St Stephens


Wis 11:22-12:2; 1 Thess 1:11-22; Luke 19:1-10


Text: "God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart". [ISam.16:7]

Zaccheus was a very little man
And a very little man was he         
He climbed up into a sycamore tree         
For the Saviour he wanted to see.         
And when the Saviour passed that way         
He looked up into the tree         
And said "Now Zaccheus you come down      
For I'm coming to your house to tea"

"A little man"

If someone calls a person a "little man" then it's certain they don't think very much of him.

How often that phrase is a frame for another derogatory adjective like "silly", "tiresome or "funny"!

"A silly little man"; "a tiresome little man"; "a conceited little man".

There is a close connection in people's minds, isn't there, between physically "looking down" on someone because one is taller than he is, and "looking down" on them in the sense of having a low opinion of them?

We don't as a rule say "A tedious fat man" or "a selfish tall man", do we? So there must be something about being physically small which connects in people's minds with being held in low esteem.

And there is. For the truth is that some people who are small, men in particular, feel this about themselves too. They feel it necessary to make up for their lack of physical height by "throwing their weight around", "talking big" and generally going about with an air of self-importance.

Even the politically correct social worker jargon has a phrase to describe these people so as not to hurt their feelings. They call them "vertically challenged", in recognition that some little men at least do have a big chip on their shoulders and are likely in some way or another hold a low opinion of themselves.

For Zaccheus it was even worse. Not only was he a little man. He was a nasty little man.

As a tax-collector he made the greater part of his living by cheating people. Worse than that they were his own people, fellow Jews whom he was cheating in the service of an enemy occupying power, the Romans.

He collected the taxes imposed by Rome on the Jews, and whilst he was probably paid a small commission on what he gathered legally, the really rich pickings came from bullying vulnerable, nervous people, widows, invalids, or those with something to hide, into paying over the odds. In such cases, of course, the "over the odds" bit went straight into his pocket.

Now just look at what happened. Of all the thousands of people who were lining the route; of all the hundreds of worthy, respectable devout people who lived in Jericho; of all the priests and scribes and councillors and public servants whom Jesus might have asked himself to dinner with that evening (like he had done on many other occasions) he chose none of them.

Instead he stopped at the foot of the sycamore tree; looked up (notice that!) at this nasty little man Zaccheus sitting in the top branches, and invited himself to stay at his house.

Zaccheus was overjoyed; but others were much displeased. "They all complained when they saw what had happened" says St Luke "He has gone to stay in a sinner's house", they said.

But for Zaccheus it was the turning point of his life. He "turned to Christ"; he "repented of his sin".

This whole incident illustrates better than almost any other in the gospels a problem which faces you and me as Christians.

We choose our friends and acquaintances according to our personal preferences. Probably they don't include many "silly little men" or "tiresome little men"; certainly not "nasty little men" like Zaccheus.

God, it seems, sometimes works to a very different agenda. As another passage in scripture says "God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart".

So it follows that at any given moment the providence of God may bring it about that we find ourselves worshipping him, and working in his Kingdom alongside people whom we never would have chosen for ourselves in a month of Sundays. Some of them may even have been "nasty little men" or "tedious little men" whom God, in his own good time and in his own way has called to be saints.

We shan't necessarily dislike them, of course, though we may do so. But it's what lies behind those three little words we use "a little man" that causes the problem. Our personality, our upbringing, our circumstances all naturally lead us to look up to some people and look down on others. That is our nature, and by ourselves there is very little we can do to prevent ourselves instinctively looking down on at least some of the people whom God, through Christ has chosen to raise to our level or perhaps, who knows, above us.

By nature we can do little; but by the grace of God we can do anything he desires of us. For the grace of God doesn't destroy nature; it perfects it.

So here are three ideas which have helped me personally to face this awkward experience when my unregenerate human nature tempts or urges me to look down upon some fellow Christian to whom God, in his infinite wisdom has said "Friend, go up higher!"

Firstly I am reminded of the story told about Jesus, not in the gospels, but nevertheless a very early one.

Once, as Jesus and his disciples were walking along a road they came across the corpse of a dead dog. The disciples shrunk away from it in disgust and horror. But Jesus said "What lovely teeth It has! They are just like pearls!".

Yes, even the silliest littlest man has some feature to admire. We shall do him and ourselves a favour if we concentrate our attention in the first place on that feature and not on his shortcomings.

Secondly, in scripture, God has an uncanny way of choosing the most unlikely people to serve him. He chose the poor, the youngest, the most timid, the simple, the ill-educated, the sinner and the tax-collector to do particular things for him.

Did you realise that it's even possible that Jesus was a small man, nothing very much to look at? Of course we don't know for certain what he looked like, but there is some evidence that he was not at all like the tall fair-haired handsome type that you see in Victorian stained glass windows.

Certainly we know that St Paul was deeply unbecoming to look at. "Only half a man" his enemies called him, alluding to the fact that he was on the short side. So Zaccheus wasn't a one-off choice by God of a little man. There have been and there are others.

And thirdly the feast of All Saints which we kept on Tuesday last reminds us that saintliness, holiness is not in God's eyes confined to one particular sort of person.

A "great multitude which no man can number of all people and kindreds and nations and tongues" stands before his throne. And that multitude will include short people, tall people, white people, black people, young people, old people, martyrs, kings, prophets, and a multitude of very ordinary people, some of whom have left a record of their deeds but for the majority of whom "there is no memorial".

What these men and women have in common is the fact that they have "washed their clothes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb", or, like Zaccheus they have received Jesus Christ as saviour and lord into the house of their lives and let him straighten up the things that are wrong with them.

The fact that some of these saints "aren't our sort of people" is really quite irrelevant. In all probability we "aren't their kind of people" either.

The miracle of God's grace is not that he chooses the righteous and asks them to be his personal assistants. He chooses people like Zaccheus and changes them into something they never could otherwise have been.

And having changed them, he doesn't make them all the same as everyone else; in the words of the old prayer he "knits together his elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord"

That mystical body will include, we may be sure, be many people whom the world looks upon as "little men" like Zaccheus. But "God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart".

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