Zaccheus was a wee little man...
I look back on my Sunday School experiences as a child with fond affection. Many of the Bible stories that have formed the core of my faith life were seeds tucked into my soul in those days. When we come across those stories in the Sunday, or Daily, lectionaries of the Church I feel like I am greeting old friends. When I am called to preach on them, I feel a sense of familiarity and affection, as one might for a relative who is visiting your home after a too-long absence. The story of Jesus' encounter with Zaccheus is one of those stories.
Why should an encounter between Jesus and a tax collector mean so much to a child? As an adult, I recognize both the context of the encounter: Jesus' pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his conflict with the Pharisees and his final efforts to teach and preach the Kingdom in his last days. I also note how complex the witness of Zaccheus' faith is to both the people of Israel and the gentile listeners to the Gospel narrative: he is a notorious collector of the Roman tax, and yet he vows to make restitution in such a manner that exceeds even the expressed righteousness of the Pharisees. All of that is significant, powerful Good News. Little of that matters to the mind of a child.
What matters to a child? Zaccheus was a wee little man/ a wee little man was he/ he climbed up into a sycamore tree/ for the Lord he wanted to see... Zaccheus was a little man. He was "child-sized." His stature meant that he would not be able to see Jesus as he passed. He was willing to surrender his dignity to find a perch in order to simply see Jesus...and Jesus in turn sees him. Jesus, seeing him, connects to him. Out of all the people in Jericho to visit with in their home that day, Jesus chose the little man. To a little boy in Sunday School? That matters greatly: when Jesus chooses the little man, he chooses all the little one. That little boy I was suddenly felt like climbing a sycamore tree. That little boy suddenly felt a little closer to God.
It is those little gestures, those little moments that inform our lives of how God works in the world and through human beings. Years later, as a young man, I was assigned a Tolstoy to read that gave deeper color to that "Zaccheus feeling." Tolstoy's "What Men Live By" is the story of a simple shoe maker who struggles with poverty. On a bad day, he encounters a naked man, freezing next to a roadside shrine. Having pity on him, he takes the man home. He and his wife feed and clothe him, and the man becomes his assistant. It turns out the man is actually the archangel Michael, who having disobeyed God is tasked with finding the answer to three questions: "What dwells in man?" What is not given to man" What do men live by?"
What dwells in man? Love. The shoemaker and his wife are too poor, and yet they are willing to offer what food they have and what comfort they possess to a stranger in need. Why? Because they know love.
What is not given to man? To know his own needs. A Nobleman comes to the shoemaker for a pair of hunting boots, and Michael seeing death over his shoulder makes him a pair of funerary slippers. Humans do not know what they need, and so must live lives of faith with uncertainty: a novelty to an angel who stands in the very Presence of God.
What do men live by? Love exists in all of us. When Michael disobeys God, it is because he refuses to take a soul of a dying woman who has just given birth to twins. She pleads that no one could love and care for her children like she could. The last visit to the shoemakers home in the story is from the woman who took the twins into her home. She did so not because of blood or obligation. She did it out of love.
The story of Zaccheus, for me, is the gateway to an understanding of God's love for the world (and for the little people in it) that has for years continued to open up new lessons in faith for life lived fully in the here and now. God's grace is found in the common, simple and human gestures we too often take for granted.
May all of us, today, find the time and energy to notice those little things that make all the difference for us in the Kingdom of God.