The Height of Humanity

Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service, Knafel Center, Radcliffe Yard.

Jonathan Walton and Chris Lewis
Photo: Professor Jonathan L. Walton with Harvard college student Christopher Lewis ’20


Luke 19: He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. ​​​​​​


The young man that read the gospel lesson this morning is 6’8.” Yours truly is 5’10.”  There are few things in life of which I would want to compete with that kid. I say this not simply because he is an incredibly gifted engineering student, which he is. I say this not simply because he is an incredible athlete, which he is that, too. I say it for more basic and base reasons. He is almost a foot taller than me, and in the world in which we live this has tangible benefits and privileges for someone his height. 

Evidence shows that when it comes to men, there are material benefits associated with height. Taller men earn more on average. Studies show teachers tend to select taller boys as “natural leaders” in their classes as young as the age of three. And the vast majority of presidential elections in this country have gone to the taller candidate. From salary to sexual attraction, from perceived authority to assumptions about intelligence, we live in a world that draws immediate conclusions based on height. Physical stature matters. 

The reason I begin with height differential is because there is a lesson in today’s gospel about snap judgments. There is a lesson here about the dangers of unconscious bias based on external appearance, and about seeing possibility and potential in the least likeliest of people and places.

Today’s gospel lesson introduces us to a man named Zacchaeus. We do not know anything about his family background or upbringing, but what we do know is not very flattering. For one, Zacchaeus is a tax collector. This is not an occupation that would generate goodwill among fellow Jews. They are in the region of Roman Palestine living under imperial rule. Rome subjected the people to what was known as a tributary tax system. So above and beyond paying taxes to local magistrates, they were also taxed with the burden of paying financial tribute to Caesar. The Empire used local agents in the community to collect these taxes. Quite often tax collectors would make the payment to Rome first, then, like a modern day bill collector, resort to extreme and exploitative means to recoup their money. Violence and harassment were common. And the mere fact that local tax collectors were willing to collude with the Empire for personal gain was not lost on the people. Tax collectors were viewed as sellouts. They were evil agents of the Empire. They were professional vampires—sucking life out of their own community.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In fact, the Bible says that he was a rich tax collector. This means, secondly, that he was good at his profession. Think of drug dealers, slumlords, or predatory lenders today. Their wealth is commensurate with their willingness to exploit. For instance, tax collectors were known to exaggerate tax bills to increase their take home. Padding the top for profit was commonplace. So whether by hook or by crook, Zacchaeus knew how to get the job done.

The final thing that we know about him is that he was short. If this scene were to have been made into an American movie, Zacchaeus would have been portrayed as one of the short archetypal gangsters that we witnessed throughout the 20th century. Even Hollywood felt that they needed to capture the correlation between height and moral character. This is why the good guys were tall and dashing, and the bad guys were so often played by the likes of a 5’5” James Cagney or 5’7” Edward G. Robinson. Though I am confident that this is not the reason why Luke emphasizes Zacchaeus’s height, we do know that size and moral perception was an issue in the ancient world. Does anyone here remember a biblical figure by the name of Saul? The Bible tells us that when the Children of Israel desired a king, they selected Saul from the tribe of Benjamin. The Bible describes him as a “handsome young man,” who was “a head taller than anyone else.” This tells me that there was an optical correlation between height and one’s humanity even for the ancients.

Nevertheless, despite his job description and his diminutive stature, we witness something interesting about Zacchaeus. He is moved by Jesus. The Bible says that when he heard Jesus was coming through Jericho, he sought him out. He wanted to see Jesus for himself. This causes Zacchaeus to do something that would have been considered embarrassing or uncouth, particularly for a wealthy man of his standing. Zacchaeus takes off running ahead of the crowd and climbs up a tree. Can anyone imagine any one of us doing such a thing? Like an adolescent going crazy over a boy band, we run ahead and jump up into a tree just to get a better view. As curiously as you and I might look at each other, this is how I am sure others looked at Zacchaeus.

Yet Jesus looks at us differently.  Jesus does not see Zacchaeus as foolish, but rather Jesus sees his growing faith. Where others in the crowd may only see a wealthy tax collector, Jesus sees an expanding heart. Where other just see a short man climbing up in a tree, Jesus sees someone trying to figure out how to live right and love better.

