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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 – seeing 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 that those of a certain age may be familiar with from Sunday School days. Zacchaeus was a wee little man etc. It’s a story that captures our imagination, I think, in part because of the details 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.
The “there” here is Jericho. About 26 km west of Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers are continuing south toward Jerusalem in that redemptive parade of which we spoke last week. Teaching is happening. Healing is happening. Welcomes are happening. Forgiveness is happening. In chapter 18, right before the passage that we read today, 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.
This is Jesus’ mission. These stories are not detours. These stories are what Jesus does. Jesus’ mission.
This is the last story we’re going to read for now from Luke’s Gospel, and it’s a good place to end, I think. The last face-to-face encounter that Jesus has with someone before he enters Jerusalem. 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. Riches make it hard for us to see our need for God but thank God that through him, anything is possible. 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. We may remember the words of the Pharisee in the parable that Jesus spoke –“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 disconnected despite his wealth. The people won’t even make room to let him see. 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. I would say that there are people all around us who are trying to see who Jesus is. They may be living on the margins of society, like the blind man that called out to Jesus on his way into Jericho. They might look outwardly like everything is going great, but there is a lack of connection in their lives. We might be one of these people as we hear this story, and if so, we are going to hear some good news in a little while. I want to pause here 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 focused on getting to see him ourselves that we miss others who might be looking?
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, and we may not even know what we’re looking for. The good news is that Jesus is constantly seeking us. 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 without constraint. Radically you might even say. In an unseemly way might be another way to put it. When we hear this, we may be thinking about another man who was the head of 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 may be reminded of how unseemly it was for a patriarch to start running down a laneway toward a road upon which his formerly wayward/free-spending/prodigal/forgetting-where-his-gifts-came from son was seeking to return home. The waiting father saw him coming from afar and ran out to meet him with forgiveness.
We may be reminded of the extravagance of God’s grace when we consider the unseemly/untoward nature of what Zacchaeus does here in his tree-climbing. We may be reminded 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 in the kingdom of heaven becomes the guest. The one who welcomes us to his table – the one who calls us and welcomes us home - 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, and he invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. The divine invitation becomes the divine initiative. Come on down! I must stay at your house today. They call this the divine must. Jesus uses 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). It's the only time Jesus does it, though. 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 this call? What are we going to do with this call today? What are we going to do with this call daily?
Zacchaeus’ response is wonderful, and it’s no wonder we remember his name and want to climb sycamore trees and sing songs about him. So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. He 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. Doesn’t matter that we didn’t have time to clean and whatever will they think of us. Jesus will take care of the cleaning when it comes to the rooms of our hearts. 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 seen this before. The response of the hometown crowd when Jesus announced the year of the Lord’s favour. The response of the Pharisees to Jesus’ welcome of the woman who had been forgiven and loved much. 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. Let us hang that label on him.
The thing is, of course - this was the whole point. That’s exactly who Jesus came for. 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’re the source of your goodness or that 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!” At the same time, may we never think we aren’t worthy of God’s love and grace or that the things we’ve done have put us beyond the reach of God’s grace. Even financial oppressors are not beyond the reach of God’s grace!
Christ draws people in from the margins and puts them in the middle of things. Someone has noted that “L’Arche Daybreak” does the same thing. This is the community founded by Jean Vanier to welcome adults with intellectual disabilities. Some years ago, I had the chance to go see a dress rehearsal for a play they put on for the 50th anniversary of Larche. Everyone in the community was not only part of it but given a central place.
Zacchaeus is restored in the community. 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. We said a couple of weeks ago that salvation or being saved or delivered is not to be reduced to a personal or private matter. It is also not to be reduced to something in the future – although one day, all of creation will know deliverance fully. “Salvation has come to this house today,” says Jesus and again, there is an immediacy to this truth. Salvation embraces life in the present, and its effect are meant to be felt and seen. Salvation brings about transformed hearts and revitalized communities; salvation is the beginning of the setting of all the cosmos/universe in order; salvation is the call and enablement of Christ’s church to make his grace known in word and deed in ever-widening circles (starting with our homes). Someone has put it like this – “Here in the case of Zacchaeus, his ‘being saved’ refers to a conversion, to be sure, but not in any private sense. Not only is his household involved, but also the poor who will be beneficiaries of his conversion as well as those people whom he has defrauded. His salvation, therefore, has personal, domestic, social and economic dimensions. The whole of life is affected by Jesus’ ministry, a foretaste of the complete reign of God.”
I want that kind of deliverance for myself and for everyone who has heard Jesus’ words. Today, salvation is here. Today, the kingdom of heaven is here. Today, Jesus walks behind, beside and before us. May our response be that of Zacchaeus – a joyful welcome of the one in whom is light and life. May this be true for each one of us.