BIBLE READING: Luke 19:1-10
Short people have generally had a hard time of it. There was a song written by Randy Newman that seems to sum it all up:
Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
They got little hands
They walk around
Tellin' great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet.
He went on to say that
Short people got little baby
legs that stand so low
You got to pick 'em up just to say hello
They got little cars that got beep, beep, beep
They got little voices goin' peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers and dirty little minds ..
I think you get the idea. Well, in fact, the message of the song was not that short people were morally corrupt and socially unacceptable simply because of their height. It was demonstrating how ludicrous and baseless prejudice could be, by focusing on something that had absolutely nothing to do with a person's character: their height. The real message was there in the bridge between the two verses, something most people overlooked because they were so angry at what they thought was a serious song:
Short People are just the
As you and I (A Fool Such As I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die (It's A Wonderful World)
Randy Newman's message was that short people, tall people, black, white and yellow people, old people and young people, whatever differences we choose to select, all people are the same, and when we realise that, the world can be a wonderful place.
And yet, we do judge people simply on appearances, perhaps unconsciously. People were asked to estimate the income of people they observed in the street. They had no knowledge of the people apart from what they could see. When the observations were analysed for different variables, it turned out that the average predicted income for short people was around $20,000, and for tall people around $50,000!
Our gospel story today is about a short tax collector called Zacchaeus. Or is it? Let's look at the passage again. Verse 3 tells us that Zacchaeus couldn't see Jesus because he was short. Since Sunday School we've believed that this was saying Zacchaeus was short. But in English, the grammar could equally mean that the "he" who was short referred to Jesus. The old King James Version made that association even stronger, and in the Greek text, according to scholars like Fred Craddock, the "he" who was short referred to Jesus, not Zacchaeus. There is, in fact, a late first century/early second century tradition that Jesus was short, based on this story! What this means is that Zacchaeus, who could have been taller than me for all we know, couldn't see this short guy, Jesus, walking in the middle of the large crowd, so he climbed a tree to get a better look.
What do you think of Jesus being short? One minister played around with this in a couple of discussions with parishioners and other clergy, and found a HUGE resistance to the idea that Jesus might have been short. What do you think of Jesus being short? Does it make a difference to you? Is it difficult to reconcile with your current mental picture of Jesus?
It is easy to make assumptions about people based on their physical characteristics, or their outward appearance. We make assumptions about the Zacchaeus story, just as people probably made assumptions about Zacchaeus himself, because of his job as a chief tax collector. His work did implicate him in the corrupt tax system of the Roman government. And since he was also a wealthy man, it was probably assumed that his money came from crooked dealings, over-charging for taxes and taking bribes. So he would have been shunned by his fellow Jews. An 'honest tax collector' would have been considered an oxymoron. For this reason, the story has always been considered to be about Zacchaeus’ repentance and conversion.
But Biblical scholars, such as Joseph Fitzmeyer, are saying that Zacchaeus has been misrepresented. When he talks to Jesus he says, in the present tense, "I give" to the poor and "I pay back" anyone if I find I've cheated them. Notice that little word "if" . which suggests that such actions would have been unintentional. This indicates that Zacchaeus is already practicing generous and honest behaviour, and already gives half his earnings to the poor.
Zacchaeus wasn't the little crook people thought he was. If anything, it seems he was a good man in a bad system, trying to do the right thing, but being misrepresented for his efforts, down to this very day. There's a legal term: "Contempt, prior to investigation." People had contempt for Zacchaeus prior to finding out who he really was.
In his book Telling Stories, Compelling Stories William Bausch says Jesus was not so much forgiving Zacchaeus for his past behaviour, but rather vindicating him in front of his critics, who had misjudged him.
This is all rather consistent with last week's story about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple. On the basis of appearances and reputation, observers would have admired the Pharisee and scorned the tax collector. But we know it was the scorned one who was, in fact, the more sincere of the two. This week's story seems to reinforce that lesson about not misjudging people.
It was easy to make wrong assumptions about Zacchaeus. It still is. People also found it easy to make wrong assumptions about Jesus. They still do. After all the movies where Jesus has been portrayed by a tall, blue-eyed, white actor, I wonder how people would cope if little Danny De Vito played Jesus - which would probably be a much more accurate depiction. People misjudged Jesus in so many ways - as a vehicle for their own political ambitions; as a miracle worker - and they turned away from him when they began to realise that he wasn't what they thought he was.
And it's extremely easy to misjudge other people: because they're short; because they're of middle eastern descent; because of their work, or lack of work; because they go to a particular church, or don't go to any church; because they're on social services. There are so many ways in which we can misjudge people when we rely on things like stereotypes or gossip. Perhaps you've been misjudged like this. It's not easy to set the record straight, is it? It's helpful when someone comes alongside us and helps us do that, by acting as our advocate, just as Jesus did for Zacchaeus, by reinforcing that he was one of the family, and inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ place for lunch.
I wonder ... how can we be advocates for people in our community, in the spirit of Jesus? There will be many people in our community who from time to time will need someone to stand by them as an advocate, as Jesus stood by Zacchaeus ... youth, homeless people, single parents, people who are the target of malicious gossip. Perhaps even short people! I believe that, small as we are in number, we will grow in stature as we stand by people, and stand up for people, in the spirit of Jesus.
Thanks to: Chris Lockley, Sally Carter, Bill Adams, Laura Trent, Rachel Stutzman, and Brent in Pincher from the Desperate Preacher's Site.