Luke 19:1-10 CEB
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”
Today, we come face to face with Jesus. In this case, we will need all the humor we can muster because encountering Jesus through his words and interactions will reveal just how human we are. For, it is through stories like this one involving the tax collector, Zacchaeus, that show just how often we are off track and misunderstand things and let our own desires cloud what Jesus needs us to see and hear. We need to laugh, so we can hang in there! Every interaction with Jesus brings with it transformation, but only if we are willing to let it. If we get upset, we will turn and pull inward away from Jesus. If we can laugh at ourselves, we will hang in there as we find healing and a new way of living and being in this world. We will need humor today as we put ourselves into this story, this interaction between not only Zacchaeus and Jesus but also the crowd. We will need to go out on a limb and ask ourselves today, who needs to be transformed in this face-to-face encounter with Jesus?
How many of you remember singing or having children who sang, “Zacchaeus Was a Wee Little Man?” In our song, Zacchaeus cuts a ridiculous figure, as he climbs a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. I mean look at the verses this morning and the lyrics from the song, the CEB calls him a “short man” and the NRSV says that he is “short in stature,” and in the song, he becomes not simply short but a “wee little man!” It makes him sound more like a leprechaun than a human being! Even in his own day, I could imagine the crowd having a snide joke or two about his height, for you see, he was the resident bad guy in Jericho. I mean on a good day, nobody much cares for tax collectors, but back in Jesus’ day tax collectors are seen as even worse. They were Jews recruited by the Romans to tax and cheat their fellow people to maintain a military occupation by a foreign power. They were seen as corrupt too, for the way you earned your money as a tax collector is you raised the rate to skim off the top for your own gain. Rome did not pay you, so you were expected to cheat your own people to make a living. Now here is Zacchaeus, not just a tax collector but the chief tax collector, the head honcho of bad guys.
What’s more of a problem is that we are also in the Gospel of Luke, and I will tell you that if there is one hard and fast truth about Luke as an author: he doesn’t like rich people and Luke believes Jesus doesn’t like them either. In fact, just prior to this encounter in our scripture, Jesus just finished having a run-in with the Rich Young Ruler who Jesus tells to “Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18:22 CEB). It is in this story that Jesus gives one of his top ten quotes: “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom” (Luke 18:25 CEB). Uh oh, now we have another rich man, probably corrupt as corrupt can be! Things will not go well here! Except Zacchaeus’ story defies Luke’s expectations. Rather than acting like a powerful and arrogant man, he decides he needs to see Jesus however he can, even if it means climbing out on the limb of a sycamore tree to do it. He doesn’t summon Jesus. He doesn’t send servants. This despised pillar of the community, but still a man of status, acts like a little kid trying to get a peek at Christ.
Now of course, if we were singing the children’s song, we would be shouting at Zacchaeus at this point, "Zacchaeus you come down, For I'm going to your house today!" However, Jesus does not shout nor does he seem surprised by Zacchaeus’ presence, and in fact, Jesus calmly looks up to this man hidden in a tree and invites himself into the tax collector’s home for a meal. In fact, Jesus even says, “‘I must stay in your home today.’” Now, this is the point where we are ready for this gospel to let the tax collector have it! He is the bad guy, and he is about to get his comeuppance from Christ! Luke has primed us for it. The fact that he is a tax collector primes us for it. In fact, many translations prime us for it. Let’s see what happens. First, the crowd grumbles, “‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,’” for that is how they see him. He is not one of them, but rather a worthless sinner. Now, Zacchaeus here responds to their accusations, defending rather than repenting. He defends himself by saying to Jesus, “‘Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.’” What a strange set of things for the resident bad guy to say!
First of all, you may have noticed if you read any number of other translations that the CEB has a different tone here. In the NRSV, this part reads:
“‘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’” (Luke 19:8 NRSV).
I will give, and I will pay. That’s how the NRSV understands it, for Zacchaeus being a tax collector must be in need of repentance! Even if you were to look at other translations like the NIV they strike similar tones, but this is not what the original text says. The original, more accurately captured by the CEB translation here, has Zacchaeus defending himself by saying I give and I repay. Everyone assumed they knew who was the sinner and who was not. They all assumed they knew who Zacchaeus was and who Jesus would prefer. That is why the crowd grumbles, for they are saying to Jesus, he’s not worth it. Don’t you know that? Why waste your time on him?
Imagine the shock they got after hearing Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus’ words, “‘Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham.’” Jesus, aka salvation, has come to the house of the resident bad guy and pronounces him a child of Abraham, aka a child of God, the same as all of those in the crowd. You see, Jesus is telling the crowd, “This man is one of you, a child of God like you. If I ignore him, I ignore you.” What fitting words for us to hear today, for here we are just a little over a week from election day. I will tell you now, I don’t really care for election season, in fact, in some ways, it ruins the otherwise wonderful fall months for me. I’ll tell you why too. It is the time when people, unapologetically, are for the most part, on their least Christian behavior. The things, the insults, and the bitter fights that spring out of this part of our American lives are hard to watch and harder to journey through. It is exactly during this time that I think we need to come face-to-face with Jesus.
Again, I invite you to have some humor and invest yourself in the story. Imagine that instead of Zacchaeus, it is the political candidate or even perhaps the politician currently in office that you like the least. You don’t need to tell me who it is, just imagine them. It is the one that you are sure is doing wrong in this world. The one that you are sure is bringing this country or our morals or our culture to its ruin. Now, imagine that Jesus arrives and goes into this person’s house to eat with them. I could see a number of reactions racing through our heads and hearts, but they all probably start from that same place as the crowd, who grumble and say, “‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’” Maybe just maybe, we are waiting like Luke for Jesus to give this bad person their just deserts by telling a parable or asking just the right question to expose their rotten underbelly. Instead of meeting our secret expectations, Jesus praises this person, calling them a child of God, and says they are worth it. How would we react? How would we feel? Would we deny Christ at that moment and crucify him all over again for committing the sin of disagreeing with us, or perhaps, could we laugh at our own foolishness? Could we shake our heads at our own inability to love our enemy as Jesus asked us to? Could we be transformed at that moment when we come face to face with Jesus?
I leave you this morning with these thoughts. When Jesus talks about seeking and saving the lost in our scripture this morning, who is really lost? In fact, have each of us considered where we are in the story? Are you Zacchaeus desperately trying to get a glimpse of God even when others say that you are not worth it? Are you in the crowd, ready to denounce and deny the humanness of those who you know from the bottom of your heart are the bad ones? Are you Jesus, inviting yourself into the homes of those others think of as sinners to pronounce them worth loving and worth the effort of knowing? No matter where we start out, may we all be willing this morning to go out on a limb, ready to look for Christ and ready to welcome a new way of living in following Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman