Do you tend to view life from the basement or the balcony?
In the 1989 film, Dead Poet’s Society, the teacher, played by actor Robin Williams, teaches literature to a group of private school students. One day, during class, he jumps up on top of his teacher’s desk to make a point to his students.
He asks them, “Why do I stand up here? Anybody?”
One student, Dalton, answers, “To feel taller?”
To which Williams replies, “No, (ding), thanks for playing, Mr. Dalton…
–I stand upon my desk to constantly remind myself that we must look at things in a different way.”
Williams then invites all of his students to stand on top of the desk at the front of the room, thereby inviting them to see their lives in a more expansive manner.
Where can you imagine getting such a perspective on your life? Where can you place yourself, either physically or mentally, that you would be challenged to view things from the balcony and not the cellar of life?
Every time I travel by airplane, I am faced with such a bird’s eye view. Up there amongst the clouds, one realizes how incredibly small one is—just seeing the traffic move along the interstate like so many toy cars. Or the layout of development after development, house upon house upon house with intersecting field and meadows, all captured in one glance…Or the fragility of one small human community as contained within the airplane hurtling across space and time… Up there, one comes face to face with both one’s mortality and one’s best hopes and prayers…in a way that we sometimes avoid when our feet constantly touch the ground.
Such a perspective can be refreshing. It can even be life changing and life saving. What would you give to obtain such a perspective? What would you give to God to experience such a thing?
Our man, Zacchaeus, came up a bit short. Our scripture says that he was a man “short in stature,” but that can also mean that he was a bit short in status. Yes, he was the chief tax collector, and he was very wealthy, but in the eyes of his fellow townspeople, he was unscrupulous, a traitor, and not-so-very-observant of religious tradition. As the chief tax collector, he’d made a great deal of money as a servant of Rome, and that made him, by default, a collaborator with Empire. So, rich as he was, people made all sorts of assumptions about his worth as a human being, as a faithful Jew, and as a godly man.
Now, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. He had heard about this Godly man and he had heard the kinds of things that he had done: how he had welcomed such as the likes of him, how he had told stories that challenged the status quo, and how he had made people feel about life and living. He had heard about Jesus’ perspective on God, and he was just curious enough to see more.
We don’t know exactly what Zacchaeus specifically wanted from Jesus that day, but we do know that, despite his wealth, despite his many luxuries, he needed—and wanted– something more. And we know that Zacchaeus was so determined to have an encounter with this Rabbi Jesus that he risked the ridicule of the crowd and the security of his own position to get to the place where he could actually see him. Our scripture says that dear Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view.
We don’t have to have been physically in the crowd that day to imagine the taunts, jeers, and whispering of the townspeople as Zacchaeus climbed his way to his perch and waited for a glimpse of the man from Galilee. We can, if we really consider it…we can imagine the disbelief of the townspeople and their grumbling when Jesus declares that he has chosen to be a guest in Zacchaeus’ home. The people can’t believe that Jesus would welcome such a sinner, a person who makes their money in such a fashion. Yet, Zacchaeus defends himself and his faith by declaring to people of Jericho and to Jesus that he is, in fact, a good person. He tells Jesus, “Lord, half of all my possessions, I will give to the poor…and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back 4 times as much.” Zacchaeus makes a promise to fulfill the strictest interpretation of the law at that time. In effect, Zacchaeus has promised to put his money where his faith is—with God.
And the crowd is silenced because they must now consider themselves in light of their own half-hearted promises to follow God’s laws, or their tendency just to do the bare minimum of what God asks.
Scholars debate about whether this story is more about God’s revelation or Zacchaeus’ salvation and repentance. In truth, it is about both. But it is also about Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus, at personal cost to himself. He becomes transparent before God, not to mention the crowd below. Furthermore, he demonstrates creativity and willingness, even eagerness, to see things from God’s perspective—including him. Like the teacher in Dead Poet’s Society, Zacchaeus isn’t afraid to challenge himself to get that better view—a bird’s eye view—if it means that he’ll catch a glimpse of Jesus along the way.
