Searching for Security

image courtesy Ian Scott, some rights reserved

image courtesy Ian Scott, some rights reserved, click to link

There’s a song I learned in the late 1960s that goes something like this:

 Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see. And when the master passed that way, he looked up in the tree. He said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today.”

Given my childhood memory of the song, I am puzzled why I’ve never preached on this passage until now.

If you’d asked my six-year-old self to draw a picture of Zacchaeus, then I’d probably have made him a head shorter than Jesus, with a scraggly beard, quite different in appearance and attitude from my Sunday school teachers and pastor. My 51-year-old self, however, has more sympathy for Zacchaeus, an understanding born from life experience.

Years ago, I was leading a men’s Bible study, and the question came up: “If you could be guaranteed one thing in life, what would it be?” Most of the men in the group had children at home, and the conversation turned to our desire for the safety, health, and happiness of our sons and daughters. We realized how much of our time and energy was devoted to this end, whether directly or indirectly. Some were tied to particular positions or geographical places in order to provide stability and security for their families. Most felt they had given up special interests in order to maintain a home, and guide and support family through school and variety of extracurricular activities.

I imagine Zacchaeus was a father. He didn’t necessarily enjoy his job, but there were mouths to be fed, and a household to be maintained. There were a limited number of occupations that a man of his impressive talents could fill. Unfortunately, these were secured by making friends with some unsavory people in power within the oppressive Roman government.

In some idyllic rural past, perhaps Zacchaeus seemed like an unsympathetic character in a foreign environment. But, here and now, when our livelihood depends upon a complicated network of allegiances that stretch far into unknown and sometimes dark places, Zacchaeus is a character that we can understand. Zacchaeus’s dilemma is our dilemma.

In the midst of our dilemma, tune your ear carefully to the words of Luke’s gospel. If you do, then you will realize the way that the reader is allowed to overhear several soliloquies that speak to our dilemma. For example:

  • The prodigal son, coming to his senses, says, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”[1]
  • The dishonest manager, being fired from his job, says, “What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me …. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”[2]

“What am I going to do?” ask the Dishonest Manager and the Prodigal Son, when faced with apparent security giving way to insecurity.

You can almost hear this inner struggle going on in the mind of Zacchaeus, as listens to Jesus, observes Jesus, and eats a meal with Jesus. Instead of a parable with an unhealthy model to avoid, this time we observers of the biblical drama get a real flesh-and-blood person who we can emulate.  Instead of hearing the question, “What shall I do?” this time we hear the answer: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

It’s as if the warning bell of a navigational buoy has sounded in Zacchaeus’s life, and in the foggy seascape which he navigates, he is able to hear the truth about his situation and direction, and change course before it leads to a bad end.

The bad end he is heading toward is described in a tale by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy about a peasant named Pahom, who says “If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself.” The Devil overhears, and, through an elaborate set of circumstances, arranges for Pahom to find a deal. He can, for a flat fee of one-thousand rubles, purchase as much land as he can circle by foot in a day. If he isn’t back to home base by sunset, he must forfeit everything, including the one-thousand rubles. Pahom sets off in great excitement, marking his stops with a spade. But he keeps seeing another meadow or another stand of trees. Suddenly, he realizes that the sun is setting, and he is a long way from home. Off Pahom sprints, getting home just as the sun slips below the horizon. He is congratulated. But, just at the moment of victory, he dies of an apparent heart attack.  Tolstoy answers the central question of the tale in the pithy conclusion: “His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” How much land does a man need? Enough to bury a six-foot box.[3]

One day, long ago, Zacchaeus was suddenly confronted with this stark truth. Today, listening to his story, we hear the same stunning word: disconnected from anything larger or nobler, in the end we’re nothing but a body in a six-foot plot. All the real estate and financial treasures in which we are tempted to place our hopes for happiness are, in the words of my old preaching professor, “like confederate dollars in 1863, the currency of a doomed sovereignty.”[4] It’s that realization that allows us to let go our grasp of possessions, and grab hold the hand of God. That’s the security for which we search, the trust that transforms money from a tyrant into a tool for you, your family, your community, for addressing in just and compassionate ways the painful needs of this world. When we do that, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”


[1] Luke 15:17-19

[2] Luke 16:3-4.

[3] Tolstoy’s tale was called to my attention in a lecture series entitled “Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists,” by Dr. Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga Jr., president and Charles W. Colson Professor of Theology Emeritus, Calvin Theological Seminary, delivered at MacKay Center, Princeton Theological Seminary, 26 March 2012.

[4] Personal notes, lecture by Thomas G. Long, Reclaiming the Text Preaching Conference, Montreat Conference Center, 2 June 2006.

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~ by JohnH1962 on November 10, 2013.

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