Knock knock. If it’s a joke, you know what to say: “Who’s there?”
But knock knock means something different to different people. Throughout my childhood, when I heard a knock knock on the back door, I could guess the knocker within three guesses. If the knock knock was rapped on the front door, all bets were off. I had no idea who it was, so before rushing to the door, I’d peek through the blinds to see who might be knocking, to find out the answer to the question: “Who’s there?”
While there’s only one response to the knock knock of a joke, people react in different ways to a knock at the actual door. If the resident is able to peek between the blinds or through the peep hole, they might not answer the door. Or if nosy passersby see the knocker and know the resident, they might start speculating, “Now, now. Why are they knocking on that door?” What’s true about welcome, hesitation, or speculation when there’s a knock knock on literal doors is also true when there’s a knock on the door of someone’s spiritual home. Some might peek at who is knocking and never open the door; curious onlookers might see who’s knocking and wonder, “What are they doing knocking on that door?”
The second question has been passed on for centuries. People divvy up others according to group: who is in or out, the “haves” and “have nots,” those who are reputable or bring disrepute, us vs. them. When a crowd saw Jesus going to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), they voiced surprise in reaction to this moment of knocking. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” (Luke 19:7)
But it is not a holy moment of wondering; it is a hateful moment of muttering. It was the same kind of reaction recorded earlier in Luke’s Gospel when the Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered their displeasure at Jesus going to eat with sinners and tax collectors. (Luke 15:2) But while familiar Bible readers might expect the Pharisees and teachers of the law to grumble their disapproval, it might be surprising to notice that this time, it’s the crowd grumbling. In Luke 19, Jesus is entering Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to set his mother’s song to reality: to bring down rulers, to fill the hungry, to send the rich away empty. So why are the crowds muttering their own disapproving reaction? Because the sinner who Jesus has gone to visit this time is Zacchaeus—a tax collector who is wealthy.
It’s dangerous to be wealthy in Luke’s Gospel. Beyond Mary’s song, Jesus has blessed the poor but warned of woe for the rich (6:24); Jesus has told a parable about one who intended to build bigger barns but instead lost his life as a rich fool (12:13-21); Jesus has described justice in the afterlife as the rich man in torment being separated from Lazarus by an uncrossable chasm (16:19-31); and describing Jesus’ encounter with a wealthy young man, Luke tells us the man rejected Jesus’ invitation because he had great wealth, prompting Jesus’ lament, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (18:23-25)
So then, when we encounter this tax collector who is wealthy, no wonder the people are muttering. There must have been some expectation of Jericho justice: Zacchaeus has been squeezing life from them, fraudulently making their poverty that much worse. Why is Jesus going to be with him? He’s one Jesus is supposed to be busy bringing down!
Which, beautifully, is exactly what Jesus does.
Zacchaeus had gone looking for Jesus but has been crowded out by the cheated and, as a result, climbed this tree for a view. Here Luke’s brilliant story-telling brings together Zacchaeus’ resourcefulness in business and resourcefulness in the moment. Zacchaeus is a chief tax-collector, one who is collecting the tolls, the cost of doing business, through a profitable and effective enterprise of subordinate toll collectors. The tree he has climbed, a sycamore-fig tree, recalls the tree from which the fruit was eaten, of the leaves that were sewn, and among which the first Man and Woman hid. Just as they had eaten fruit in an effort to make themselves greater, so has Zacchaeus been climbing the tree throughout his life. By climbing the literal tree, he is showing what he’s been doing all along: climbing over others for his own sake.
And now, notice the switch! Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus, but it is Jesus who looks up and calls him down. While Zacchaeus thought he was seeking Jesus, it was Jesus seeking Zacchaeus. As St. Augustine would comment, “The Lord, who had already welcomed Zacchaeus in his heart, was now ready to be welcomed by him in his house.”
The muttering of the crowd, directed against Jesus, shows that Jesus takes Zacchaeus’ shame when he gives Zacchaeus public honor: Zacchaeus responds to the crowd’s muttering with a promise to restore judiciously, taking the same penalty and way of restitution for stealing another’s sheep (Ex. 22:1), vowing to give generously. (Luke 19:8) What a switch! As my friend Dr. Dan Freemyer has commented, “The tax collector has become the gift distributor!” (Dan claims to have read this in a commentary, but we can’t find the original author.) Mary’s song praised God for calling down the rulers, filling up the poor, and sending away the rich. And indeed that’s what Jesus has done: he has called Zacchaeus down from his tree, he has filled the poor through Zacchaeus’ remorseful generosity, and he has sent Zacchaeus away, emptied of his guilt and stigma, and restored to his name, which means innocent. The early Desert Father Ephraim the Syrian captured the full exchange like this: “The first fig tree of Adam will be forgotten, because of the last fig tree of the chief tax collector, and the name of the guilty Adam will be forgotten because of the innocent Zacchaeus.” Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree on his journey to carrying his cross.
There are different responses are possible to the knock knock sounding on our doors and in our hearts. Just like a knock might prompt an effort to see—to pull back the curtain, to peer through the peep hole, or to crane your neck to ask why they were knocking at that door – this is a story about seeing, as well.
Zacchaeus had wanted to see Jesus, but he could not see over the crowd. The crowd muttered when they saw Jesus going to Zacchaeus’ house. Zacchaeus implored the Lord’s attention as he responded to Jesus’ grace with gratitude and justice. Jesus affirmed his mission to seek for the lost. But the whole passage started with an urge for the reader to see, as well. Luke introduces us to Zacchaeus by telling us to “Behold!” (See Luke 19:2; although not always translated, it is found in the King James and New King James Version and noted in other versions, as well).
Just as we are urged to behold Zacchaeus, so we stand ready to behold the activity of God when he brings us in contact with others. Certainly, when God directs us to stop and look up, to knock on the lives of others, some of them will peer through the blinds, look through the peep holes, and quietly slip away. But others will look, open the door, and respond with gratitude that God has entered their lives. “You were exactly who I hoped would come!” And certainly, when God guides us to step into the lives of those who willingly open the door, there will be nosy grumblers who mutter and question our actions; but others will stop and behold, recognizing that God is about to do something amazing in this house because God has already welcomed its inhabitant into his heart.
Can you imagine the responses that Zacchaeus and his troupe experienced when they went collecting, knocking on the doors of Jericho’s inhabitants? But how different would it have been after his transformation!
May it be so for you and me, too. May we choose a response of gratitude and generosity because Jesus endured scandal to come into our homes, too. And may gratitude, justice, and generosity make it so that when we knock on the lives of the tree climbers in our own lives, they too gladly choose to come down, opening their lives not only to us but to Jesus.
Featured image courtesy Conscious Design via Unsplash.