“…And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, ‘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.’” (Excerpt from Luke 19:1-10)
By Kathleen Durham
Perhaps it seems crazy to say this—potentially even heretical—but sometimes it is just as fruitful to meditate on what is not said in Scripture as it is to meditate on what is said in it.
Now, of course I don’t mean that we should go around imposing meaning or content to any part of Scripture. That would be heretical. But scholars have long noted that the stories that are given to us in both the Old and New Testaments contain what are called “gaps” in the text—questions that are left unanswered, information that is not made explicit—and that these gaps are what allow us to be drawn into the story, being challenged by it and even sometimes, identifying with it.
So what does that look like here? Well, have you ever wondered what in the world led Zacchaeus to climb up the tree? You see, it’s a story we’ve all heard countless times and, even though we might acknowledge it was an extraordinary act (one inviting ridicule and shame) for a man of his stature within Ancient Near Eastern culture (or, really, any man for any culture) we often simply take for granted the fact that he did it. He just climbed up the tree. But if you think carefully about it, there has to have been more to it than that. He didn’t just wake up one morning and randomly decide to climb a tree to see a traveling teacher pass by. There must have been other things in the life of Zacchaeus that had led him to the point in which he would eschew pride and self-respect to not only get a glimpse of Jesus but, as the text tells us, “to see who he was”, and, in doing so, be so completely transformed by the encounter that the he would his entire life and provide restitution for any injustices he had committed.
Why does it matter to take this into consideration? Because so often our study of this passages focuses on what Zachhaeus did to search Jesus out and we see Jesus’ words and actions as a response to that search. But in fact the last line of the passage makes clear that it was not Zacchaeus who sought first; rather it was Jesus: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
That is to say, Jesus’ passing by Zacchaeus that day and finding him in the tree was no mere coincidence; it was a part of the entire operation by which God had already been seeking him out in ways that we cannot know for certain, but that we can be sure happened, for by Jesus’ owns words in the Gospel of John, no one can come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44)
I find this challenging because, just as we have no indication in the text of the undoubtedly countless ways in which God had been reaching into Zacchaeus’ life and drawing him to Jesus, it is likely that those who surrounded him had no indication either. Indeed, we are told that it was they who had kept him from seeing Jesus (the Greek is much clearer on this that the English)—less because of his height and far more likely because of their attitudes towards him. It is possible that there had not yet been any indications of the change that was already beginning to take place in Zacchaeus; but it is also possible that even if there had been, the crowds wouldn’t have been able to see it and would have excluded him anyway.
The question is, how would we fare if we were in their shoes? Because there is one thing of which we can be certain—God’s grace is ceaselessly reaching into the lives of the lost, seeking to draw them to Christ. Will we, then, be instruments of that grace or obstacles? Will we help draw others to Christ through the same availability and hospitality we see here in Christ–even to the most despised sinners? Or will we, like the crowd, shut them out from encountering God’s transforming love because we are so conditioned by our own judgments of others that we don’t have eyes to see God’s grace in their lives?
I pray with all my heart that it would be the latter, knowing, of course, that it cannot be without that very same grace working in my own life–transforming my own heart from a heart of stone to one of flesh.
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.