Sermon on Luke 19:1-10 for All Saints Day, October 30, 2016
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 sycomore 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.”
My family lived in Croatia for a decade. During most of that time, because of the war, it was impossible to drive south through Bosnia. That was a real pity because that was the short cut to the southern coast of Croatia. But towards the end of our time there, it became possible to take that route.
I will never forget the time we loaded up the family and crossed the boarder. It was a difficult trip. There were roads that were not on the map, and roads that were not named, and a turn we should not have taken. The further we went down that road, the more I began to suspect we were on the wrong path. The paved surface gave way to a gravel road, which terminated in a rock quarry.
If you are off the right path, the further you go, the worse it gets. That was the overwhelming consensus of opinion of the reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century. To them, the church had gotten off on the wrong path, and over the centuries, had ended up in a bad place.
The 500th Anniversary: 1 Year Away
Today we begin the one year countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, the young professor, monk, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg castle door, which is what you did when you wanted to organize a theological debate.
The short version of events is that the institutional church in those days had no stomach for the debate. By that time, the church had been on the wrong path for so long that its errors had fossilized. The church, as an institution, had become so institutionalized in practices and beliefs that it bore almost no resemblance to the vision Jesus had of the kingdom of God on earth. It looked like a kingdom alright, but God had left the building.
So the clarion call of the reformers was “ad fontes”, or back to the fountain; back to the fountainhead, or the source. Let us return, they said, to the place we got off the right road, because that is the only solution when you find that the road you have been on has left you at a dead end at the bottom of a quarry.
That is our quest as well; to return to the source of our faith, which is the life and teachings of Jesus. This story we read today, unique to Luke’s gospel, will help us.
The “wee little man” Story
This story is a favorite of children; those of us who grew up in Sunday School know the song about Zacchaeus the “wee little man” who claimed up the Sycamore tree to see Jesus. Children relate to the small man who has difficulty seeing what’s going on.
Zacchaeus may have been short, but he was powerful. He was not just a tax collector which alone would have made him wealthy, he was the chief tax collector, Luke tells us. He had a management position. In case we miss the point, Luke says explicitly,
“and he was rich.”
Why mention that detail? Because Luke is telling a long story, and this is just one episode. The very last thing that happened before this story was the episode about Jesus healing a blind beggar.
So these two people, the blind beggar and the rich chief tax collector are at opposite ends of the economic and social ladder. Jesus has reached out to the poor man; what about the rich man?
To make the story even more interesting, before the blind beggar story, Luke has told the story of the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do, and Jesus has told him to sell everything and give the money to the poor (Lk 18:22).
To Jesus, money was a spiritual issue about which he had a lot to say. He was tough on people who had lots of money. But his attitude towards them was complex, not simple, as the Zacchaeus story shows.
By the way, many of Luther’s 95 theses were about the ways the church in his day was exploiting the poor by selling indulgences by which you could supposedly shorten someones’s suffering in the afterlife. In other words, the church was abusing the poor. Economic justice was an issue for the Reformation from the start.
Luke’s telling of this story is short. There are huge gaps in it. We wonder what conversation Jesus and Zacchaeus had? We wonder what Zacchaeus had already heard about Jesus that attracted him, that made him want to climb a tree that day? Had he heard the story of the rich man?
Had he heard of Jesus’ first sermon in which he said he had come to bring good news to the poor (Lk 4:18)? Maybe he had heard of Levi the tax collector. Perhaps Levi worked for him, and he knew the story – that Jesus went to his house because, he said, he had come like a doctor, not to the healthy but to the sick.
Maybe Zacchaeus, in spite of his wealth and power understood that he too was sick and needed healing; that he was lost and needed to be found. That his small self, his economic status, his power, his position, had left him as unable to see what he was looking for as the blind beggar. And he needed more than a tree. He needed a personal encounter with Jesus.
The Initiative of Grace
One of the huge themes of the Reformation was “sola gratia” (they had to have a Latin phrase for everything) or “grace alone.” In other words, God always makes the first move. God is gracious. God is not waiting on our performance, or even our promises. God graciously accepts us and invites us to know ourselves as loved, as forgiven, as called on the journey of faith.
So, not waiting for anything from Zacchaeus, Jesus takes the initiative, just as God does with us, and invites himself over. Probably Luke thinks he has told us already so much about Jesus’ call for economic justice that he does not need to repeat it here. All we see is the conclusion. Zacchaeus announces,
“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.”
Jesus calls this “salvation,” saying,
“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.”
Jesus shows us God – that is our Christian theology. Jesus shows us that God is not hooked by social constructs, in either direction. In Jesus’ ministry to the blind beggar we see God reaching out to the marginalized poor, and in Jesus’ ministry to the wealthy chief tax collector, refusing to hold him in contempt, we see God extending grace to the rich.
The blind beggar can now see, and he is invited to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus is not lost in his materialism anymore, and becomes a person of generous concern for the common good.
The Crowd as Obstacle
Luke added an interesting detail in this story. Zacchaeus’ difficulty seeing Jesus was not just because of his size. Luke says,
“He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, he could not, because he was short in stature.”
The crowd was keeping him from seeing Jesus. So he had two problems, not one. His small self, all wrapped up in material prosperity was an issue, and the crowd, the people of his culture were also in the way.
Sometimes, the crowd is part of the problem. What everyone accepts as normal and true is simply an aberration. Just because most people are used to it and do not question it does not make it true. A bad idea that has lasted a long time is still a bad idea.
A wrong path, the longer you are on it, only leads further away from your destination. Traveling the wrong road for a long time does not make it the right road.
For the reformers of the 16th century, like Luther and Calvin, the fact that the church had become fossilized in its practices and beliefs over many years was not an argument for keeping things as they were.
Today: a New Reformation Underway
Today, one year short of the 500th anniversary of the start of that reformation movement, the church stands at another moment in which great changes are underway. We are living in extraordinary times.
Many people have concluded that our Protestant Reformation that started with a call to return to the fountainhead has, itself, gone down paths that have led to dead ends. The movement that began with a call for debate has become institutionalized.
But an amazing thing is happening in our times. Just as Jesus brought a new vision and and an entirely new way of living to Zacchaeus, a man whose life had been totally tied up in his culture’s values, so Jesus is bringing new life into institutionalized, even fossilized communities.
Jesus, the source, is again being listened to and heeded today. The reformer’s quest to return to the sources is the quest of many today who are returning to the life and teachings of Jesus for our direction.
This has led to all kinds of movements of change that we are now a part of.
Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to women, a new attention to the poor, and a new perspective on economic justice.
Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to mysticism and contemplative prayer, just as Jesus practiced.
Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a radical hospitality that opens our table of fellowship to everyone, especially to people to whom the door has been shut in the past as it has been, to LGBTQ people.
Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new commitment to our planet as we see ourselves as connected by our creator to the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea that Jesus drew inspiration from.
Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new openness to people of other faiths, just as Jesus was not put off by heretic Samaritans nor even by pagan Romans, but rather extended God’s compassion to them, without requiring them to first sign off on a creed.
Seeking our source in Jesus has led us to a new understanding that our small self, our reputations, our identities in nation, in language, in religion, is not our true self, but rather our true self, and everyone else’s true self, is our identity as children of a gracious God, who is best defined by Love.
So, in this start of a year long countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we find ourselves in a new reformation.
The Spirit is active today, luring us, coaxing us, persuading us to find goodness, truth and beauty in this amazing world, and to seek the common good until everyone benefits as we have from its blessings.