Zacchaeus — the Unlikely Role-Model

A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 19:1-10

Our days with Luke are drawing to a close.  Just a few more weeks and we will be in Advent and find ourselves once again with Matthew as our traveling guide through the Gospels.   But before we leave Luke, there are a few more stories and even a difficult saying of Jesus to be heard.

This morning we hear this familiar story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man.  This is one of the stories from the life and ministry of Jesus that seems to resonate with adults and children alike.  I recall singing the children’s song about Zacchaeus,  “Zacchaeus, You come down!”  I think children connect to the story because, like them, Zacchaeus is short and cannot always see what is going on.  Like a child might, Zacchaeus climbs a tree in order to see better.  With this reading Zacchaeus is seen as courageous, overcoming his disadvantage with cleverness and great faith.  Little did I know that there was so much about this story that a child’s reading misses.

When we place Zacchaeus in the cast list of the other memorable figures we have encountered along the way in this year of Luke, nearly past, we might see some similarities.  Like so many of the individuals that Jesus encounters in Luke’s Gospel, Zacchaeus is an outcast, but what sets Zacchaeus apart, and this is his one and only appearance in the Gospels, he doesn’t approach Jesus.  Unlike blind Bartimaeus or the lepers who Jesus healed, we find no suggestion that Zacchaeus is reaching out to Jesus.  The text only tells us that he is trying to see better and climbs up into a tree.

 Jesus calls to Zacchaeus, not the other way around.

When it says that Zacchaeus couldn’t see because of the crowd, could it be that they refused to let him through because of their disdain for him?  Was Zacchaeus more comfortable up in the tree, out of the reach and the scorn of the townspeople?  It’s almost as if they chased him up the tree.

Zacchaeus was a notorious sinner and the crowd reacts accordingly.  He was a chief tax collector, and, by extension, a chief collaborator with the occupying Roman authority.  He was not just outcast like a leper or blind man, but he was despised.  The tree clearly was his only option to see Jesus.

Note how the encounter unfolds – Zacchaeus doesn’t ask a question or even plead for mercy.  Jesus approaches him.  Could Jesus hear the crowd taunting Zacchaeus?  Did Jesus see the dirty looks people might have been giving him?  Whatever the reason, Jesus chooses Zacchaeus to put God’s indiscriminate mercy and God’s inclusive grace on display.

Of all the homes in Jericho Jesus could have visited, it is Zacchaeus’ home that receives this great honor.   We have discussed before the central role hospitality had in ancient Jewish culture, one that continues to this day in most Middle-Eastern cultures.  To be given the chance to host Jesus in his home must have been both thrilling and daunting to Zacchaeus.  But was this request of Jesus simply for Zacchaeus’ sake?  Let’s consider that in a moment.

First let’s set this story in the larger context of Luke.  In the chapter immediately preceding this one, Jesus is confronted by the rich young ruler.  When he asks Jesus what he may do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him simply – sell all you have and give to the poor.

There is no suggestion that the rich young ruler had earned his wealth through fraudulent means.  There is no reason to think that he has anything less than a spotless reputation among his peers.  Zacchaeus, in more ways than one, serves as a counter to the rich young ruler.  Zacchaeus, a rich, despised tax collector, models for Luke’s audience and for us what Jesus was getting at when he describes salvation.

We don’t see Zacchaeus groveling at Jesus’ feet.  He simply says, and emphatically, “I will give to the poor and make things right!”  Jesus commends him, this son of Abraham, for salvation has come to his house.  The rich young ruler left his encounter with Jesus grieving, but Zacchaeus has reason to rejoice.

Do you see how Luke’s Jesus is yet again turning the tables?  It’s as if he is saying to the crowd, “Do you want to see someone who understands what it means to give to the poor – don’t ask a rich, young ruler, ask a notorious tax collector!”  Luke’s Jesus is yet again pointing to an unlikely role-model as he has done throughout Luke’s Gospel – the notorious woman who alone paid Jesus honor at the home of Simon the Pharisee, the Samaritan traveler who alone understands what it means to be a neighbor, the Samaritan leper who alone was thankful for his healing, and now this, a notorious, despised tax collector alone seems to understand what Jesus means by finding salvation amidst great wealth.  Don’t ask the rich young ruler, ask the tax-collector.  Don’t ask the Pharisee, ask the notorious, outcast woman.  Don’t ask the priest or the Levite, ask a Samaritan.

This is not quite the story we sang about in Vacation Bible School.

In today’s parlance it might be like saying, “Do you want to understand the value of a thing?  Ask someone who is denied it.  Want to meet someone who values health care and free education?  Here’s an illegal immigrant.  Want to talk to someone who understands the value and sanctity of marriage?  Ask a gay couple who are denied the right by our government.”  Luke’s Jesus is pointing to the unlikely, the outcast, those on the margins as the ones who understand his message.  The powerless understand power better than anyone else.

But there’s another nuance to this story – the way Jesus treats Zacchaeus, just as he treated the woman who anointed his feet and the grateful leper.  He treats Zacchaeus with respect and dignity.  And note, Zacchaeus’ repentance comes not before Jesus will think about entering his home, but after.  Jesus doesn’t set repentance as a prerequisite for fellowship or inclusion.  Jesus invites himself over to the home of a notorious sinner.

What must the people of Jericho have thought!  Here again, Jesus is risking his own reputation by eating a meal with the most notorious sinner in that town.  So I ask you, could Jesus have been using this moment with Zacchaeus not just to call Zacchaeus to repentance for his sinful ways, but to call the people of Jericho to repentance as well.  Rather than isolate and despise Zacchaeus as the town people had done, Jesus treats him with dignity and respect, giving him an opportunity to show hospitality.  When was the last time any of those town’s people had shown Zacchaeus even the smallest measure of kindness?

Might Jesus be modeling for us a new way of treating the outcast?  Is Jesus through turning tables here in Luke?  By making the first move, Jesus closed the distance, looking up at this isolated and, yes, lonely man, and extending to him mercy.

Jesus invites us to his table, to receive God’s hospitality, God’s welcome.  Who understands this irresistible grace better than those whose lives are empty of grace?  Who is hungrier than those in our midst who need mercy?  May God give us eyes to see those who may live lives of such isolation, but also the hearts to reach out to them, sinful though they may be, with God’s love and God’s mercy.  And may God give us hearts full of repentance for the ways we have been complicit in chasing an outcast person up a tree so that they might too catch a glimpse of Jesus.  Amen.

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