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My father was not a tall man. He stood five feet three in his socks. He was shorter than my mother and, quite early in their growth, he no longer could look down at his three children.
He was a bit sensitive about it. One of my earliest memories was sitting on a chair, swinging my legs (I hadn’t caught up to him yet) while he was measured for a suit. It was in the days when most suits were made to measure and the tailor knelt down and put his tape to my father’s inside leg.
“A bit short in the leg, aren’t you, sir?” said the tailor. Accurate though his assessment was, it hit a sensitive nerve in my father.
“Huh!” he replied gruffly. “They reach the ground like everyone else’s”
Perhaps, if, like me, you were brought up as a child on Bible stories, Zacchaeus is one of the unforgettable ones. You may have sung that odd little song that starts like this:
Zacchaeus was a very little man and a very little man was he.
He climbed up into a sycamore tree for the Saviour he wanted to see.
If the song has a redeeming feature, it comes in the final line:
and what he did for a very little man he can do for me and you.
And probably, like me, the events of that story that stick in your mind are that Zacchaeus was short and that he climbed into the sycamore tree to see Jesus, neither of which really matters except in the margins.
Zacchaeus’ stature only has relevance because it gives Luke a chance to emphasise how keen he was to see Jesus, to the point of climbing a tree.
Perhaps, though, there is a hint in Zacchaeus’ vertical challenge in the Psalm – I am small and of no account – a reminder that we are all small in the cosmic scale of things, and perhaps of little account, but to God, for whom size doesn’t matter, no-one is insignificant, no-one is of no account. Even the hairs on our head are numbered.
Whoever we are, whatever our stature, whatever other aspects of our being might be worthy of note in human terms and in earthly priorities, God knows us and loves us.
Jesus picks Zacchaeus out. It is Jesus who make the first contact in response to Zacchaeus’ anxiety, one of those uncanny moments that shows how God knows our needs before we ask, even before we can articulate them ourselves.
Zacchaeus has wealth, status of a kind but he is incomplete and he knows it. Earthly concerns do not satisfy his soul and he is anxious to see Jesus, desperate enough to climb the tree.
Like the rich ruler from last week, he is looking for something deeper, something to feed the inner longing we all have as human beings. But unlike last week’s central character, Zacchaeus does not walk away in sadness. He is given and answer and knows how to respond.
St Augustine, who spent his early years exploring all kinds of pathways to fulfilment (remember how he prayed ‘Lord make me holy, but not yet!) defines such a soul as ‘restless’.
Remember ‘you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.’ (Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 1)
Jesus draws this restless heart to himself, and as he does so, he demonstrates the embrace of God for the hated and for the outcast, the sinner and the despised one in his society. And he embraces the restless, who seek peace, a peace this world cannot give, a peace to be found in God alone.
God’s love rises above and stands beyond the law and Jesus insists on entering Zacchaeus’ household, on becoming one with him. The result transforms the life of one restless soul and that of his whole family. And it transforms the contemporary understanding of how God deals with humankind. It is the triumph of grace over law.
It is metanoia, a word which we often find translated as ‘repentance’, but implies much more. Commonly, repentance we think of as being sorry, but there is no point in regret, in sorrow, if it does not lead to a new way of thinking and, especially, a radically different way of being, of action. Perhaps if we think of it as a transformative change of heart, a renewal, a rebirth, even that lovely phrase from our liturgy ‘newness of life’.
Psychologists use the term to denote a transformation of the psyche, a dissolution of the old into something restorative, a kind of self-healing. And this is what happens to Zacchaeus, as one commentator puts it ‘by bursting through the religious prejudices that isolated him, Jesus awakens to vibrant life the impulses that had long lain dormant, revealing to him the man he was capable of becoming’. (GB Caird)
Which of us does not long for such transformation, for the chance to bring to life what lies within us, what enables us to grow into fullness of life. St Irenaeus said that the glory of God is a person fully alive. In this story, we find the way to such completeness.
And it is transforming, not just for Zacchaeus and his family, but for the prospects of all humankind, for the salvation of the world, as we heard last week.
And this by virtue of his response to Jesus insistence, Jesus inviting himself to come and break bread with this restless soul. It heralds the great commission to the Gentiles, where no-one is beyond the reach of God’s love – Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, tall or short, loathed or loved – all made one in Christ’s invitation.
Isn’t that a wonderful invitation, not just for each one of us fallible people, but for the whole of creation. Just by letting God in.
In our walk in faith, we use religious clichés so readily, don’t we? If we ‘let Jesus into our lives’… What does it mean to do that? Let me try.
When we talk of our ‘relationship with God’ that brings us great comfort and encouragement but I wonder whether it is all God wants of us. Is there more on offer? Jesus says to Zacchaeus ‘I will come into your household and sup with you’. It is a very intrusive, a very bold suggestion. Consider it as an invitation to become one of the family.
A relationship with God suggests a kind of separateness, distance even, that doesn’t quite achieve the pinnacle of life with God, expressed particularly in the writings of John, where the hope and the intention is more than relationship, friendship. It is complete union where we become so immersed in God’s being that we become part of God and God becomes part of us.
Like in marriage, where two ‘become one flesh’, for the ancient Hebrews, there is no separation of body from heart, mind and spirit. It is inspirited flesh and incarnate spirit. Perhaps we might think of our being with God in the same deeply intimate union.
And it is there in our liturgy, in that beautiful Prayer of Humble Access ….
Grant us …. so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.
As Jesus invites himself to share with us today in his supper to feed on the bread of life, he invites us to oneness with his divine self, to dwell in him and to allow him to dwell in us.
For me that adds a richer dimension to what it means to let Jesus into your life. To be so consumed in his being that we are completely at one with him, always and everywhere. And we shall find peace. Restlessness will cease as we find rest in him.
Let us, like Zacchaeus, be transformed and renewed as we entertain the real presence of Christ in word, in sacrament and in truth, this and every day.
Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying.
After all, our feet do reach the ground.