November 3, 2019
I love that the one defining characteristic of Zacchaeus` is that he is short in stature. That paints a wonderful image of this tax collector. Here is Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, a bustling town. He is the representative of the might and the majesty of the Roman Empire. In social terms… we would say that Zacchaeus is a big man… a man of great stature in society. But physically… physically… he’s just this little runt of a guy who can’t see over the crowds in front of him… so he has to go and climb a sycamore tree. It’s such a great visual set-up for this story.
But, don’t let this comical image fool you. We can’t underestimate the amount that Zacchaeus would have been hated. Not disliked, but intensely hated. First, he is a tax collector, which means he is responsible for collecting financially crippling taxes for the Empire. Certainly some people were personally in debt to Zacchaeus because they couldn’t pay their taxes. A debt that I’m sure would compound in interest. The way the Empire ensured that taxes would be paid; Zacchaeus himself was personally responsible for paying the taxes he did not collect. What he was not able to gather would have to come out of his own pocket. That was a strong incentive for tax collectors to do their jobs to the fullest. On top of that, tax collectors weren’t paid by the Empire for their services, but they were left free to apply an extra service charge in order to make a living. And this, of course, opened the door to all types of corruption being a normal part of the system. Greed helped to fuel the whole system. To top this all off, Zacchaeus was a Jew so he wasn’t just hated for being a tax collector, but he was hated for being a traitor to his people. Zacchaeus was seen as a collaborator in a time of foreign occupation. Plus… yes, there’s still more… his close associations with the Gentiles would have also made him ritually unclean. There is nothing in this short runt of a man that was worth redeeming… so the Jews of Jericho would have said and believed to the fullest.
So what is Zacchaeus doing in this story? It doesn’t seem like he knew about Jesus necessarily or that he was there searching for something that was missing from his life. From the beginning of the story it sounds more like there was some excitement happening in the town and Zacchaeus was just trying to see what was going on. He was trying to see who this Jesus was. Perhaps he had heard the name and some of the stories, but I don’t think Zacchaeus was there with any sort of hope that would have predisposed him to Jesus’ message. He runs ahead of the action so he could finally see what was going on when the crowd passes by… clambering up that tree… and that’s when Jesus suddenly calls him by name.
Jesus seeks out and saves the lost. It’s that favorite lesson from Luke’s gospel… again.
And Zacchaeus is clearly one of the lost. But, I have to wonder just when does he realize that he is lost… and just when he does he realize that he’s been found. If Zacchaeus is just trying to get in on the excitement going on in town, again, I doubt he would understand how lost he really is. Even when Jesus calls him by name, does he then begin to understand his condition? No doubt he knew how the people felt about him. But hatred by others can be explained away by all manner of deflections. Ah… they’re just jealous. I’m sure they would do the same thing if they were given the opportunity. Zacchaeus’ personal wealth could have easily deflected. Wealth does a good job at creating blind spots.
Coming down out of the tree… who knows… Zacchaeus could still have been fooling himself. It may have crossed his mind that Jesus calls him by name and invites himself over because of Zacchaeus’ perceived position in society… the big man. Short of stature, but still the big man in town. Maybe there is a lingering feeling of self-importance in him as he drops to the ground and approaches Jesus. Maybe he really is important after all, maybe he is a big enough man that Jesus would know his name and want to come to his house over the homes of all these others… these others who did not live as well as he did… these others who still owed him money.
Standing there before Jesus, happily welcoming him and inviting himself to his house… the murmuring begins. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” And looking into the eyes of Jesus, what would Zacchaeus have seen reflected back at him? There he stood. Called by name. Looking at himself through the eyes of Jesus. Last week, I know some of you probably didn’t like me talking about how we are equal as sinners… that in the reformed tradition of Christianity, we start with the understanding of ourselves as sinners… as the tax collector standing in prayer, “Lord have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Imagine yourself now in Zacchaeus’ place. What do you, a sinner, see reflected back at you when you look in Jesus’ eyes? This Jesus who has called you by name?
