Confession: I was a back-pew sitter for three years of my life. I was young and enthusiastic about the ministry I witnessed at the new, hip church I began attending, but I sat in the back row. I remember feeling welcome in the services, but not in the community. The church was happy to have me attend, to worship, and to hear the sermon, but for some reason each of my attempts to get plugged into a small group, Bible study, or some form of community failed for the first three years of my attendance.
While I read the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 this week, I found myself thinking back on that time in the church and identifying with Zacchaeus. You can read the full text here, but this is my summary:
Zacchaeus is a short, little guy, and a tax collector, and he hears that Jesus is coming through their town. He really wants to see Jesus, but he can’t see over the crowd of people. So he climbs up a tree, and Jesus calls to him and asks to stay in his house. Zaccheaus celebrates the honor of hosting Jesus in his home, but those in his community grumble, stating, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” In response, Zacchaeus declares to the Lord that he gives half of his goods to the poor, and that he has returned four times the amount of any extra money he took from those in his community. And Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
To fully understand this story, we have to understand the job of a tax collector in the 1st Century. To get the job, individuals would submit bids stating that they would collect a certain amount of money, and the person who bid the highest typically got the job. The highest bidders were also often the richest in their communities, because they knew they could use their own wealth if they didn’t meet their quotas. The tax collectors would then often hire out other individuals to collect on their behalf, and that’s why Zacchaeus is specifically cited as “a ruler among tax collectors” — he probably had subordinates working for him. The payment system required the tax collector to give the governor the amount of money he originally bid, and everything left over was his profit. So you can see how the system could get corrupt pretty quickly, and why the community may be ambivalent about helping him out.
Zacchaeus was an outsider — he was the one who collected taxes in his community, and therefore they struggled to trust him. But Zacchaeus flies in the face of their stereotypes and projections, and proclaims that he has gone overboard to remain righteous and just within the parameters of his vocation.
I can’t get over the image of Zacchaeus in the tree. He climbs up there, knowing that he is too little to see over the crowd and knowing the the crowd simply won’t help him. So he dwells up in the tree, waiting for Jesus.
It makes me wonder how many people in our lives and in our communities are waiting up in the trees. They are too fearful to face the crowd below, or the crowd pushed them up there because they didn’t believe or behave the way the crowd wanted them to. And out of their love for Jesus and their fear of the Church, they choose to live in the trees.
The back row was a nice tree to live in — it gave me the opportunity to witness and to encounter Jesus every week. But can you imagine the sweetness of having a community who pulled me down, embraced me, welcomed me in, and led me to Jesus? I have since been blessed to experience that in a number of other congregations, and the warmth of that acceptance is indescribably good and holy.
So let’s look around us today, let’s peek up into the trees of our lives and our communities, and let’s see who may be yearning to be drawn back in.