When I heard that Still Game was to return for another series, seven years or so after the last one, I was pleased and anxious in equal measure. Pleased because I always really enjoyed it. Anxious that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered. In the event, I needn’t have worried and have enjoyed the first four episodes of the new series enormously. I think it’s great comedy.
And I think it works because, although each character is a caricature, each exaggerates only slightly character traits that we recognise, either in ourselves or in others. No one is as nosy as Isa, no one is as hapless as Winston, no one is as mean and miserly as Tam, no barman is as sarcastic and unhygienic as Boaby, but they are not so far-fetched as to be entirely unbelievable.
Some of you, fellow Craiglang aficionados, will know what I’ve been talking about. Others won’t have a clue. So how about a different comic story, one we all know because Reader has just read it for us.
At its centre is a funny wee man who does a funny thing. He climbs a tree. And funnily enough, the celebrity wants to see spots him and stops to have a chat with him, and even invites himself to dinner. Classic comedy ingredients. A funny character and an unexpected twist.
But there’s more to it than that. A bit like with Still Game, we see something of ourselves exaggerated, just a little bit, in Zacchaeus. For who hasn’t experienced an overwhelming sense of curiosity from time to time? Who hasn’t hung around to catch a glimpse of famous person? And who hasn’t experienced that sense of being a bit out of things, a bit on the edge, a bit excluded? And, at its most basic, who hasn’t struggled to see over or around the people in front? We know how Zacchaeus felt. We may not climb trees ourselves, but we know why he did.
This is one way of approaching the story of Zacchaeus. Undoubtedly, it has comic elements, and that’s possibly why the story is so well-known, so immediately appealing. It also seems to have a happy ending, and the people who end up grumbling are shown up as not very nice, while wee Zacchaeus goes and does the right thing.
And this is a valid approach. It is probably the way we approached it as children, with simple songs and nice pictures of Jesus smiling up at Zacchaeus. But there are other ways of approaching the story, and deeper lessons to be drawn from it.
Take Zacchaeus’ name. There would be something darkly comic about someone called Joy being the grumpiest person you’d ever met, or someone called Faith being a militant atheist. Something in a similar vein is going on here, because, in Hebrew, Zacchaeus means ‘pure and righteous’. And actually, he is anything but. He’s stinking rich, and like so many who have achieved that dubious distinction, has acquired his money by leaching money off the poor and the powerless. And everybody knows this. He’d probably taking money off most of the people in the town. Them shutting him out is entirely understandable. They call him a sinner and they’re right, even though they are all sinners too, just, in their own eyes, not as bad. ‘Sinner’ is a label they apply, and like most labels we apply to one another, there is truth in it, even if it is unhelpful, even if it is dehumanising.
Though they may contain grains of truth, labels applied to people are a way of not seeing who people really are in all their complexity. And I want to argue that seeing, rather than comedy, is the key to this story. There is the obvious concerned with seeing. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. That’s why he was up the tree. Then there’s the fact that Jesus saw Zacchaeus, up there among the branches. But we need to go beyond merely physical seeing.
When the people saw Zacchaeus, they saw a hated person, someone who has done them harm. But that’s not who Jesus saw. He saw someone who was capable of redemption. He saw the hidden goodness in Zacchaeus, goodness Zacchaeus himself maybe knew nothing about. That’s how Jesus looks at us all, seeing past the sins to the goodness that is in us all.
When Zacchaeus came down from the tree and looked at Jesus, I don’t suppose he saw what he expected to see. He’d expected to see a locally famous teacher and healer. What he saw was God, face to face with him, looking into his heart. And that experience was transformative. Straightaway, with no calculation, no haggling, no bargaining, he offered to make amends. In other words, he began to see the people around, not as sources of revenue, but as victims of fraud, fraud that he had perpetrated. Rather than their money, he saw their humanity, and the harm he had done to them.
Beneath the charming and comic surface lies is one of the most challenging and radical stories of the Gospels. And it’s all the more powerful because of its gentleness. At no point did Jesus denounce Zacchaeus’ sins. At no point did he say, “Woe to you!” There’s no process of justice, of condemnation, of punishment for sins committed. He just said, I want to be with you, so I’m coming for dinner.
And that was enough to effect the most profound change in Zacchaeus. It is what Jesus says to all of us. “I want to be with you. I want to be with you in your home. I want to share food with you.” He wants to be with us because he sees past the sin, right to the essential goodness within us. In Christ’s eyes, all are capable of redemption. And when we look on Christ, and see his justice, his compassion, his holiness, our lives are transformed. Happy are those whose sins are forgiven.