Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus is a story most church kids know—it’s easily digestible and involves climbing trees—but I think the reason it resonates so clearly with us when we’re young is because of our inherent smallness. We could relate to Zacchaeus because we too lived lives always looking up at the action. There was even a song we sang about him in Sunday School: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.” We sang this often, usually as Zac and his story were being illustrated on a felt board using paper doll versions of him, Jesus and the tree.
But more than simply being a palatable tale for children, Zac’s story serves as one of the clearest, most tradition-challenging glimpses into who Jesus was. This truth isn’t seen through a miracle or a sermon, but it’s through the people with whom Jesus spent his time that we learn a central truth about God.
Zac’s story is a short one which is fitting in that he was known for his diminutive stature, but his most important characteristic wasn’t his height, it was his occupation. He was a tax collector and while that doesn’t sound like an enviable occupation, it bore an even worse connotation to the people of his day. It reminds me of the Sheriff in Robin Hood who took the tax money away from the family of bunnies. Robin Hood was my favorite Disney movie apart from Dumbo when I was young. I loved the adventure, the talking animals, and how Prince John was a big baby, but when it got to the scene where the Sheriff barged into the bunny’s house and took away their last farthings, that really gutted me. I may have only been four or five years old, but that registered as devastating and made me hate the Sheriff. Well that’s who Zac was in real life. Men like him not only collected the king’s taxes from citizens but they also kept some off the top to make themselves wealthy. His was a class of people who were more than disliked, they were disdained.
Now, on the other side of the coin (tax collector pun!), it’s important to know Jesus wasn’t necessarily in vogue with the One-Percenters of Judea, a group of which Zac was most definitely a part. Many of the people who gravitated toward Jesus and his message of hope were those who felt they needed something Jesus could give. They were the everyman, the disenfranchised, the people taken advantage of by those with power and influence. Many of the wealthy didn’t feel like they needed anything from Jesus and they certainly didn’t have any interest in listening to parables about giving their money to the poor. Why should they give free handouts to people who didn’t work as hard as they did? So not only is it an anomaly Zac would attend a Jesus-led VBS on the street, but he probably wasn’t welcome by most in attendance.
Despite this, Zac wanted to see Jesus. Perhaps he could no longer ignore the fact that Jesus’ following was growing quicker than Adele’s and he needed to see first-hand why people all over wanted a piece of him. The problem was that since he was so short, he couldn’t see over the crowd. Running ahead of the throng of people, he climbed up into a tree in order to catch a glimpse of this everyman’s Jesus, this grassroots rock star, as he walked his way.
In the story, Jesus gets to where Zac is perched in the tree, looks up and tells him, by name, to get down. I’m gonna hang at your place today, Zac. I missed the importance of that statement when I was younger. Jesus actually called him out by name which implies Zac was such a known figure in the area, Jesus knew who he was. What’s more, not only did he audibly speak recognition of this man in front of a crowd of witnesses, but he said he was coming over to his house to spend an afternoon. Zac wasn’t merely spotted in the branches, his existence as a loathed tax collector was welcomed into that gathering of people. Both socially and spiritually, this was a revolutionary act; a clarion bell ringing loudly to everyone within earshot. Yet the crowd didn’t see it that way. They began talking amongst themselves, gossiping about how Jesus had gone to be the guest of a known sinner. [Luke 19:7] Imagine that.
A couple years ago, gospel singer Tasha Cobbs made news when she announced rapper Nicki Minaj would have a guest feature on her newest album. Tasha’s previous album won her a Grammy and she’d quickly risen to prominence in the gospel world but when I read Ms. Minaj would be guesting on a song, I immediately went to Twitter, typed in Tasha’s name and started scrolling. What came up was a whole lot of, “How can she be associated with someone as trashy as Nicki Minaj,” “I thought she was a Christian,” and “How could a Christian do this?” Sadly, I knew that would be the response even before I looked.
When I was in high school, Kirk Franklin released “The Nu Nation Project” album and the first single was a song called “Lean on Me.” The track featured Bono, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly and Christian singer Crystal Lewis. It was nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys and the single sold more than 1.5 million copies but when it played on the Christian radio station in Dallas, it featured only Crystal Lewis. The station wouldn’t play the version with the “secular” artists. Now, this could be as rooted in racism as it was their unwillingness to play artists who weren’t vocationally gospel singers—the number of non-white singers played on Christian radio could be counted on one hand—but there was a definite chasm forged, an “us versus them” line in the sand that many continue to will into existence as made evident by the comments about Tasha Cobbs almost two decades later.
