October 30, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.
Last week, we heard Jesus tell a story about a tax collector and a Pharisee. He told the story to some people who thought they were better than others, and in that story, the Really Bad Guy, the tax collector, goes home justified, while the Really Good Guy, the Pharisee, goes home no more righteous than he had been before he came to the Temple to pray.
Today’s story is about another tax collector, only this time Jesus isn’t setting up a hypothetical situation to teach a lesson. This time, the tax collector is a real person, a short man named Zacchaeus. But before we can hear this story, we have to know what has happened since last week. Because Jesus has been pretty busy in the last part of chapter 18.
First, he has to deal with disciples who try to screen his calls. When they turn away parents who are bringing children to be blessed, Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)
Then a rich young ruler comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to obey the commandments, and when the young ruler says he has done that since he was a boy, Jesus says, “You still lack one thing. Go sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor… Then come and follow me.” (Luke 18:22) And the young man became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
When Jesus tells him that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, the disciples wonder, “well, if someone God has blessed with many riches has that much trouble, what hope is there for anyone else?” Jesus confuses them further by describing how he will soon be arrested, beaten, and killed, but that he will rise again on the third day. It’s the third time he has predicted his own suffering and death, but they still don’t get it.
As they continue down the road, a blind beggar starts calling out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The disciples who are leading the way try to silence him, but he only calls out louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stops and heals him. The beggar stops begging, and starts following Jesus, praising God. And this brings us to today’s passage.
Today we will use the English Standard Version, so I invite you to follow along on the screen as I read. In fact, I’d like your help. Would the people up in the balcony read the words Zacchaeus says, since you’re upstairs, just as he was up in a tree? And would you folks on this side read the words Jesus says? And you folks over here, you get to be the grumblers today!
He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way.
And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him,
(stage left people) “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”
So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled,
(stage right people) “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord,
(balcony people) “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
And Jesus said to him,
(stage left people) “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:1-10, ESV)
Jesus is picking up speed as he moves toward Jerusalem.
Remember the route? He has gone into Samaria, where he met up with ten lepers, then across the Jordan River and down the east bank. Now Jesus is ready to make a sharp right turn, heading into the oasis of Jericho before the final leg of his trip to Jerusalem.
Jericho is known as the City of Palms, and its rich fertile soil, along with a temperate climate, makes it an agricultural center. It was a logical place to stop for rest and refreshment on the long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Its status as a trade center also meant it was a wealthy community, and no one enjoyed that status more than the local tax collectors.
Zacchaeus may have been short, but he was powerful, because he wasn’t just a tax collector. He was the chief tax collector – a ruler over other tax collectors. Right away, we can see the connection between the parable we heard last week and the story of the rich young ruler that follows it. We know from the earlier parable that tax collectors are Really Bad Guys, as far as the Jewish community is concerned, so it follows that Zacchaeus is not too popular in Jericho, even if he is powerful. And we can assume that, like the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus is going to have difficulty entering the Kingdom of God because of his wealth.
But if we’ve learned one thing from Luke, it’s that he likes to show Jesus turning the tables on us, reminding us that our ways are not God’s ways, and our thoughts are not God’s thoughts. And if we’ve learned two things from Luke, the second would be that seeing, quite often, is believing. Eight times in these few verses we hear the verbs “see” or “look” or “behold” –
- Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus – he is “seeking (or looking) to see”
- Jesus looks up to see Zac in the tree, and urges him to hurry down.
- As the crowd sees Jesus inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ house for the day, they grumble.
Sometimes seeing is NOT believing, especially if what we see doesn’t match up with our preconceived notions of what is proper and good. This is why we have read the English Standard Version today. Other translations put the verbs Zacchaeus uses into future tense – I will give half my goods to the poor; I will restore fourfold to anyone I have defrauded.
I’ve always interpreted that to mean that Zacchaeus repented of his unscrupulous practices when Jesus saw him, and his declaration is evidence of his repentance. But Jesus never asks him to repent, and any interpretation that focuses on repentance is reading too much between the lines, I think.
This is not a story about repentance leading to salvation. This is a story about grace. John Wesley would call it “prevenient grace.” It’s the kind of grace that is already working in us before we even realize it.
You see, the verbs Zac uses are present tense and active voice. Zacchaeus tells Jesus that he is already making restitution for any wealth he has acquired dishonestly. This is happening right now, as we speak, he says to Jesus. I am already making restitution. I am already giving half of my property to the poor. The miracle that changed Zacchaeus didn’t happen as he shimmied down from the sycamore tree. It was already at work in him, even before he went looking for a way to get above the crowd so he could “seek to see who Jesus was.”
There is a tree standing in Jericho today that many believe is the very tree Zacchaeus climbed. It is more than 2000 years old, and it stands at the crossroads of the old trading routes. Now days, the only trading that takes place in its shade is the tourist trade, but you can see that its branches would make a good perch to watch a parade passing by.
Sometimes, I think we look at our faith as a spectator sport, sitting up in a tree to get a comfortable view of others following Jesus closely. We hope to be able to see who Jesus is, but as long as we are sitting up in the tree, we can’t really experience what it’s like to be in the parade. We can’t know the joy of inviting Jesus into our own lives, and spending time with him one on one.
Take a look at this tree. There’s one branch that has been propped up, rather than cut off, as it grew too long. It would not support even a “wee little man.” But near the trunk, it’s easy to imagine Zacchaeus climbing up to get a good look at Jesus. And it’s easy to imagine Jesus standing at the foot of that tree, insisting that he hurry down.
Why did Jesus do this? Why invite himself to the home of a person everyone considered to be a sinner? Why bother?
For the same reason Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
For the same reason Jesus healed a blind beggar, and urged the rich young ruler to give up all his possessions to follow Christ.
Because Jesus always identifies with the lowly, the poor, the outcast, the weak, the sick, … and the sinner. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem. Three times, he has told his disciples what will happen to him there. He will be arrested, and beaten, and killed, taking onto himself the sins of the world.
Jesus likes to refer to himself as the Son of Man. He reminds us, each time he does this, that he took on our human flesh in order to identify fully with our weakness as human beings. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. He is looking for each of us, not to judge us or to condemn us. He simply wants to save us, to invite himself into our lives, to come stay with us at our house.
Zacchaeus received Christ joyfully. He didn’t worry about whether his house was clean or if he had enough food to feed a surprise party of 13-plus. He simply received Jesus with joy.
We could talk about the fact that Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, and Zac only sold half of his, but it would be just as easy to point out that the rich young ruler went away sad, because he didn’t want to give up any of his wealth, while Zac freely and joyfully gave half of his wealth to the poor and made restitution that went above and beyond what the law required.
And maybe, since today marks the end of our Fall stewardship campaign, that would be an important topic of discussion – joyful, sacrificial giving. But I don’t think that’s the point of this story. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, to his own sacrificial death. And yet, along the way, he has time to stop and welcome children, heal a blind man, and invite himself to stay at a sinner’s house.
The point isn’t about sacrificial giving or even repentance. The point is grace: Grace that has been available since before we knew we needed it; grace that makes it possible for us to accept God’s salvation in the here and now.
Like Zacchaeus, Jesus is speaking in the present tense, even today. He invites himself into your life, just as he invited himself into Zacchaeus’ life. Today, salvation has come to this house. Today, Jesus is here. Come down from your tree, and receive him with joy.