“He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus is lost. He is part of a system that tears down to build up. The Pax Romana of his day comes at a cost… not just in terms of money, but a human cost… setting people against one another. By perpetuating the status quo, Zacchaeus keeps people in poverty. To live the life that he lives… a life of plenty… plenty of food, plenty of nice clothes, plenty in his home… to live a life of plenty, he is part of a system that keeps others living a life of want. Reflected in the eyes of Jesus, his success now has no meaning. Zacchaeus who possesses so much… has nothing. He is lost. His life is not filled with the justice and the righteousness and the humility that God desires. Just lots and lots of meaningless trinkets… and the coins of another man filling his pockets.
Zacchaeus stands there awash in the revelation of God’s grace… embodied before him in this prophet on his way to Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Cynicism will try to tell us that Zacchaeus is being insincere… a man caught in a hard place… perhaps trying to placate the murmuring crowd… perhaps trying to curry favor with Jesus. After all, doesn’t Jesus immediately declare that salvation has come after Zacchaeus makes his generous promise? Hasn’t Zacchaeus just bought his salvation in the same way he has bought and sold everything else? Isn’t this just another example of the power of money… everything has a price… even salvation.
But don’t be swayed by cynicism today. The lesson to be learned isn’t that Jesus can be bought like everyone else. Instead, let the hope of God’s grace color this confession. Zacchaeus was lost, but now he has been found. What do his possessions mean to him now that God has given him the gift of justification? What hold would money have over him now as his foot steps onto the path of sanctification? All his gain by being a tax collector had not made him a big man. The love of God has now come upon this man, this child of Abraham. The steadfast promise of God’s covenant surrounded him. He no longer needed to fill the emptiness with materialism. What could it offer him now? Why not give it all away? Zacchaeus will become richer than he has ever been.
I think we naturally assume that after this experience that Zacchaeus will stop being a tax collector. But the story never says one way or another. His tax collecting career as he knew it… yeah, I think that is over. No longer would he find the wealth in it that he did before his experience of grace. But if he continues to be a tax collector, Zacchaeus may become a reformer in his own small way. Inspired each day by the grace that he has known and experienced… who’s to say he won’t bring that same grace to this corrupt and abusive system? As Christians, aren’t we supposed to bring our faith into every aspect of our lives… letting God’s grace transform the world around us… through us… as we have been transformed by our own experience of being lost but now found?
I must stay at your house today. In that tree, Zacchaeus experiences the radical grace of Christ and it changes his world. He hasn’t earned this. He doesn’t deserve this. And yet, Jesus is staying at his home. And the crowd murmurs. We focus on Zacchaeus, but the murmuring of the crowd shows how lost they were as well. By keeping Zacchaeus out… by denying that he too was a son of Abraham… by returning evil for evil… we see there is no grace in the crowd. Murmurers push away the lost, being lost themselves while they judge others. Salvation doesn’t follow the murmurers home, as they leave the scene still complaining about Jesus going to be a guest of one who is a sinner. Murmurers are lost… mistakenly believing they are found. They are like the Pharisee from last week’s parable… sure of their own self-righteousness and confusing their love of self with the love of God. Murmurers take to Twitter and their own self-justified, self-righteous echo chambers.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We want Jesus to recognize us for our own goodness… and not come to us as sinners. We want Jesus to come to our home because of our worthiness… not out of freely given grace that we didn’t earn but a grace that comes to us because of God’s own loving nature. But… well, let me put it this way… and end on this. As part of our worship this morning, we remember those saints from this congregation and elsewhere who have died this past year. And while that remembrance is tinged with sadness and with our own sense of loss… our hope in remembering is not based on the efficacy of the personal faith of each saint in earning God’s grace in Christ… that they believed enough, or held the right theology, or were in some way good enough to earn or deserve God’s grace. Our hope in remembering is based upon knowing the lengths to which God goes to seek and save the lost… our hope is based on our experience of God’s steadfast love that has embraced each of us while we were still sinners… while we were helpless in our sin… coming into our home and staying with us… our hope is based upon the grace of God in Christ who for us sinners went on to Jerusalem from Jericho… who was crucified, dead and buried… our hope is based upon the God who raised this very same Jesus on the third day. Our hope is in God. The same God who… as our baptism is bold enough to declare… knows us and claims us before our bones were knit together in the womb… before we knew to climb our own personal sycamore tree in the hope of seeing and being seen. Our hope is in God who knows us by name and claims us wretched sinners as God’s own children. In God we have hope… and upon that hope we build the foundation of our faith. Amen.