews. Yes, they knew him, and they did not like him.
They knew who he was, and so the day the holy man came through town
They were sure they knew who he was.
Zacchaeus could have gone home sulking, his pride wounded, but what would that matter the next time they had to come to him to pay up? He could always get the best of them. But something wanted him to see this holy man. Was it just stubbornness, or something more? We do not know Zacchaeus’ motivation, we just know that he had it. He had the desire to see the holy man, and so he climbed a tree.
The holy man, Jesus, does indeed pass through town, probably making his way slowly through the crowd. It has by this time probably become known that some people only had to touch his clothing to be healed. You can imagine the crowd is clamoring for him, with many of them wanting something from him. Maybe the only man not shouting was Zacchaeus in that tree. Maybe that is why he catches Jesus’ eye. Jesus stops. The crowd goes silent. The holy man is going to speak. Perhaps he will stay with us for a while. But what they hear is the furthest thing from their expectations.
“Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down from that tree. I’m coming to your house today.”
They thought they knew who Zacchaeus was and so at first they were confused and then incredulous. No, no, no, Jesus. You’ve got it wrong. We know who this man is, and he is a sinner. There is no goodness in him.
Jesus does not listen, and walks off with this man they thought they knew. And the grumbling and the gossip and the questioning about the man they thought was holy were fierce.
On the one hand a holy man and on the other a sinner. In Jesus’ day it seemed relatively easy to tell the difference. Actually it still does, although holiness may seem far more elusive than it was then. Yet most of us know a sinner when we see one, someone who is really bad, someone so bad we know they will never, can never, change.
Holiness is known by your deeds, they said then, and they still say now. Very few people deserve to be called “holy.” Holiness is not given, it is earned.
Jesus, the holy man, came to teach us, however, the exact opposite. Holiness is given, it is not earned. And one of the consequences of that upside down truth is that you do not, you cannot, know who someone is. It is not safe to label and judge.
Why not? Because anyone can change. Anyone can change, because everyone has a piece of the divine, a piece of holiness, within them. To be sure, it is sometimes buried very deeply under a great deal of pain or anger or greed or hatred. But it is impossible for it not to be there, because being made in the image of God is the very definition of what it means to be human.
We decide for ourselves who other people are. It comes as natural to us as breathing. If you think about it, it actually may be that original sin about which people talk. Adam and Eve, as the story goes, heard God walking in the garden after they had eaten from the forbidden tree, and they clothed themselves because they were afraid. In other words, they decided for God that God would judge them. Having the knowledge of good and evil—the tree that was forbidden to them—among other things gave them the capability and desire to judge. “You will not die,” the serpent told them, “if you eat the fruit.” No, but you will learn to judge and learn to fear and learn to hate and down that road has lain more death than Adam and Eve—or perhaps even God—could ever have thought imaginable.
Zacchaeus teaches us that our holiness, and the holiness of the next stranger we meet—even the one we see and have the instinct to cross the road—is connected first and foremost simply to our desire. Our desire simply to be, our desire to love and be loved, our desire to be connected with something bigger than ourselves, our desire to know our own purpose in this world—in this desire can be found our holiness. It was an act of holiness for Zacchaeus to climb that tree. Our holiness is found in our desire because our desire is not just our desire. It is God’s also. God’s desire for us, in us.
Now is not that good news to tell? The good news we have to tell the world is not that if you get your act together and straighten up and fly right, and act like you are holy, God will reward you. We may smirk, but I am here to tell you that a great deal of the world believes that is precisely what we believe, and we do very little to convince them otherwise.
The good news we have to tell is that God is already in relationship with you, has already called you down from the tree and accepted you, and has already set up camp in your house. The only thing you need to do is to recognize that God’s desire and your desire can be one just because, well, you want to recognize that it already is.
God is not ready to make you perfect nor is God waiting for you to make yourself perfect. Perfection and holiness really do not have anything to do with one another. God is always ready for you to recognize the holiness you have already been given—the spark of God that resides at the very center of your being—always have and always will. And God is always ready to work with any attempt to coax that spark into flame.
They thought they knew who Zacchaeus was, and, to a large extent, they did. But they missed what Jesus could see, because he was not concerned with judging Zacchaeus at all. He knew that anyone who would climb a tree to get a glimpse of him had enough spark that relationship with him would set him alight. And it did.
I you dare to accept the fact that you are a saint, a holy one, not by your own merit but by the sheer gift of God, than you might be able to sense God blowing on the sparks within you, coaxing them into flame. God is doing that because he really does know who you really are, and who you can be.