19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Loneliness is often referred to as ‘the great modern plague.’ Thomas Wolfe said: ‘The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.’
Many changes have taken place in society over the past century. We no longer live in extended families with networks of relatives close at hand. The extended family gave way to the nuclear family and the nuclear family has, in many cases, given way to the single parent family, or the single person living alone.
We are also a highly mobile society, moving home several times during our lifetime. How different from our grandparents who lived all their lives in the same community. The result for many is a sense of emptiness, which sometimes becomes unbearable.
I think if Jesus were to walk amongst us again he might possibly re-phrase his well-known words: ‘Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,’ to: ‘Come to me all you who are lonely, and I will be your friend.’
This theme is at the very heart of the story we read this morning from Luke’s gospel; a story of how Jesus offered friendship to a poor little rich man; a man who showed all the signs of chronic loneliness. His name was Zacchaeus. It is also a story of how the simple gift of friendship can be means of transformation.
Zacchaeus lived in Jericho which is probably the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. In those days it sat astride one of the great trade routes of the ancient world and was one of the wealthiest cities in Israel. And Zacchaeus was one of its wealthiest inhabitants - and one of its most despised.
The reason was that he was the chief tax collector of the region. Tax collectors worked for the Romans, who had conquered Israel. They were collaborators who’d purchased the right to collect taxes for the Romans on the understanding that the Roman Army would protect them. The Romans didn’t worry how they raised the taxes, nor how much, just as long as they handed over the right amount.
The outcome, of course, was that the tax collectors would often extort as much as they could, making themselves rich in the process. It’s easy to understand why the locals despised them.
The Bible also mentions that Zacchaeus was a small man. This might have contributed to his seeming lack of concern about what people thought of him. Physical size may denote power, but he was the man who wielded power where it really counts.
One thing is certain, he was obviously an enterprising person – that’s how he’d become rich. It’s also what made him get to the one spot along the road where Jesus was to walk, where he’d have a vantage point. It was a sycamore tree (which, incidentally, still stands – I once climbed it myself). He got there ahead of the crowd and climbed it because he knew otherwise, he’d be swamped.
But despite all this enterprise and assertiveness, his wealth came at a price. Zacchaeus was a social outcast without a friend in the world. On the outside he probably didn’t seem to care; he was rich and could buy whatever and whoever he wished. But inwardly he was a man without a friend – until he met Jesus.
For many Christians, convinced as we are that the only way to do God’s will with people is to preach to them – or at them, the way Jesus dealt with Zacchaeus can seem quite puzzling, and even disappointing. Jesus didn’t preach to or at Zacchaeus, condemning him for extortion; he just offered friendship. And it was a pretty brazen offer too; ‘Come down from the tree, Zacchaeus,’ he said. ‘I’m inviting myself to stay at your house.’
There’s a great lesson in this. Lonely people usually remain in their loneliness until someone cares enough to go out of their way to befriend them. It is the nature of loneliness to turn in on itself and thereby increase the loneliness. People who suffer from it tend to become increasingly imprisoned within themselves.
Those of us who don’t suffer in this way often become exasperated with those who do. We wonder why they don’t just get out and meet other people like we do, not realizing how difficult this is for them. The thing they need to do is the very thing they can’t do on their own. That’s why with Zacchaeus Jesus took the initiative.
Over the years I’ve been to many seminars on how to help people get to know Jesus. Some of them seemed to me to be adaptations of the sort of training given to salesmen - what to say to get people to talk about what they may not want to talk about; how to talk them into making a ‘decision for Christ’ even though they may have no desire to become true disciples.
The effect of it all, I think, has been to make the typical Australian rather uncomfortable in the presence of enthusiastic believers, and to make many enthusiastic believers reluctant to get involved in what we used to call personal evangelism.
What we should do is look closely at the ways that Jesus dealt with people. They were many and varied but underneath them all was genuine concern, honest acceptance and unconditional love. The most powerful expression of this is simple friendship.
The thing that makes the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus so powerful is the impact that genuine concern, honest acceptance and unconditional love had in transforming someone whom most people felt was beyond changing
While the crowd muttered its disapproval, Zacchaeus suddenly silences them all by saying: ‘As of this moment I am going to give half of what I have to the poor, and anyone whom I have cheated is going to be repaid with four hundred percent interest.’
Now that was far more than the Jewish law required, but Zacchaeus was a changed man; and the thing that transformed him was the power of genuine concern, honest acceptance and unconditional love expressed in true friendship.
Whether Jesus actually got to talk to him about his evil deeds and nefarious enterprises we don’t know. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t need to. But Zacchaeus got the message, and even if Jesus had said anything, Luke’s account doesn’t mention it. It just tells the story of how Jesus went out of his way to befriend the lonely outcast and how that lonely outcast was transformed as a result.
And so, the story of Zacchaeus has an important message for the church – and I don’t mean the institution; I mean its members. As Jesus sought the outcasts, the friendless, the forgotten people, so he calls us to do the same in our world.
I think we tend share the world’s fixation with fame and fortune. We love to boast about important people who belong to our churches – especially if they are sports stars, thinking that this impresses people and gives the church greater credibility. But research shows that people actually get rather tired of it.
However, the underlying theme in Jesus’ ministry and that of the early church was that, even though not exclusively, it was the forgotten people of the world who were most responsive to the gospel. Which is why Jesus began his ministry by quoting the words of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.’
The message to us in this story is to remember that the Gospel is the good news of the love of God, which we communicate best when we do it as Jesus did, in genuine concern, honest acceptance and unconditional love expressed in true friendship.
But there’s also a message here for those of us who are imprisoned in our own loneliness and isolation. Even though Jesus deliberately sought Zacchaeus out and offered him that unconditional love, Zacchaeus had to choose to accept it and step out of his isolation.
I believe that in the fellowship of the church, especially in this church, that genuine concern, honest acceptance and unconditional love I’ve been talking about is very real. But it will have no transforming effect unless those to whom it is offered respond.
Here in this congregation we provide many opportunities for all sorts of people week by week to meet with others in a genuinely accepting and welcoming environment. Not only do they help people to escape from their own isolation, they also provide them the opportunity to help others do the same.
I remember how Dr. Karl Menninger, the eminent American psychiatrist, while giving a lecture on mental health, was asked what advice he would give to people who were so lonely that they felt they could no longer carry on. Everyone expected him to answer, ‘Consult a psychiatrist.’ But to their astonishment he replied: ‘I would tell them to get out of their house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone who is in need, and do something to help them.’ In other words, face what you’re afraid of and become the answer to your own loneliness by sharing someone else’s.
Well, that’s what Jesus teaches in the story of Zacchaeus and every modern version of it. To those of us who feel isolated and alone he says: ‘Come unto me all you who are lonely, and I will be your friend.’ And to those of us who already know that friendship he says: ‘You are my body - my hands, my lips, my heart. It is through your friendship that people will know my friendship, and through my friendship become whole.’