Zacchaeus! (Seen, reprise) (A reflection on Luke 19.1-10)

Today’s Gospel reading is Luke’s account of the encounter between Jesus and the tax collector Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was too short to see Jesus through the crowds, so he climbed a tree for the chance to see him pass by. (As a tax collector — and therefore a collaborator with the hated Roman occupiers — the crowds probably wouldn’t have been a safe spot for him anyway.) Seeing him up in the tree, Jesus calls him by name and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner. Zacchaeus is so overwhelmed by this that he changes his whole disposition towards life and his neighbours. 

As I read the story this morning, I was reminded of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel back in Genesis. When I wrote about that story in July, I remarked that being seen by God for who he really is transforms Jacob: He is no longer defined by his relationship to his older twin Esau, but is his own man. The story of Zacchaeus strikes me as having a similar message for us. Jesus truly sees Zacchaeus — not as the embezzling tax collector or collaborating agent of Rome, but as the man, for himself, for whatever spark inside him led him up that tree just for the chance to get a glimpse of Jesus. And Jesus rewards that longing inside of him. As much as the thought of a well-respected stranger inviting himself over for dinner on no notice might sound like an anxiety-provoking imposition to most of us today, in Jesus’ day, it was a high honour to host a teacher like Jesus. Sharing a meal was a strong symbol of acceptance and intimacy. In a real way, Jesus wasn’t just saying “Zacchaeus, I see you,” but also “Zacchaeus, I accept you and want to be seen with you.” 

Zacchaeus responds effusively to Jesus’ invitation: called out of his isolation, he generously gives away half of his possessions and promises to pay back fourfold whatever he’s defrauded. 

Our culture is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness. So many people feel alone and invisible. And this is true whether we live in the anonymity of a major urban centre or the microscope of a small town. In the one case we aren’t seen for the sheer volume of people; in the other, we aren’t seen because our fellow townspeople tend to see our grandfather or great aunt when they look at us instead of seeing us. I’m increasingly convinced that the greatest gift we can offer each other is simply to see each other, to call out the good things we see, to hold up each other’s accomplishments and the best aspects of each other’s hearts. 

The LORD saw Jacob for who he was and Jacob was changed into Israel, no longer defined by his brother but his own man, the father and namesake of a great nation. Jesus saw Zacchaeus for who he was and not only was Zacchaeus was transformed, but through his restorative repentance, so was his entire community. 

How might our relationships, our churches, our communities, our world look different if we truly took the effort to see each other?

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