Whenever there is a situation where someone is accused of crime, there is always evidence that is gathered before the police can make an arrest. Sometimes there is forensic evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA evidence left at the scene. Sometimes there are eyewitnesses, but their own personal experiences tend to color their memories of the event, and it has happened often enough that an innocent person is accused of something when, in fact, that person is innocent.
If there is something you should have learned from watching TV crime dramas, it is this: the police are not particularly interested in how many times you claim you are innocent when they bring you in. We can protest all we want about being “law abiding”, but there are other less serious crimes for which we are guilty: we break the speed limit, we overpark the downtown meters, we inflate our charitable contributions on our tax returns, we burn leaves behind the garage in violation of city ordinance, etc… In that sense, then, none of us is totally innocent.
But what about when we’re wrongly accused? When I was a child, there were times when my brothers or sisters would do something and I would take the rap. I tried to plead innocence but to no avail. I was presumed guilty because I was the eldest son, and therefore I was more culpable than the others who were younger. In all fairness to my siblings, they might also say that they took the rap for things I did, although I can’t think of an example offhand! Reality is sometimes clouded by our perceptions, and no amount of reasoning seems adequate to the task of clearing the confusion.
In some parts of the world, Americans are perceived as the cause of poverty and suffering because we have enormous wealth and we are intent on keeping the lion’s share to ourselves. Americans are accused of idolatry, of worshipping money and economic power, of exporting Western culture to parts of the world where they don’t necessarily want McDonald’s and Coca Cola and teen obesity and hip hop. Whenever I have traveled with students abroad, I invariably end up in conversations with people about why I voted for George Bush, or why I thought the war in Iraq was a good idea. In point of fact, I did not vote for Bush, nor do I approve in any way with the war in Iraq. But, I’m an American and I share some of the guilt that my government incurrs. The reality is that no matter how we vote or how we express our private opinions, we all stand guilty by association in many people’s minds.
This is exactly how tax collectors were viewed in Judea during the Roman occupation. In a society where the overwhelming majority of people were living on the fine line between life and death, and where wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing, rich tax collectors were looked upon suspiciously.
Zacchaeus was the ‘chief tax collector’, which means the other collectors reported to him. He oversaw their operations, and probably made some money in commissions from their work…or that might be an assumption on my part! We do know he was wealthy and that he was a tax collector. Whether he kept his own records above board or not, we don’t know…but he was guilty by association.
We know one more thing about this guy: he was short. If you’ve ever been to a parade where children are present, it is not uncommon for parents to lift up their kids so they can see better. I am not a short person myself, but on rare occasion when I go out to a movie, it is invariably true that at the last minute, some giant of a person will choose to sit directly in front of me. So, I understand how Zacchaeus must have felt that day, trying to see Jesus. He’s not only short, he is guilty by association, so no one feels particularly compassionate toward him.
Then, as now, Jesus comes onto the scene, and wants to change people’s perceptions. Zacchaeus, he reminds them, is also a child of Abraham and Jesus will actually dine in his house, which is more than the others can say. By speaking to Zacchaeus, by treating him as an heir to the promises of God, by joining him in the intimate setting of his home, Jesus invites people to change their perceptions. The surprise comes, of course, when we learn that this taxcollector is a man of integrity, who is generous and actually makes amends when he discovers he has made an accounting error. He even gives half his possessions to the poor, which is more than I can say about my own charitable giving! So we not only find that Zacchaeus is responding to God’s grace by repenting of his past errors, but we also find Jesus inviting the larger community to repent of their perceptions of Zacchaeus.
It is possible to find this reading as another reminder for us to realize the extent to which we need God’s grace. We are called to be conscious of the wrongs we have committed, and to be generous. But Luke’s ending of the story is ambiguous enough to allow another interpretation. Like you, I have been judged by others unfairly, and I have also judged others unfairly, basing my opinions on external appearances and coming to a judgment without knowing the whole story. It telling this story in the way he does, Luke wants us to respond to God’s grace by changing the way we live and to change our perceptions of others as well.
Jesus sees a man of integrity, a kindred spirit in the person of Zacchaeus. Jesus himself knows what it feels like to be judged guilty by association and he, too, is known for his generosity.
To those who have ever been falsely accused, this is good news. For the story of Zacchaeus read this way is a reminder that God will bring the truth to light. This gospel is also a call for us to change our perceptions about the people we see. Everyone is a child of God, who is loved as much as we are, who needs to be welcomed and included and treasured for who they are.
When we begin to see others with the eyes of Jesus, we join him in seeking the lost and inviting them to become part of our family. We begin to see that saints are among us, that the Spirit of our God lives and breathes in the lives and words and deeds of the people around us. We begin, at last, to let go of fear and to open our hearts to sharing a meal with the stranger and to recognize Christ in our midst when we do so.