If we scratch beneath the surface of the Zacchaeus story, we can learn a lot about what it means to follow Jesus in our everyday lives. Let’s look at the gospel story more closely.
As we place ourselves in the scene, we see that Zacchaeus just doesn’t fit into the group clamouring to follow Jesus. First of all, he’s short. He simply can’t see. But he’s also reviled by his compatriots. He’s a tax-collector, a turncoat, a collaborator with the enemy. He takes their hard-earned money and gives it to their oppressors. It’s amazing that he even has the gall to show his face in this crowd! If they weren’t so focused on Jesus, they may well have run Zacchaeus out of town. But it’s out of this tense relationship between Zacchaeus and the crowd that we can learn how to be better disciples of Jesus.
First, Zacchaeus is willing to go where he is not welcome in order to follow Jesus. He joins the hostile crowd because he’s drawn to this prophet from Galilee that he’s heard everyone talking about. He wants to get close to Jesus and he’s willing to risk ridicule to get there. In this, Zacchaeus challenges us to be willing to do the same, to enter into uncomfortable places in order to follow Jesus. His example calls us to ask ourselves: To which uncomfortable places do we need to go in order to get closer to Jesus, to see him more clearly?
Second, Zacchaeus climbs a tree. Not only does he join the crowd, he actually is willing to stand out from the crowd. He might well have been tempted to try and blend in but, again, his desire to see Jesus overruled this temptation. He climbs the tree where everyone can see him so that he, in turn, can catch a glimpse of Jesus. In this, too, he teaches us about discipleship. Following Jesus isn’t just about following the crowd but it’s also about, at times, being willing to stand out from the crowd.
I remember once being part of a crowd celebrating the 4th of July in Boston. We were hundreds of thousands of people lined up along the banks of the Charles River picnicking and waiting for the fireworks. There was a lot of energy in the crowd and it was easy to get swept away in all the excitement. Then the U.S. Airforce flow over in their stealth bombers. The crowd went wild, cheering and exalting these symbols of military might. No one stood outside of the crowd, in that moment, to question whether cheering these weapons of mass destruction was the right thing to do. There were no prophets in that crowd who were willing to “boo” the fact that billions of dollars were being spent on armaments rather than building a more just world. That crowd would have needed a Zacchaeus who was willing to stand out, go against the flow, in order to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus, by his example, invites us to ask ourselves: In what ways to do we need to stand out from the crowd in order to be faithful to Jesus?
Third, Zacchaeus is willing to offer his shame to Jesus. He knows he’s not a good man. He knows he’s betrayed his people. He knows he needs Jesus. Unlike many of us who would rather hide our shame and shortcomings, he exposes these to Jesus. Here, Zacchaeus calls us to bring our whole selves to Jesus, not just our successes but also our failures and vulnerabilities. One of my favourite hymns is The Summons. The lyrics ask: “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide, if I but call your name?” Zacchaeus answers ‘yes’ and shows us the way closer to our God. He challenges us to let God touch our shame and open ourselves up to transformation.
Franciscan Father Richard Rohr puts it another way. He writes, “Did you ever imagine that what we call “vulnerability” might just be the key to ongoing growth? In my experience, healthily vulnerable people use every occasion to expand, change, and grow. Yet it is a risky position to live undefended, in a kind of constant openness to the other — because it means others could sometimes actually wound us. Indeed, vulnera comes from the Latin for “to wound.” But only if we take this risk do we also allow the opposite possibility: the other might also gift us, free us, and even love us” (Rohr, 2016, The Divine Dance). Zacchaeus takes the risk and discovers the delight of God’s loving, accepting embrace.
Zacchaeus shows us how to be a disciple of Jesus, inviting us to go into uncomfortable spaces, to stand out from the crowd, and to offer our vulnerabilities to Jesus. In doing so, he discovers deep acceptance and God’s overflowing embrace. In light of this undeserved gift he (and we) can only proclaim: “Let all your works give thanks to you, O God!”
Rompré is the director of Mission and Ministry at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.