Which brings us back to Zacchaeus. Those people despised Zac in the same way those tweeting Super-Christians despised Ms. Minaj. The lines were drawn and this was “their” gospel, but Jesus wasn’t sticking to their script. As Beyoncé, Michelle and Kelly put it, “When Jesus say yes, nobody can say no.”
As radical as it was for Jesus to pay attention to this person who’d cheated so many out of their money, Zac’s response was equally so. After he was recognized and welcomed into the circle by Jesus, Zac pledged to give half of all his possessions to the poor. This was no small claim, nor would it be one he could ignore later as he was, in that moment, surrounded by the poor. But that wasn’t all. He then committed himself to restorative justice. He said if he’d cheated anyone out of anything, he would pay them back four times over. This is his Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning moment. It’s akin to the end of The Muppets Christmas Carol—the greatest of all the portrayals of Scrooge’s story—when Michael Caine tells the bunny to go get the goose and keep the change. He does so while shouting out the window for all to hear; a public declaration of his changed heart.
What did Jesus say in response? Not that he’s a sinner. Not that he’s the living worst for bilking people out of their tax money. Not that he doesn’t deserve to be there among the other Christ-followers or that he needed to take a specific discipleship course before he was allowed into the inner ministry circle. He said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” [Luke 19:9]
This interaction begs the question:
Who is allowed access to Jesus?
When I was an intern at a church in Times Square, the pastor touted the changing power of God by telling one specific story over and over. It was as much as part of the church’s lore as the story about how he threw out his television and prayed instead, the result being the church in which we sat.
The pastor spoke of the church’s location in a used-to-be Broadway theater—a “place of depravity”—and how it was now being used for the Lord. The congregants applauded this every time he said it. Truth be told, it was the theater where Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison sang in the original production of My Fair Lady and where hits including The Sound of Music, The Pirates of Penzance, Man of La Mancha, Oliver!, and Jesus Christ Superstar made their bows. That last one was a real sticking point. “A stage that once proclaimed blasphemy now proclaims the truth of Jesus!” The crowd went wild.
The story he’d tell was when the church first opened its doors, there was a row of drag queens who attended service each week. They were welcomed through the doors and “thanks to God’s transformative power,” they got saved, quit drag, and could then become active in the church. The audience shouted “amen” and self-congratulated themselves for their openness to such sinners. The problem was that those queens’ entrance into this church community came with a caveat: You can stay if you change. You can be involved if you change.
Well, Zac changed.
You’re right. Zac did change his life in order to follow Jesus. But he did so because he’d intentionally and willfully wronged many, many people. Jesus didn’t instruct him to change, nor did a church or the people around him. He did so because it was his way of restoring what he’d stolen from people. That’s not the same as a row of drag queens who simply want to hear about the love of God before Sunday drag brunch. Their invitation for inclusion was conditional on them changing facets of themselves to fit the mold of who the church deemed sanctified.
One of the reasons so many gay people detach from their Christian heritage is that a common ground is much easier to find inside the walls of a gay bar than inside a church. In the same vein, they’re encouraged to come into bars and be an active part of the culture. The church isn’t nearly as inviting. Sure, most will allow anyone into the room—“We welcome all people. We’re called to love everyone,” said every pastor ever—but you can’t stand on that stage or sing that song or be in that choir if you are “living that lifestyle.” This lack of invitation begins to act as a barricade between people who are othered and the God they learned about in Sunday School.
But let’s be fair, it’s not just about gay people. In some churches it’s about people of color, in others it’s about women. Marginalization has kept many people who aren’t straight white males at arm’s length in the same way those in Jesus’ in-crowd decided who was allowed near him and who wasn’t.
There’s a dichotomy taking place at the foot of the sycamore tree. The crowd saw Jesus as exclusive but the Jesus who Zacchaeus met was inclusive. That divide still exists today. Many lean on dogmas and traditions as ways to erect partitions to keep othered people from being full-participants in their faith and “the church,” but by doing so, they’re invalidating God’s inclusive nature. Their God exists within the confines of the black and white interpretation of a Bible they’ve decided is frozen. They ignore the fact that while God is the same today as yesterday, our interpretation of the Bible is not.
