This week’s gospel reading is the story of Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector from Jericho. One day Jesus passed through Jericho, and Zacchaeus wanted to get a look at Him. But there was one tiny problem: Zacchaeus’ tiny stature.
Zacchaeus was a very short man, and being a hated and ostracized tax collector, no one in the crowd was about to step aside and let him move up to the front for a better view. So Zacchaeus, as Scripture explains, “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.”
Because I watched the sitcom “Taxi” a few thousand times, whenever I hear this story, I immediately envision Danny DeVito scrambling up a tree, muttering profanity under his breath. The real Zacchaeus was equally as comical. Being a tax collector for the Romans, he had to be ruthless. Being a short tax collector, he had to be extra ruthless. (“Pay up, or I’ll punch you in the knee cap!”) The sight of this ruthless little man climbing a tree must have stunned the crowd.
The crowd was stunned even more when Jesus stopped, looked up into the tree, and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
The Bible tells us exactly how the crowd reacted: “They began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.’”
The crowd’s reaction highlights a persistent misunderstanding about Jesus’ mission. Contrary to what the crowd thought (and what many folks think today), Jesus did not come into this world to praise righteous people and condemn the evil. He came into this world to save sinners.
There is no clearer doctrine in all of Scripture than the fact that ALL people are sinners. And if you’re still not sure whether mankind is by nature sinful, just watch the evening news for about 5 minutes.
The fact is, we are all sinners. Which means we all need a Savior. That’s why Jesus came into this world.
Now here’s the tricky part: although we can never earn our way into Heaven by our own good deeds, we are nevertheless commanded by Jesus to avoid sin and live holy and righteous lives. It’s simply the proper thing to do.
On this side of eternity, however, it is an unattainable goal. Even the most revered saints were sinners. Knowing that we cannot achieve perfection, God is much more pleased by our sincerity and our effort than by the results alone.
However, we are inclined to compare ourselves to other people rather than compare ourselves to God. When we compare ourselves to others, we become prideful and judgmental. We say things like, “I’m basically good,” or “Well, I never murdered anybody or robbed a bank,” or, as the crowd said, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner!”
When we compare ourselves to God, who is all-holy and perfect, we become humble. We realize we fall short of the mark and more readily ask for forgiveness.
Christians today often act like the crowd in this gospel reading. We gather in our parishes and congregations. We pat each other on the back for being so good. We shake our heads over the decadent behavior in society. We grumble when a fellow parishioner associates with an ungodly sinner—just as the crowd grumbled at Jesus for associating with Zacchaeus.
Jesus summarized his mission on earth in the last verse of the reading: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
Our mission is to spread this wonderful Good News to all the world. We will be much more successful—not to mention much more pleasing to the Lord—when we do it with an attitude of humility and thankfulness, instead of an attitude of arrogance and condescension. And there’s no tree-climbing required.