I am confident this morning that this is a beautiful reminder for somebody.  Each of us is more than an initial impression. We are more than our stature. We are more than our skin color or gender. We are more than our face and physique. We are more than our place of origin or current occupation.

Too many of us spend an inordinate amount of time trying to look the part. In class we try to sound smart. On our jobs we attempt to come across as competent.  Even in church we try to appear spiritual. We learn the hymns, memorize scripture, and we even hold our hands and heads in a certain way during prayer and worship. We put on all the garb of feigned spirituality in order to appear pious. And often we do all of this for no other reason than instant public approval. We slide into character so that nobody will say, “Look at him. He’s nothing but a tax collector.”

Zacchaeus does not care who sees him. He does not care who judges him. Nor is he too ashamed about his current occupation to seek out Jesus’s help. His past will not foreclose his future. His present occupation will not preclude his potential in Christ. Why? Because it seems that Zacchaeus already understands that God looks at us through different lenses.

Where man looks at outward appearance, God looks at the heart. Where our own insecurity causes us to judge and condemn quickly, God is concerned with our possibility and potentiality. This is not to say that our actions do not matter. To the contrary, they do. But god judges us by the sincerity of our faith, not the acuity of our public performance.

Consider Moses. He was a man with a stuttering problem, but God was more impressed by the clarity of his convictions. God valued moral courage over eloquence of articulation.

Consider David. When tall, dark, and handsome Saul proved cowardly and corrupt, God saw a little shepherd boy risking his life to protect just one little sheep. This is why God picked him over all of his tall, handsome brothers. In God’s eyes, David’s commitment to duty was more important than his physical description. 

Consider Esther. Where others saw a beauty queen and a trophy wife to the Persian king, God saw a woman with great faith and conviction. While others may have been enamored by her appearance, she was plotting to combat injustice and genocide against her people.

You and I should both take comfort and find inspiration here today. In God, we are so much more than others might give us credit for. When others say:

He is nothing but a rich tax collector.
She is nothing but a wealthy Harvard student.
He is nothing but a financial aid kid.
She is nothing but a dining service worker.
He is nothing but a janitor…

You can trust and know that God sees more than what is on the surface. God sees both the complexity of who we are, and the capacity for who we can become.

Jesus had faith and trust in Zacchaeus’s potential and possibility. This causes this tax collector to begin looking at himself and his obligations to humanity differently. Jesus was willing to greet him with grace rather than judgment. This causes Zacchaeus to drop his insecurities and embrace others with grace and compassion. Jesus embraced Zacchaeus where he was and for who he was. This is what I believe catalyzed Zacchaeus to reimagine who he could become.

Recently I read a story in the Washington Post that captures this sentiment. A Georgetown University business major began to notice something. Each night as he sat in the library, a young man, about his age would come in and start polishing the windows. For nearly a decade this janitor came in this space at the same time every night. Up until now, nobody had ever engaged him. No other student had ever said more than a passing, “hi” or “excuse me.” Until one night this business student decided to strike up a conversation. The young student discovered something that he did not anticipate. The student and the janitor shared much in common. They were both immigrants from Jamaica. They both loved history and politics. And they both were aspiring entrepreneurs. In fact, he discovered that the janitor made one of the best jerk-chicken dishes. Before long, he was catering student events on campus, and students helped him raise $2,500 for catering gigs and create his own website, “O’Neil’s Famous Jerk.”

The government student Febin Bellamy widened his practice. He could not stop seeing those who were once invisible to him. In his words, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” In fact, he began sharing their stories on a Facebook page entitled “Unsung Heroes.” With each story, shared aspiration, and tale of a complicated life full of pain and promise, more and more Georgetown students began to see just how much they have in common with University service workers. It’s just a matter of breaking through the walls of class and education that separate them. It’s just a matter of resisting snap judgment and seeing people as God sees us.

There is much from us to learn from Jesus and Zacchaeus. Just as there is a lot for us to learn from one another, particularly those who are in unexpected places. Our lives need not be valued by wealth, but rather by our contributions to others. For in God’s eyes, the height of our humanity is not measured by such juvenile categories as money, physical beauty, and body size. Our height is measured by the depth of our commitment to serving one another—seeing one another as God sees us—not as what we appear, but who we can become.