When the song “Short People” was released in 1977, it became a defining hit for Randy Newman. But it also caused him a bit of trouble. Some people took offense at the lyrics and tried to prevent the song from being played; in Maryland, legislation was even introduced to keep it off the radio, though that law did not pass.
What the critics of “Short People” did not understand, however, is that the song is intentionally satirical. Randy Newman wrote it from the perspective of a lunatic or bigot who has an intense hatred of short people. The song is about prejudice.
And this song could have been sung by just about any of the residents of Jericho in reference to Zacchaeus. In Jesus’ time, the tax collector was the prototypical outcast. Zacchaeus made his living off other people, probably through usury and extortion. Men in his profession were universally hated, and understandably so. Zacchaeus was despised for both his stature and his occupation.
So it’s a pretty big deal that Jesus chose to go to his house for dinner. Remember, Jesus was a Jew, and there were customs about sharing table fellowship with Gentiles—namely that you just didn’t do it, especially if that Gentile was also a tax collector.
I imagine Zacchaeus about fell out of the tree when Jesus told him he was coming to his house. Surely he head misheard Jesus—and yet Jesus clearly meant him, the short guy in the tree, the tax collector who was not wanted and was told every day that he had no reason to live. It was to that man that Jesus said, “I’m coming home with you.”
If Zacchaeus was surprised, the crowd was no less taken aback. And they were not happy about it, either. They scoffed. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,” they said.
But Jesus’ words and actions posed a simple question: Is there any other kind of person? If I went to any one of your houses, would I not still be the guest of one who is a sinner?
We might be tempted to see the Zacchaeus story primarily as a radical conversion story. And it is that. But Zacchaeus isn’t all that special. He’s a tax collector, yes; he’s a sinner, yes; he’s really short, yes; and it is for those reasons that Jesus goes to his house. It is for those reasons that you and I should have hope. Short people are just the same as you and I—in Zacchaeus, if we are honest, we see ourselves.
Jesus says he came “to seek out and to save the lost,” and you and I should count that as very good news indeed, because we are each as lost as Zacchaeus in our own way. Whether we are lost in addiction or abuse or illness or deception, whether we need to be saved from our circumstances or from ourselves, it is our brokenness that draws Jesus to each one of us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber recently preached a sermon about how, in her words, “the good is so good and the bad is so useful.” She commented on our mistaken assumption that we need to clean our act up before we approach God. Perhaps Zacchaeus felt some of that—maybe, besides just being shocked that Jesus wanted to come to his house, he wondered whether the dining room needed sweeping or if the dishes had been done.
But none of that matters to Jesus. Not only does it not matter, it’s the messiness that Jesus is actually interested in. Nadia Bolz-Weber uses the image of an editing room. She says we wish we could take the raw footage of our lives and pick and choose what we bring to God, cutting out the lies we’ve told or that time we yelled at a loved one or the shame we feel for something we said or did. And yet, when we have our editor’s cut all polished up and ready to go, God walks in, sees all the broken bits of rejected film on the cutting room floor, and says, “Wait. I can use that stuff.”
God doesn’t just overlook our bad parts. God uses them. “The good is so good and the bad is so useful.” Our brokenness shows us how much we need God. The bad and the ugly are fertile soil for transformation and redemption. Zacchaeus’ wealth, accumulated over years of extortion and fraud, hiding his shame and isolation, became the means by which he would help the poor and make amends to those he had harmed.
And we see the glimmer of hope in Zacchaeus himself. He wants to see Jesus—and badly. Climbing a tree was not something a grown man did in that time—heck, it’s not something most grown men I know would do today. But he did it just so he could see, never imagining but maybe somehow hoping that he might catch more than a glimpse of Jesus.
And when he does see Jesus, Jesus also sees him—and he’s seen him all along. He sees the tax collector, the sinner, the short guy, all the things Zacchaeus would probably rather hide, and he says—“Wait. I can use that stuff.”
We all can be found and saved and used by God, whatever our brokenness might look like, whatever our sin might sound like, whatever our shame might feel like. We can be lifted higher and higher to see Jesus and to hear the good news: “Salvation has come. You are my child. I came to seek and to save you.”
Sarah S. Howell