The Best Part of Being a Height-Challenged Sinner
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he!” If you didn’t get to sing that in Sunday school as a kid, you were missing out.
Luke goes to great pains to point out to us that Zacchaeus was short in stature, but he means it in terms of more than just his physical height (or lack thereof).
Zacchaeus doesn’t have much moral stature either. He’s not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector.
Luke says that he’s rich, and we can read into that “filthy rich with ill-gotten gains.”
This is not an admirable man. In fact his moral stature is so low that he can’t even see Jesus.
But one of Zacchaeus’ greatest characteristics is his lack of self-consciousness.
He is curious about Jesus, and he is determined to see Jesus.
So Zacchaeus, a rich and well-known figure in the community, climbs a tree to see Jesus, no matter how ridiculous it may look.
It is not a dignified posture, and immediately draws attention to Zacchaeus’ physical shortness, that he has to take this step to see over the crowd.
Could we infer that he also boldly reveals his lack of moral stature as he climbs this tree in the imaginative universe of this story?
If he is not afraid to be seen to be too physically short to see Jesus, is he equally courageous in admitting his lack of ethical worthiness?
How could we do the same?
How could we approach Jesus with an utter lack of self-consciousness, exactly as we are?
I think we’re all too prone to make trying to look our best in front of others such a habit that we try to do it in front of God as well.
We don’t want to look stupid or needy or naïve.
Zacchaeus doesn’t care.
Something within him knows that this Jesus has something to say to him, and he will do what it takes to get to Jesus.
Would that we had his lack of self-consciousness, his boldness, his eagerness to reach Jesus.
Of course, the other question we have to ask ourselves is not when are we Zacchaeus, but when are we the crowd?
Are there ways in which we are blocking other people’s access to Jesus?
It’s certainly possible that we’re doing that in multiple ways.
We act as the crowd blocking the way to Jesus when we assume we’re visitor-friendly in our churches, not perceiving that we’re actually clubbish and closed socially with an impenetrable and fussy liturgy that is impossible for an outsider to follow.
We act as the crowd blocking the way to Jesus when we stay silent on the urgent causes of justice in our own communities and around the world.
And we act as the crowd blocking the way to Jesus every time we see a seeker, known by their curiosity, pain or anger, and fail to open ourselves to enter spiritual communion with him or her, making room for the Good News to arise and be made manifest.
Turns out it’s really easy to get in the way, and really difficult to be self-aware enough to see that we’re doing it.
But the most remarkable line in this story can pass us by if we’re not paying attention, and it is both a timely rebuke and a profound proclamation of the Good News.
“So [Zacchaeus] hurried down and was happy to welcome [Jesus]. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’”
Are we really comfortable with the fact that Jesus’ highest priority is to be the guest of a sinner?
Have we truly grappled with the fact that Jesus seeks out and loves and cherishes the screw-ups, the has-beens, and the do-nothings?
The answer to that question hinges on our own relationship with our more fallible selves.
It is similar to the question of with whom we identify in the story of the Prodigal Son.
If we think we’re the Older Son, the virtuous and hard-working, we are not in touch with how much we need Jesus.
We’re really all the Younger Son, deeply in need of healing and forgiveness, and while our acceptance of that may come with a certain amount of chagrin, it is also profoundly liberating.
When we quit identifying with the virtuous Older Brother or the purse-lipped, respectable crowd, we’re free to welcome Jesus.
We’re able to truly marvel at and relish that he has come to be the guest of sinners. That’s us!
And then we can turn our attention to what it means that we, sinners as we are, are the host of Jesus.
What does it mean to welcome him into our lives and our presence and our hearts, as sinners?
It’s not about self-recrimination or self-condemnation.
It’s about truly feeling not just comfortable but actually joyful, like Zacchaeus, that Jesus is with us in our most mixed-up and awful moments, in our worst sins, in our most lost and small crises of character.
And he’s not just there—he is a guest in that place.
Jesus is accepting our hospitality in our sinful selves, and that is remarkable.
Remember what hospitality meant in the life-or-death harsh reality of travel in the world in Jesus’ time.
The guest’s ability to survive on the road was directly proportionate to the level of hospitality he or she received.
It really matters not just that Jesus is choosing to spend time with us in our worst moments, but that he trusts us to welcome and care for him there.
That matters a lot, and actually has the potential to be as life-changing for us as it was for Zacchaeus.
So consider in your prayer this week hanging out a shingle on your heart: “Sinner’s Home: Guests Welcome.”
See how that transforms your relationship not just with Jesus, but with others.
And take Zacchaeus the sinner’s example for yourself, and welcome him joyfully.
You won’t stand any taller, but you won’t mind your shortness quite so much.
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