I MUST STAY AT YOUR HOUSE TODAY
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Back in 2010 Nicole and I had the chance to go to Israel on a trip organized by McMaster Divinity College. There were many memorable moments as you can imagine. One thing, in particular, captured the imagination of a lot of people, and that was seeing actual sycamore trees. I remember the first time our group encountered one and were told what it was. We wanted to take pictures of it, pictures of ourselves standing in front of it (just on the cusp of the selfie age), pictures of us in the tree.
All because of a story we read in Luke 19. A story that gave rise to a song many of us are familiar with from Sunday School. Zacchaeus was a wee little man etc. It’s a story that captures our imagination I think in part because of the details were given. It’s not often we’re given the names of the people whom Jesus encounters as he’s on his way to Jerusalem, much less their occupation and a physical description. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
This is in Jericho, was it about 26 km west of Jerusalem. Jesus is getting close to Jerusalem. We will mark his entry into that city next week as we journey with him. On his way into the city of Jericho, Jesus is stopped by a blind man sitting by the roadside. Throughout this journey, Jesus has been about bringing in those who are outside. Bringing those on the margin into the centre. People would have looked at this man and thought “What sin did he or his parents commit to cause him to be blind?” He would have been shunned. He cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus stood still and orders that the man be brought to him. “What do you want me to do for you?” is the question Jesus asks. “Lord, let me see again,” is the reply. Jesus heals him. “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” We read that the man regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.
Jesus’ mission. This is what he does.
As we hear the story we’re reminded of other stories we’ve heard in Luke’s gospel. A story about another tax collector named Levi to whom Jesus issued the call. We remember a story about another rich man – a young ruler – who didn’t answer the call from Jesus because of his riches.
He was a tax collector. Not a run of the mill tax collector but a chief tax collector. He had other tax collectors working for him. Levels of graft and skimming and all that went along with being a chief tax collector. In league with the ruling Romans. The worst of the worst. “Thank God I am not like other people,” prayed the Pharisee. “Thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The kind of person that serves as a healthy reminder of how righteous we are. We like to have such people around. He’s socially excluded despite his wealth. The people won’t even make room to let him see – the opposite of big man coming through with his entourage and all that kind of thing. His short stature is reflective of his social stature within the town of Jericho.
The thing about this tax collector is, he was trying to see who Jesus was. He was trying to see who Jesus was. I would say that there are people all around us how are trying to see who Jesus is. They might be living on the margins like this tax collector. I want to pause there and ask us to consider ourselves here in this crowd. In our own desire to see Jesus, do we get in the way of others who want to see him? Do our own preconceived notions turn us into barriers or are we so focussed on getting to see him ourselves that we miss others who might be on the margins?
He ran ahead and climbed a tree. Now we saw pictures of sycamore trees earlier. They were not that hard to climb, even for someone who was short. It’s not like Zacchaeus needed a boost up or anything. Think about the scene though. This is a rather high ranking official (collaborator though he may be) and a man of wealth in the city of Jericho. To all the adults out there, when is the last time you climbed a tree?
This is a story of seeking for sure. Zacchaeus is seeking something/someone beyond himself. He’s not sure what. For sure we seek things in this life. Someone has called this a quest story, but it’s not ultimately about Zacchaeus’ quest. It’s about Jesus seeking him. Back in chapter 15, there are three parables that Jesus tells about people seeking things that are lost. A coin. A sheep. A son. Zacchaeus is making a grand gesture here. He’s acting extravagantly. Radically you might even say. In an unseemly way might be another way to put it. When we hear this we should be thinking about another man who was a boss – the head of his household. A household large enough for its wealth to be divided among his sons. When we hear about how unseemly it is for a man of means to climb a tree, we should be thinking about how unseemly it was for a patriarch to start running down a laneway toward a road upon which his formerly wayward son was seeking to return home.
We should be reminded of the extravagance of God’s grace. We should be thinking of the grand gesture that has been made on the part of God in the person of Christ. We should be reminded that any seeking that is done on our part is overarched or founded on the seeking that Christ does for us. This is a quest story for sure, but the quest is centred on Christ. Just as Jesus stops before the calls of the blind man and takes notice, Jesus looks up at the tree in which Zacchaeus is perched. I like to think there’s some humour involved here. I like to think that Jesus is delighted at the lengths to which this man who’s been excluded from everything has gone. Jesus calls out his name just as God has been calling out names all along. Zacchaeus. How did Jesus know the tax collector’s name? Was it divine knowledge? Did he ask someone “What is that man’s name?” Jesus tells him, “Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
The host becomes the guest. The host is at the same time a guest. The one who welcomes us to his table is the same one who stands at the door knocking saying “… if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you.” None of this is ever coercive you see. Jesus extends an invitation. I must stay at your house today. They call this the divine must. Jesus uses it
a lot in Luke. “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” I must stay at your house today. This is all part of God’s plan. Jesus extends an invitation for himself. I always say I like this because I kind of do the same thing – I’ll invite myself over to someone’s place at the drop of a hat (you’re invited to my place too so it ’s not just one way). I must stay at your house today. The immediacy of the salvation call. The daily nature of Jesus’ call on our lives. The question is - what are we going to do with the call?
Zacchaeus’ response – So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. The joy that accompanies the answer to Jesus’ invitation. Come on in and stay. Doesn’t matter what the house looks like to this guest. The point is the welcome in. This welcome is accompanied by joy.
And once again the crowd feels like it needs to block things. We’ve been talking about since the beginning of Lent when we looked at Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. Are there people who we feel are outside the reach of the Kingdom of God? Are there people who we feel are undeserving of a welcome and inclusion? The crowd’s response is a reflection of this kind of attitude. He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.
This was the whole point. The only qualification you need to follow Christ is to know your need for Christ. Christ draws in the people from the margins. It’s where Christ works. If you think you’ve got it all worked out then you’re not going to be coming down out of that tree and saying yes come on over and stay. Christ draws people in from the margins and puts them in the middle of things. One commentator notes that L’Arche Daybreak does the same thing. The community founded by Jean Vanier. I had the chance to go see a dress rehearsal for a play they put on for the 50th anniversary of Larche. You can see how everyone from the community is not only incorporated but given a central place.
Zacchaeus is restored in community, and the effects of his restoration are to be felt beyond himself. Today salvation has come to this house. One’s immediate surroundings. Zacchaeus makes another grand gesture. He’ll give half his possessions to the poor and will pay back four times as much for anyone he’s defrauded. There are social and economic implications to the salvation that Jesus has brought. The Christian life looks like something and its effects are felt in concentric circles that ripple out from us. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” was John the Baptist’s call, and Zacchaeus is listening.
The story ends with Jesus reiterating his purpose. The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance is how he put it earlier in Luke. If you’re righteous on your own you have no need of Jesus and none of this will resonate. If you realize your need for someone beyond yourself then Jesus is stopped underneath the tree saying “Hurry and come down. I must stay at your house today.” Jesus is at the same time a guest and a host. He welcomes us as guests to this table. He’s knocking on the door of our hearts and asking us to let him in. May our gathering around this table today be a signal of our ongoing and affirmative response to Jesus’ grace-filled invitation.