November 3, 2013
This is Part Three in my series: "The Power of Persistence."
Doesn't it strike you as a tad coincidental that, just when Zacchaeus was ripe for conversion, Jesus happens to be passing through? Jesus just happens to be in the neighborhood at the right moment for Zacchaeus to catch sight of his forgiving face?
I don't think it's a coincidence at all. I think it is one more sign of God's excellent timing. Of course, when God consistently seeks us out in every time and every place, there are bound to be times when God or Jesus "shows up" just at the right time.
Paul says it well: "God proves God's love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). How is that for timing?
Throughout the gospel of Luke, Jesus seems to be passing by at just the right time for people. Just when a man is twisted by demons (4:31, 8:26), Jesus the exorcist passes by.
Just as men are involved in the daily grind of making a living, Jesus passes by and calls them to follow him (chap. 5).
Just as a centurion's servant falls ill, Jesus happens to be in town (chap. 7).
Just as we are involved in judging someone else or being judged ourselves, Jesus walking by and overhearing, breaks into the circle (7:36f).
Just as someone reaches the end of her suffering rope, after years of struggle, Jesus happens to be moving down the street (8:41).
Just when we are feeling we haven't achieved enough prestige in our lives compared to others, Jesus comes along with a word of correction (9:46).
Just when we realize we don't really know how to pray, the teacher who does happens to be praying a stone's throw away (chap. 11).
At exactly the moment we are brimming over with fears, the Savior utters his anti-anxiety instructions (12:22).
Just when someone think they are beyond the notice and reach of a loving, forgiving God, Jesus the Good Shepherd, the Forgiving Parent, sets out on his search (15:1, 15:11).
Right when we are mired in guilt (18:13) or smothered by our possessions (18:18), Jesus comes along.
And just when a short, insecure extortionist is primed for repentance, guess who is passing through Jericho?
Luke tells the parable of the Pharisees and the tax collector in chapter 18:9-14. A tax collector whom we would not expect to behave humbly, stands "far off" from a respected Pharisee and confesses his sin and his desire for God's mercy (Lk. 19:10).
Immediately after that, we have the story of Jesus' encounter with a Rich Ruler (18:18-25) who is unable to repent and renounce his possessions. Then Jesus foretells his death and resurrection a third time in Luke, heals a blind man, and now we come to the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was very rich, but short in stature. New Testament scholar Anselm Grun theorizes that it is precisely because he was small and felt small that he attempted to compensate for his feelings of inferiority by earning as much as possible. To do so he extorted money from people, as tax collectors for the Romans did at that time. Zacchaeus wanted to stand out to gain recognition, but the result was that he was isolated and rejected. He felt compelled to set himself above people because, alongside them, he felt too small. So perhaps there was a vicious cycle of insecurity, exploitation of others, loneliness, and rejection at work in Zacchaeus's relationships in the community, or, more accurately, his lack of relationships (125-6).
In climbing the tree, Zacchaeus sets himself above people once again. He climbs a tree to make up for his short stature and is physically high above the crowd. But his motive is to see Jesus. Why? We're not sure. With the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector still fresh in my mind, I imagine Zacchaeus as the tax collector escaped from the corner of the Temple to seek out the source of the forgiveness that can jolt him out of his pattern of exploitation of others, self-loathing, and isolation.
Jesus comes along and looks up to Zacchaeus. Grun points out that the Greek word is anablepo, which most often indicates looking up to heaven and to disembodied ideas. Jesus looks up to an embodied person and sees the face of God. "Zacchaeus gets a new face. He discovers his own face in the face of Jesus. And his face is filled with joy" (126).
Jesus calls him by his name and he quickly comes down. Jesus doesn't preach repentance but invites Zacchaeus to experience God's unconditional love. This invitation sparks Zacchaeus's repentance. Zacchaeus has been accepted. He has "come into contact with his own dignity" in the face of Jesus. (Grun, 126)
The broad witness of Scripture from both testaments shows that God has great timing, even if human beings don't. God is always seeking, but human beings don't always respond.