But what does it mean to want to see Jesus? What does it mean, for us, to say that we want to catch a glimpse of Christ at any cost? What does it mean to want God’s perspective on your life, so much so that you are willing to move yourself above and beyond the crowds, whether physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially, or spiritually?
Think for a moment of all the things that Jesus represents: hospitality to the stranger and outcast, redemption for the sinner, healing for the broken, justice for the wronged, liberation for oppressed, hope for the hopeless, and unconditional love and mercy extended. These are fine ideas in the abstract, but they mean nothing unless they are embodied by human beings. Martin Luther, the great church reformer, once said that there are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, conversion of the mind and conversion of the purse. Which is the more difficult for you? Zacchaeus believed so strongly in Jesus’ vision for the world that he was willing to pay for it—four times the required amount. For him, this would have been a sacrifice.
Finally, here’s a story for you. This is a story from our Jewish sisters and brothers told by Richard Swanson. It is a story about a Jewish man who was seen to be a collaborator, like Zacchaeus, and who does the unexpected.
There was a man, name of Schneeweiss, in charge of some workers in the Janowska Road Camp. He was known to be cruel, well-suited for the job for which the Germans had picked him. He was also a Jew, though even before the war he flaunted his non-observance and his disrespect for the tradition.
The Jews in his work detail came to the rabbi of Pruchnik, also a member of the work detail (though it was hidden that he was a rabbi); they asked him to approach Schneeweiss and ask for permission to observe Yom Kippur. This was a dangerous request, even apart from the requirement that the rabbi reveal himself to a person who collaborated with the Nazis. The rabbi went.
“You probably remember me,” he said. “I am the rabbi of Pruchnik, Rabbi Israel Spira. You are a Jew like myself.” With that beginning, the rabbi made his request.
“Tonight I can’t do a thing, “ said Schneeweiss. “I have no jurisdiction over the night brigade. But tomorrow, on Yom Kippur, I will do for you whatever I can.”
He did, indeed. The Jews under his command were observing the day in prayer and fasting, as tradition holds.
At noon SS soldiers arrived with a food cart and commanded the Jews to eat, thus breaking their observance of Yom Kippur. It was a regular practice in the camps, to starve the people unless it was a day of holy fasting; on those days they were required to eat. The men refused to eat and continued their prayers. The SS men ordered Schneeweiss to compel the men to eat. Yaffa Eliach tells the story:
Schneeweiss pulled himself to attention, looked the German directly in the eyes, and said in a very quiet tone, “We Jews do not eat today. Today is Yom Kippur, our most holy day, the Day of Atonement.”
“You don’t understand, Jewish dog,” roared the taller of the two, “I command you in the name of the Fuhrer and the Third Reich, fress— eat!”
Schneeweiss, composed, his head high, repeated the same answer. “We Jews obey the law of our tradition. Today is Yom Kippur, a day of fasting.”
The German took out his revolver from its holster and pointed it at Schneeweiss’s temple. Schneeweiss remained calm. He stood still, at attention, his head held high. A shot pierced the room. Schneeweiss fell. On the freshly polished floor, a puddle of blood was growing bigger and bigger.
The rabbi and the Hasidim stood as if frozen in their places. They could not believe what their eyes just witnessed. Schneeweiss, the [very] man who in the past had publicly transgressed against Jewish tradition, had sanctified God’s name publicly and died a martyr’s death for the sake of Jewish honor.
“Only then, on that Yom Kippur day in Janowska,” said the rabbi to his Hasidim, “did I understand the meaning of the statement in the Talmud [our holy book]: ‘Even the transgressors in Israel are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.’”
Friends, I ask you again, what would you personally give to see God at work in your midst? What would you give see our life from the balcony and not the basement? Few of us may ever risk our lives in the way that Schneeweiss did; however, we are called to implement God’s vision where we are, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. What sacrifice do you need to make in order to see Christ with an unobstructed view? What tree do you need to climb, what limb to you need to venture out on to gain that kind of perspective?
 Richard J. Foster, The Challenge of the Disciplined Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985), 19.
 With thanks to Richard Swanson. This story was told by Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006) 222-223. Swanson qtd. from Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, 116.