Sermon for November 3, 2013 31st Ordinary, Pentecost + 24 Year C on Luke 19:1–10
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. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
I first met my wife Michelle at a party hosted by a Christian campus organization in college. We were both new to the college – both of us had transferred in. I liked her right away and soon I asked her out for our first date, and to my surprise, she agreed.
Michelle was still living at home, so that’s where I had to go to pick her up. Her family had just moved from another state. They had purchased a big old farm house that they were rehabbing. They had some land, a barn a chicken coup, a pond and even a horse.
This is when I started getting concerned. When you first start dating (I can still remember) you are alert to automatic deal-breakers. You may feel an initial attraction to a person, then find out that they have a characteristic you simply could never tolerate, like that they are cruel to animals or are addicted to gambling, or that they hate what you love – there are a variety of automatic deal breakers.
When I pulled my car up to Michelle’s beautiful home I thought perhaps I had discovered a deal breaker. She clearly came from a family of means. I soon found out that her father was an executive with an international company.
But I knew that I was called to the ministry – which meant I would never have much money. I thought that for sure, as soon as Michelle figured that out, she would loose interest.
But the opposite was true. I found out that she and her family had recently experienced a huge awakening of faith. It had transformed their life priorities and perspectives. Within a year her father quite his job, went to seminary and began to study for the ministry.
As for her part, Michelle had no aspirations to live in luxury. In fact, I discovered that she was a thrift-shop-a-holic. So, the deal wasn’t broken after all. Just the opposite.
How? It sets us free. The story we just read is a salvation story; a liberation. It is a story about joy and freedom. It’s a lost and found story. It’s a story of hope which we all need more of.
This story is told artfully. There is a man called Zacchaeus who is short, that is he lives low to the ground, but he climbs up a tree to get above everyone else to look at Jesus. His whole life has been spent climbing to get above his peers.
His name actually means pure or innocent, but he is not. He is a tax collector, whose trade is practically synonymous with extortion – in fact he is the chief tax collector – think mafia boss, like Tony Soprano, with tax collector extortionist reporting to him.
That means he is working for the Romans – doing their dirty work. His fellow Jews are his victims; they despise him – to the point that they grumble at the very idea that Jesus will go to his home.
Consider Zacchaeus’ life up to this point. What has been important to him? What has he wanted? You don’t get to be chief tax collector by accident; he wanted this job. He wanted what this job gave him. He got rich. He climbed up the economic tree and ended up above everyone else’s head.
So there he is, up there, lost in a tree, isolated from his community; above their heads economically but despised for his very un-innocent life.
What’s he doing up there? I think he has figured out that he has been wanting the wrong thing. I don’t think he is happy. He is rich, yes, but unhappy.
By this time, Jesus has a reputation. People are aware that Jesus has a powerful and direct connection to God. He has healed people. He has spoken and taught about God as if he had insider information. Jesus has a reputation for being, in the words of some, a “spirit-man,” whose presence seems to exude God’s presence.
I think Zacchaeus, for all his money, still longs for a connection with God, and he knows it’s missing. And I think he also longs to be re-connected to his people, his community, which his quest for wealth has left him alienated from.
God and People
The two go together. If there is anything that Jesus made clear it is that God is deeply concerned for people. He made us, he loves us, he cares when we suffer, cares when we are hungry, cares when we are sick, and cares when we have been subjected to injustice.
There is no such thing as being in a good relationship with God while neglecting the real needs of the people God cares about.
So Zacchaeus has wound up alienated from God and from his own people. He is lost and now he feels it. There he is up in a tree, all alone. Is there any hope?
This sequence of events is important in the story: Jesus takes the initiative and invites himself over. Foundational to our theology is this fact: it’s all based on God’s decision to be merciful to us. God has taken the initiative; we merely respond.
God is not waiting for our reforms or even promises to come clean. Zacchaeus’ great reform followed Jesus’ initiative. The same is true with us. We do nothing to deserve God’s mercy, and nothing we do can stop God from being merciful. The response follows.
And it did, indeed, follow. Jesus’ presence is transformative for Zacchaeus. Welcoming Jesus changes him. What does it change? It changes what he wants. It’s like his eyes have been opened and now he sees everything differently. Suddenly, being connected to God is more important to him than the numbers on his bank statement.
Suddenly too, he looks at people around him and feels connected to them in a brand new way. His past extortion matters now; it was wrong, and he knows it, so he promises restitution. His use of money matters now, so he becomes generous to the poor.
What is the result? Jesus said,
“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”
What has he been saved from? When all he wanted was wealth, he became its slave. Now he is free. He was spiritually empty, now he has been filled with new life. And, at the same time, he has gone from being despised to being welcomed as a “son of Abraham.”
His whole purpose in life has changed. It used to be about himself, about climbing; now he understands that God put him on earth to make a difference.
Lost and Found
This is a powerful story of hope. Jesus has already told several lost and found stories. He told of a lost sheep found by a seeking shepherd; a lost coin found by a diligent woman; a lost son who spent himself into poverty, but was “found” by a Father who loved him back into the family. It’s wonderful, but not hard to think that God can save the down and out.
But people who have gotten entrapped in the deceitful lie that money and happiness are connected, who have cared more about their assets than the common good are no less lost than the prodigal son.
So, this really is a salvation story; a liberation. It is a story about joy and freedom. It’s a lost and found story. It’s a story of hope.
God is at work in this world in powerful and transformative ways. This is why we can be hopeful. All of us are lost in some respect. All of us spend way too much of our lives wanting the wrong things; the very things that end up hurting us.
All of us here in twenty-first century America have way too much stuff, and way too much of an expectation that more of it will make us happy. It never has, and it never will.
And all of us have a purpose that we are on earth for – and it includes the common good. This is what God cares about, as Jesus repeatedly shows us. This is what Zacchaeus woke up to; it’s called generosity.
It is interesting that this biblical story comes up on this Sunday, just after All Saints Day. As we remember those who have been a part of our community who have gone on to be with the Lord, we are reminded of our own mortality; that none of us lives forever.
And we are aware that someday our lives will be seen entirely in retrospect. From that perspective, everything looks different. From that perspective, we can see what to want.
What we want most is salvation. Salvation from all the enslavements we get ourselves into.
Salvation from the bondage of wanting the wrong things.
- Salvation from selfishness,
- greed, and with them,
- apathy and
- neglect of the common good.
We all need this salvation. We are all lost. But the good news is that,
“the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”