Sermonizing: the courage of Zacchaeus

This weekend I got to preach at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, MN on one of my favorite Bible stories: the short and tenacious Zacchaeus. It went well, and here’s what I said. Sub-titles are in bold italics so you can see where I’m going (hopefully). Enjoy.

Zacchaeus; ok why?

The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) is one of the first Bible stories I remember learning about when I was little. I think it was partly because he climbs in a tree to see Jesus come into town – and I loved trees, climbing trees, and I still do.

But I think the reason I remember the Zacchaeus story so vividly is because of the song – do you know it? Well, if you don’t I show you! Come on, you know you want to sing it:


Zacchaeus was a wee little man,

and a wee little man was he.

He climbed up in a sycamore tree

For the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Savior passed that way

He looked up in the tree.

[spoken] And said, Zacchaeus, you come down!

For I’m going to your house today!

For I’m going to your house today!

As we just heard in Luke 19 and in the song, Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in his community, which meant that he collected people’s money and he was known in the community as the leader of all tax dealings. So then Jesus comes to his town and Zacchaeus is so excited to see him (and he’s short, so there’s that) that he finds a tree to climb so he can see above of the crowd.

In the midst of this huge growing crowd, Jesus points out one person: Zacchaeus. And he says, without being invited over, “I’m coming over to your house today.”

So Jesus comes to Zacchaeus’ house, and Zacchaeus is happy to welcome him. Here comes the jealous, grumbling crowd: “Why does Jesus want to come to HIS house?” and, “Why is Zacchaeus HAPPY about Jesus coming to and seeing his place, how could HE be into Jesus – he’s a tax collector!?” But to their disbelief, Jesus came over and Zacchaeus started to tell him about the things he already does – like give money to the poor, and how he pays back any debts he has. Jesus then replies that life and salvation has come to his house (I can just image Jesus saying this with a big grin and giving Zacchaeus a bear hug); Jesus says that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham and with a parable-like ending, Jesus says, “for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Now did you hear something a little different in this storytelling of Zacchaeus? A few versions (interpretations) of the Bible (NRSV, etc.) say that after Jesus comes to his house, Zacchaeus says “I will give money to the poor and pay back any debts.” Jesus’ presence changes Zacchaeus’ mind and Zacchaeus goes from being a “sinner” to being righteous – as some call it, he’s converted. But what’s crazy is the original language of the New Testament, Greek, uses a different tense: present, not future. It’s not that Zacchaeus WILL do these things, but that Zacchaeus currently, in the present, gives to the poor and Zacchaeus currently gives back any debts he accrues.

This takes on a whole meaning to the Zacchaeus story. Zacchaeus’ story, I wonder, isn’t about conversion – it’s about the courage to be seen.

What if Zacchaeus doesn’t reach out to Jesus to be converted, but Jesus reaches out to Zacchaeus, and then Zacchaeus feels confident in letting himself be seen to Jesus? That changes the whole story!

Zacchaeus’ whole community knows him as the chief tax collector. That is his single story as far as the rest of the town is concerned. It’s unclear if it’s because of something he’s done, or what people assume about him, but the crowd that gathers at Jesus’ arrival “grumbles” and says, “He [Jesus] has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

But when Zacchaeus talks with Jesus at his house, we see another side. Zacchaeus says that he currently gives money to the poor, and repays debts. This is not a story he shares with the rest of his community, and I imagine this revelation is shared with only Jesus perhaps intentionally. But why? Why does a chief tax collector keep that a secret? My guess is that he is afraid he’ll lose his authority if he is so vulnerable and humble with them.

But the point I really want make is that everyone has more than one story, even the “bad guys” of the Bible, of our lives, of our world, and of our neighborhoods. When we’re vulnerable with each other and share our stories, like Zacchaeus and Jesus, something really wonderful and sacred happens.

You really can’t tell a story without being seen. It’s an essential ingredient in telling the truth.

Dare to be seen

What’s the big deal about being seen? It’s what happens when we open up to one another, like how Zacchaeus opened up to Jesus. Unfortunately when you open up to new people and possibilities, you open yourself to the ups and downs, super high joys and super low sadness and fear. I haven’t been on this earth too long, but I do know that.

Opening up to each other and being vulnerable is required for connection. We all long for connection; to make a friend, to reach out to a neighbor, to make besties with your barista, to re-strengthen a relationship with a family member – it’s in our human DNA. So when we dare to be seen, we are acting out of one of the strongest desires in each of us – to connect with each other and make a difference in someone else’s life.

What does this mean for you?

So what does this mean for you? Well, for one, you’ve learned or have been reminded of a great song that I hope is stuck in your head for the rest of the day. But more than that I hope you hear that your stories matter. You are a child of God, like no other child of God – meaning that you have a story about where you grew up – and that’s one story.

Like, I grew up in the Seattle area and our first house was “the little house” – the house my great-grandma Mabel had right by the airport. I still remember that shaggy brown carpet. It was a little one-floor house; but it was our house, filled with love and sticky popsicles and my sister chasing me around onto the back porch. So – that’s my story of where I grew up. And each of you have a story of where you grew up that matters.

But I bet you also have a story of a time that you made a major shift from what you knew to what you didn’t know – a new town, a new city, a new pace of life, a new independence, a new love, a new opportunity. I bet if we went around the room we would hear a different story from each of you about a time when you made this kind of change. How beautiful is that? God is present in each of your lives, and yet God’s story is playing out in so many different stories just in this room.

The scope of God’s story started in the Bible, yes, but that rich story of love, heartbreak, social justice, ups, and downs, continues today. God’s story is not done being written.

God is still writing.

God’s story is woven into ours. So I hope you hear me clear as a bell: your stories matter. Because when you allow yourself to be seen, and you tell your stories, God’s presence is especially poignant as we connect to each other and we connect to God.

What does this matter to us?

What does this mean for us? As Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, MN? Does storytelling matter Trinity? Yes, immensely!

If we don’t tell the story of Trinity, how will our love and service continue beyond us?

I have a difficult time getting into politics, institutions and legacies – but in when it comes to telling our stories of a community – of Trinity – I couldn’t be more behind it. Because essentially your stories, our stories show who we are, what/who we love, and who we dream to be. If you can tell one of your stories, you can be a significant force for change.

What if?

Zacchaeus told Jesus his stories of being a tax collector and a giving person. He dared to be seen, because just like us, he wanted to make an authentic connection with other person, and feel that he mattered to his savior, Jesus. Just as our stories root us in who we are and who we dream to be, Jesus roots Zacchaeus in the then-generations old story of Abraham, a leader among the community who God first claimed as God’s, Israel. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that. We ask and we sing “Jesus remember me;” we are essentially saying, “Jesus, remember my stories.” Jesus does for Zacchaeus and he does for us today as we allow ourselves to be seen as we tell our stories.

As Zacchaeus and Jesus’ visit was coming to an end, Jesus said, “For the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Just as Jesus sought out Zacchaeus to hear his stories and to be a presence of love and salvation, Jesus does that for each and everyone one of you. Jesus points out to you in the crowd and says “You [Yes, you]! I’m coming to your house today!”

Think for a second – if you had the chance to tell Jesus one of your stories, what story would you tell?

To be honest, I don’t which one of my stories I would tell, but I do know that Jesus would have a pretty awesome story to share with me.

Reference and “thanks for the inspiration” goes to:


Brene Brown,

David Lose,

Humans of New York,

News, PLU,


3 thoughts on “Sermonizing: the courage of Zacchaeus

  1. Good insight Allison – you have a gift and we love your idea and awareness of the importance of stories – a real blessing to us in the elder generation!

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