I’ve gone to the uncomfortable place; the place where I say the opposite from what you were told in Sunday School. For some context, look at God’s people over the course of the Bible. They look very different at the end than they do at the beginning. There’s a purposeful progression, an evolution of sorts taking place as pertains to who’s in and who’s out. The way the world worked spiritually and socially when Abraham, Moses and Samson were around was archaic compared to the world of Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene. Over the course of the thousands of years it took to write these scattered stories down, the world changed and so did the concept of who was allowed access to God.
The world and the people in it didn’t stop progressing just because the ink ran out on the books of the Bible. It’s silly to believe because Paul, a human man, told one specific church to act a certain way for various culturally-relevant and period-appropriate reasons that we should still be doing the exact same thing two thousand years, a renaissance, and an industrial revolution later. Of course it’s not the same. The world isn’t the same.
Much of today’s church-based Biblical application involves a fair amount of cherry-picking which biblical rules are meant to be strictly followed and which are passé. For example, many Christians can ignore someone’s tattoos and cut their hair and allow women to speak in public from time to time—those things are fine to gossip about with your second wife over your fourth helping at an all-you-can-eat buffet of shellfish—but on other issues, God is apparently black and white.
You’re gay? Well that’s sin and we can’t let you sing on our praise team.
You dress like a “thug?” You don’t present the right image in order to be a leader.
Oh, yes ma’am, I’m sure God did tell you that, but let’s leave the Sunday morning preaching to the men. That’s how God designed the church after all.
The cherry-picking of scripture coupled with assorted rules and dogma created by people and pastors have, in many ways, created a box in which we can place and contain God; a God whose love may be a fountain flowing deep and wide but whose grace apparently only exists within the box in which we feel comfortable. That’s not how Jesus works and the story of Zac is proof of that.
The God that exists in many people’s lives is so small and restrictive it’s no wonder folks are “falling away” from faith so quickly. A 2014 Barna study found that 59 percent of millennials raised in church have dropped out. On top of that, 35 percent of millennials believe the church does more harm than good. The problem with churches isn’t that they aren’t cool. It’s not that they aren’t hip or trendy enough or that the music doesn’t reflect the newest Ed Sheeran single. The problem is that many aren’t doling out true unconditional love. They’ve edited God’s boundless love down to a conditional salvation, one you have to constantly prune and tidy or you’ll wind up in hell with the AIDS victims and the civil rights advocates.
Jesus didn’t ask Zac to change. That wasn’t a requirement for his inclusion into the group. We’re the ones who have created a set of rules about who qualifies for our brand of faith, who’s allowed on our stage, and who’s worthy of being given full access to participating in the church. We’re doing ourselves and our witness a disservice because all of our manmade qualifications are chipping away at the church’s ability to see many of the facets of Jesus. Not only are we harming people by shutting them out, but we’re missing out on so much of the wonder of God’s diverse creation.
So you’re saying anyone should be allowed in?
But that would require us to reconsider and in many ways rethink much of the dogma we’ve believed all our lives.
And that’s not easy. As a matter of fact, it can be incredibly painful to challenge and dismantle factions of our faith in order to allow God to give us a new understanding. But just as Jesus’ acceptance of Zac challenged that crowd’s idea of who was worthy of face-time with their teacher, so too must we look at what we think we know “for sure” about our faith and consider that God’s love reaches much farther and much wider than we ever believed.
The church has never been a building or a set of traditions. It’s never been about rules and stipulations. The church has only ever been us. We, the diverse, global community of God-followers are the church. There’s no cover charge for inclusion, no co-op board to approve our entrance. It’s us just as we are. Access to God is assured to anyone who believes. Anyone. Zac’s story shows that if your gospel keeps people out, it’s not a gospel that reflects or represents Jesus.
Here’s what I know for sure: Of all of the people who were following after Jesus on that road, the person who got the closest, most intimate, personal experience with him was Zac. It wasn’t the people who, like Heidi Klum on Project Runway, dictated who was in and who was out. Zacchaeus, a reviled sinner, was “fearfully and wonderfully made” just as he was—just like you and me—and on that day, he met Jesus.
Zacchaeus’ story can be found in the book of Luke, chapter nineteen.
So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here.
Illustrations by freepik.com