There’s a children’s Sunday school song that many in my generation learned growing up. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” It’s one of those tunes that sticks in your head. You may not remember what you had for breakfast, but if you sang that song 60 years ago, you might start singing it now, just because I brought it up.
The problem with songs like that is that they can leave us with memories that aren’t quite right. This is not a sweet little story about Jesus sticking up for someone who was picked on because he was short.
Jesus was passing through Jericho, about to begin the long climb up to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. In just over a week, Jesus would be dead, yet he stopped, not to accept the adulation of the crowd, but to spend the night in the home of Zacchaeus.
Instead of mingling with the crowd, Zacchaeus had stationed himself high in a sycamore fig tree on the road out of town. He didn’t do this because he was short and wanted to see, as the children’s song would have us believe.
He did it because he was hated.
Tax collectors were universally hated because they collaborated with the Roman occupiers. Tax collectors got rich by extorting as much as they could and keeping the difference for themselves. Zacchaeus was the chief among tax collectors. If he had mingled in the crowd, he likely would have wound up dead, and no one would have missed him.
Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay in your house today.”
Jesus took the hatred of the crowd upon himself.
It was a hint of the unexpected, lavish, self-giving love that would be on display on Good Friday of the week ahead.