Guess Who’s Missing From the Easter Pageant – Day 38

I can remember many childhood Easters, being corralled by Sunday school teachers, waiting to be ushered out to the front of the sanctuary. Each of us, dressed in our finest bath robes, nervously rehearsing our lines for the pageant. (I’m pretty sure one year my brother’s bathrobe had baseballs on it… but no one seemed to mind.) Most of the time, the littlest kids just waved palm branches but every once in a while, one of us taller kids would be cast as a disciple or a Pharisee. When you were old enough to remember more than a line or two, (and most importantly could project loud enough to be heard in the last pew) you might even be cast as Jesus. That’s when you knew you had made it big. Year after year, we would run through the same parts of the Bible story… Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, sometimes we even made it all the way to the Garden. But, we never seemed to make it past there. I suppose what followed in the story was a bit too graphic to be comfortably portrayed by elementary school children… and no one ever wanted to be cast as Judas anyway.  

And so it went, year after year. The Easter Pageant was often followed by thunderous clapping and a rousing congressional hymn like “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Victory in Jesus,” or “Up From the Grave He Arose.” That was Easter… those few parts of the story that fit comfortably between the opening hymn and the Children’s Sermon. (I would only find out later that the darker parts of the Easter story were reserved for the main sermon, once we were safely back in Children’s Church.)

This was the tradition and it didn’t waiver. Isn’t it funny, when some traditions become so interwoven into the fabric of our lives that we don’t even question them? As I grew older, I understood why the pageant stopped where it did. No parent wants to videotape their child being hung on a tempera-painted plywood cross. We knew what happened next in the story anyway… the betrayal, the beatings, the sham trial, the cross, the empty tomb. The story started with Christ on a donkey and ended with His rapture. For nearly four decades, that was the story.

You see, though I understood why our children’s pageant ended where it did, it never even occurred to me to look at what happened before Christ got to Jerusalem… that there might be a valuable opening to the Easter story. Still, if you were to ask me about Easter, and I started by telling you about the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, you may think I changed the subject. However, as it turns out, Zacchaeus is exactly who was missing from the Easter story. But, I will have to start a little earlier in Luke 18 to make my point.

In Luke 18:31-33, Jesus predicts his death to the disciples for the third time. He said, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” Christ knew exactly what was in store for him in Jerusalem… even if it was still hidden from the disciples. This is where the Easter story really starts. From here, everything is already set into motion. Everything Christ predicts will come to pass. So, it would be perfectly understandable if He were a bit preoccupied on His way to Jerusalem. Even still, He found time to heal a blind beggar on his way to Jericho (Luke 18:35-43). He even made time to stay at the home of a despised tax collector.

Luke 19 starts with ten little verses. “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

This is what gets me about this story… this is the only time Zacchaeus is mentioned in the Bible. Why would Luke choose to include this story here? Doesn’t this interaction with a sinner distract from the Easter narrative? Christ must have had hundreds of such encounters throughout His ministry. In Hollywood, this scene wouldn’t make it off the cutting room floor. It distracts from the arc of the story. Come on… get to the action. However, Luke isn’t interested in box office sales. He is making a point. Luke’s gospel is not just a first-person eyewitness account of Christ’s life. Luke never met Christ. Luke came to know Christ through Paul’s teaching and witness. Luke was a physician and, as such, an educated man. He took it upon himself to interview those who knew Christ and to record their stories. As such, Luke may be the first recorded investigative journalist in the Bible. Like all good investigative journalists, he’s not just telling a story, he’s collecting evidence… evidence to prove that Christ was who he said he was… the Son of God.

How then does this tax collector’s story provide evidence of Christ’s nature and divinity? The importance is both the timing of the story and the method by which it was collected. Jesus encountered Zacchaeus on his way to Jerusalem. Within a short period of time, He would be crucified. This is important for a number of key reasons. First, when anyone else may have been distracted by their impending death, Christ was still mission focused. He didn’t miss the opportunity to save a seeking man. He saw the sincerity and humility with which Zacchaeus pursued Him. He witnessed his changed heart and offered him salvation.

Second, the story of Zacchaeus’ transformation must be true. At the time Luke’s gospel was written, there were still people in Jericho who would have known Zacchaeus. We don’t know how old Zacchaeus was… he too may have still been alive. Certainly, if you were gathering evidence about Christ, you wouldn’t include a story of such a well-known man in such an important city if his conversion didn’t actually take place. You wouldn’t risk the credibility of your gospel nor would you place a lie so close to the climax of the entire plot.

That timing is the other part that amazes me. Surly, the news of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ reached Jericho. This would have been the perfect time for Zacchaeus to go back on his word. With Jesus dead, he no longer would have to give away his fortune, making amends for how he had cheated his people. The fact that the story was collected and verified after Christ’s death on the cross lends it extra credibility. Zacchaeus must have been so convinced that Jesus was the messiah that even after His death, he kept his promise. Now that is a testimony worth recording!

The final thing that I love about the Zacchaeus story is the last verse. Indeed, tagged onto the end is a perfect summary of Christ’s entire ministry… “the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” Not a bad way to have your story end. Now, I know that the story is only ten verses long, not much in the grand scheme of things. But ask yourself this – Can you name any other first-century chief tax collectors? Me neither. The story is short but it exists. Two thousand years later we still remember Zacchaeus’ name. Children still sing songs about him. We still teach it in our Sunday school classes to the same bathrobe wearing children that will act out this year’s Easter Pageant… never aware that a tax collector is missing from their story.

This brings me to my final question. If someone today were gathering stories as evidence of Christ’s divinity, would your story make the cut? It’s a sobering thought. But, if we live our lives with the same certainty that Zacchaeus did, one day we too will hear Christ say, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
– Michael Freeman