This passage reads like a gospel psychology textbook! It’s a lesson in how what goes around comes around. Reading between the lines, we can guess how Zacchaeus, short and geeky, was pushed to the edge, maybe laughed at and left out. Compensating with remarkable success he turned the tables on the community in which he grew up, and extorted in cash the well-being that was not on offer in the form of acceptance and affirmation. And eventually everyone hated him.
The phrase “at the top of the tree” comes into its own in the story of Zacchaeus. We see him perched at the top of the tree in every way – powerful, abundantly wealthy, and isolated on the perch to which he had scrambled, shoved as he was to the outskirts of the crowd who would make no place to let him in.
Jesus turns this around by loving him, choosing him, affirming him. That’s all it takes.
It’s easy to be jealous of people who have great wealth, big houses, and a life of luxury – but who, reading this story, could possibly feel jealous of Zacchaeus? Of course it’s natural to enjoy our creature comforts. Make a list of five things you would like to have if you could afford them, and five things you would love to have that money cannot buy. What would have to change in your life to bring them into reality?
Zacchaeus was a lonely man, ostracized, and unloved. He had chosen wealth instead of human relationships – and maybe had taken refuge in money because he had lacked friends and the social skills to make them. Can you think of ways in which you have sometimes sought comfort in material things because you felt sad or inadequate or depressed? They don’t call it “retail therapy” for nothing!
Unlike the rich young man, Jesus did not ask or expect Zacchaeus to sell up, give away everything he had, and follow him. Zacchaeus’ generous but realistic plan of giving away half of what he had, and repaying at huge interest money he had acquired unjustly, was enough to win Jesus’ approval. We are called to live honestly and generously, but at different levels of relative wealth or simplicity. At what point do you think wealth might get in the way of a person’s practising their faith? Do you think everybody should tithe at 10 per cent or do you think giving is a very individual matter? Do you feel that there are adjustments you would like to make in your own lifestyle, and what might make it easy or hard for you to do that?
O God of generous love and abundant provision, we give thanks to you for your mercy and kindness poured out upon our own lives. Thank you for our friends, our homes and families, the hospitality we enjoy in the homes of others, and the chance to offer hospitality ourselves. Thank you for the material benefits of our lives, and the well-being we enjoy. By your grace at work in our hearts, make us generous and forgiving, eager to share, and sensitive to the loneliness and needs of others. May we so treat other people that injustice and greed cannot flourish easily in the environments we create, because love and acceptance are the keynotes of our communities. This we ask in Jesus’ holy name; Amen.