“One possible moral of this story is to realize that salvation does not require, nor result in, perfection. Salvation in this lifetime is a process – the healing and reconciling that is needed for creating right relationships within which compromised, impure, and sinful people – like us – can live within, in response to, and toward, the realm of God.” -David Ewart
Zacchaeus. Just his name is enough to elicit a grin. We remember him as a kind of cartoon character. As children, we even sang a little ditty about him; who remembers how it goes… “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.” I’m not sure we would use the term “wee” to describe an adult man any more, I’m sure that’s not PC. But we might say he was “vertically challenged” even as we drew pictures of this “smaller-than-life” character in Sunday School.
So the story of Zacchaeus climbing that tree to see Jesus will forever be viewed as a loveable Sunday School. And yet… I would like to challenge that notion this morning and suggest that this is one of the most provocative and powerful narratives in all of scripture. It’s powerful because it introduces the very radical notion that God will stop at nothing less than the total transformation of who we are. And it’s provocative because it challenges us to become more loving, more compassionate, more generous, than we could have ever imagined!
Before we can apply this text to our world, however, I think we need to take a careful look at Zacchaeus and the world he lived in. Jericho was awesome. An oasis of date palms and balsam groves, it exported its products all over the known world. It lay along the great caravan routes, and was a beehive of commercial and human activity. There was even a day when Mark Anthony had presented Jericho as a gift to Cleopatra. The only problem one can identify is that they were not independent; Jericho was under Roman rule.
And it’s within this context that find Zacchaeus. He was the chief tax collector for the Roman government in this prospering city. Actually, he probably had a staff of collectors, and he was, very possibly, the most hated man in all of Jericho. He worked for the occupying forces and, as I said last week, he would have been regarded as a traitor to his own people. He and his cohorts could stop a person in Jericho and assess duties on nearly everything in his or her possession. A cart, for instance, could be taxed for each wheel, for the animal that pulled it, and for the merchandise that it carried. Zacchaeus would then send in a portion of his collections, and anything over that amount he was free to keep. So it’s no surprise that the system was ripe for abuse, and as our passage states: “Zaccheaus was wealthy” as if that were some kind of indictment, and as a matter of fact, it was.
He had accumulated his wealth in service to the invaders and at the expense of his countrymen, and he was regarded as human filth. Zacchaeus, whose name meant, ironically, “the pure one” had turned his name into a sneer on the lips of his fellow Jews. He was a standing joke. The mention of his name evoked not a grin but disgust.The money was nice, to be sure. But to live as an outcast among your own people, with no one to call a friend…no social life…no involvement with others except those who wanted to use you for their own ends. It had to be a lonely and depressing existence.
But then, along comes Jesus. A different kind of Messiah. He comes into town with a reputation for being comfortable with those on the fringes of society; children, women, and those rejected by the trends of culture found in him a listening ear and a warm reception. For someone like Zacchaeus, Jesus was worth checking out.
Now, that was easier said than done. Zacchaeus, as I said before, was very short and seeing over the crowd was a real chore. Trying to squeeze through a crowd to the front was no sure thing, either. So his only hope was to skirt ahead of the crowd and find a sycamore tree, with its low, spreading branches that afforded a ringside view of the way Jesus was to come. And that’s what he did. He waited there in that tree, probably not quite knowing what to expect, as Jesus came into view. Then, the most amazing thing happened…Jesus stopped and looked up at him. Luke says he saw him and said simply, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” And of course Zacchaeus jumped at the opportunity.
Now, this had to be a bitter pill for the townsfolk to swallow. What kind of so-called Messiah would even acknowledge, much less eat with the most notorious sinner in town? Luke says they began to murmur, to “grumble” among themselves, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
We finally don’t have all the details about what happened at Zacchaeus’ house. But we can see are the results, and those results tell us a great deal. Zacchaeus made a two-pronged pledge: to give half his yearly income to the poor and to return any stolen funds four times over. But this is where things get really interesting. Did Zacchaeus repent, as the version of the Bible we read here today implies, or is generosity the norm for Zacchaeus? Interesting. In Greek, the original language of the New Testament, it could be understood either way. It could read “I will give half my wealth to the poor and I will pay back four times what I stole.” Or it could read ” My habit is to give half to the poor… my habit has been to pay back four times. It makes a big difference, doesn’t it? The whole episode could be taken as Zacchaeus’ restoration with his community or it could be taken as a story of repentance on the part of Zacchaeus.
So which is right? Well, since we can only guess at Luke’s intent when he penned these words, I think it’s appropriate to consider both translations as correct. Jesus was restoring him to his community and since Zacchaeus had made mistakes like everyone else, he stood in need of forgiveness like we all do. In the end, either way of looking at it, leads us to conclude that this is finally a story about Transformation. A transformation that came for the love of God. A transformation that lead Zacchaeus to be generous to the poor and to those whom he had cheated.
And this is important for us as well. Whether it was repentance or restoration, something in that encounter with Jesus transformed the way Zacchaeus saw the world. Salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house that day, and he was forever changed.
As a pastor, I’ve observed it time and again. When Christ takes up residence in a life, the individual cannot help but become more generous. Somehow an encounter with God loosens the grip on our wallet, frees up some of our time, leads us to share our talents, and fills up our hearts with compassion and forgiveness and respect and love for our fellow human beings. And when that happens, when we let Christ in, giving becomes an opportunity, not a requirement.
And this brings us back around to old Zacchaeus. In this story Jesus invites us to remember Zacchaeus as something more than a mere children’s story. Christ’s actions and Zacchaeus’ proclamation remind us of God’s call to live generously. It challenges us to see that generosity is more that giving money. Friends, generosity, true generosity, comes when we drop our defenses, scrabble up the nearest tree, and give from the center of our being. Generosity finally is an opportunity to practice our faith.
Prayer Let us once again be in an attitude of prayer…O God, we too need you to redeem our past, to transform our present, and to redirect our future. Call us out of the places we sit today and show us how to be the people you would have us be. In the name of Jesus Christ our Savior, we pray. Amen.
Changed From a Taker to a Giver. Reflection on Luke 19 by Rev. William G. Wilson (DayOne.org 2004)
Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4; David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds:(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) pgs. 260-365
Giving and Receiving Hospitality, Donna Hanby. (Cleveland: John Hun, 2010), pgs. 17-18
Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: Year C. Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) pg. 469