by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are continuing in our sermon series, Outcasts: The Friends of Jesus. Last week, we talked about the extraordinary lengths that Jesus will go in search of the lost, the ones who gradually drift without even realizing it and the ones who walk away with purpose. They walk away so determinedly that they don’t really realize where they are going until it’s too late, and they realize they are lost. Regardless of the circumstance, Jesus is going after them to search and will do it as long as it takes. And when someone is found, there is such rejoicing in heaven!
Last week, we heard grumblings from Pharisees and scribes objecting to Jesus’ spending time and eating with people with less than perfect reputations. He was actually dining in the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. They grumbled about the uninvited guests, and he responded with three stories, three parables about seeking the lost.
Today, we look at a time when Jesus lived out that story, with Zacchaeus. We’re very familiar with the song, but I ask you to look with me in your Bibles and focus on the parts that aren’t featured in the song.
Luke 19:1-10 NIV
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Before we heard the Scripture passage, what did we already know? Zacchaeus was a “wee little man.” He climbed a sycamore tree because he wanted to see Jesus. He sure picked the right tree on the right route because Jesus not only sees him but calls him by name! Then, Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house, and Zacchaeus is very happy about it.
With all the songs based on the Bible, this is one of the most accurate, but it does leave out some key details. When the song describe Zacchaeus as “a wee little man,” we might get this picture of a fun-loving shorter guy, skipping along excited to see Jesus. He decides to climb a tree. I mean climbing trees is fun, right? I don’t know if you remember last week when I was talking about the parable of the prodigal son, when dad went running up to him? Part of what makes that story so extraordinary is that the father ran. Rich leaders were dignified, and they did not run.
Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector, and he is rich. For someone like him it would be shameful to break a sweat, let alone run down the street and climb a tree. What does this tell us? At least two things. 1) He was highly motivated to see Jesus. He was going to do whatever it took, even climbing a tree.
And this word “see.” As far as we can tell from our English Bible translations, it could mean that he wanted to get a good place to see a parade, but the Greek word here means to learn about, to examine, to inspect. Zacchaeus wasn’t interested in a passing glance at some novelty. He wanted to check out this person he had heard about.
2) He had to find a way to see over everyone because no one would let him get in front where he could see. No one was interested in helping him out. Instead they shut him out. Not only was he not very tall, he was not held in high regard by the people of Jericho. One would think that his wealth would provide him some difference to get him a good seat, but no. They hated him. Why? He was the chief tax collector.
We already know that in general tax collectors were not well liked. What does it mean to be a chief tax collector? Does it mean that he is some kind of supervisor? Head of department? Well yes, and no. What it really means is that he was the president or owner of a company. The Romans didn’t collect taxes directly. There was no boots on the ground bureaucracy like our Internal Revenue Service that works directly for the government. The Romans contracted out to independent locals. That person, in this case Zacchaeus, would pay the whole tax to the Romans up-front. Then, he would collect whatever he could from his territory. He could hire whomever he liked to help him do this collection, and ideally, he would collect more than he paid to the Romans for the contract in the first place. Since there was no oversight, the system lent itself to abuse, so much so that among the Jews in Palestine there was a designation even worse than sinner … tax collector. That is why the scribes and Pharisees mention both when complaining whom Jesus is spending time with. You’d think that “sinner” would cover it all, but no even worse he could be … a tax collector. And Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. Well, you can imagine how people felt about him.
So, Jesus is walking through town, walks towards the tree that Zacchaeus is in, and called him by name. Jesus picks out the one that everyone tried to block. Jesus seeks him out. Jesus is searching for him. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus recognizes him as someone worthy of notice, someone worthy of honor. So basically that’s what we already know from the song.
Then we have the rest of the story. In all his joy Zacchaeus comes down from the tree immediately. In this case, it’s not just the scribes and Pharisees but all of the people who grumble and complain.
Consider this, when do we grumble? Are we the grumblers or do we feel like the ones that no one likes? We’ll come back to this.
At this point something extraordinary happens. Zacchaeus pledges a change. He’s going to change his life. He’s going to give away his ill-gotten gains and restore the people that he’s hurt.
Or is it challenge? Is this perhaps something he’s already been doing? Could it be that he’s saying, “You people don’t know me. You judge me as a tax collector, but I do all of this. What are you doing?”
Are we the group that presumes that we know because of appearances when we really don’t? Or alternatively have you ever felt judged by something you didn’t even do?
Whichever way it is, Jesus responds to this proclamation by Zacchaeus by pronouncing him whole. Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a son of Abraham.” This man who has been cast out of his community, rightly or wrongly, needs to be reintegrated into the body. There is restoration resulting in a transformation. Do we know what happens to Zacchaeus after this? No, we don’t, but we know he has a chance that he did not have before.
We like this story of Zacchaeus. Why? Beyond that he was a “wee little man,” and he was so excited to see Jesus that he climbs tree, we know that Jesus sees him. We want Jesus to see us. Jesus accepts him before he has done anything except seek him. We want to be accepted. We want to know that no matter what we’ve done, we can still be loved by God. We see this happening to Zacchaeus, and it makes us feel good.
What makes us more uncomfortable? Considering that in actuality we might be a part of the crowd that wants to shut Zacchaeus out. We see them in the story as the villains, but are their feelings unreasonable? Zacchaeus helps to support the occupying Empire. He was getting wealthier all the time at their expense. For people concerned with the law, he came in contact with people who are unclean all the time, and he basically didn’t care. He thumbs his nose at the whole Jewish way of life. Naturally, everyone would resent the fact that Jesus singled him out for Honor. This person who they thought was beyond hope.
There are those examples that seem like hyperbole out there for forgiveness. Could God forgive and restore people like Hitler or Stalin, people who happily were responsible for the death of millions of people? It is so overwhelming that the possibility doesn’t seem real. Did you know that during World War II when the word first began leaking out of that what was happening in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany the people didn’t believe it? It was too overwhelming. It didn’t seem possible that there could be that much death and torture.
What if we looked at something on a smaller scale? Several years ago there was a man in Missouri who was convicted of “reckless exposure to HIV” by having unprotected sex with up to 300 people and not disclosing that he had HIV. How would we feel if Jesus selected him out of a large crowd? “Come over here. I’m having dinner at your house today.”
A couple of months ago Dylann Roof was convicted of killing eight people at a Bible study in a church in Charleston South Carolina. This is a man that has shown no remorse or regret. But what if something was sparked inside of him to seek after Jesus? What if Jesus said, “I’m going to have dinner with you today Dylann?”
In a way, it doesn’t seem fair. I know that I’m a sinner, but at least I haven’t ________. Fill in the blank.
What is the difference with Zacchaeus?
- He was seeking out Jesus. The crowd didn’t know this, but Jesus did. But this is also the work of the Holy Spirit, what Methodists call Prevenient Grace, God working in us before we are even aware.
- So, that’s all going on internally, behind the scenes. We can’t see it from the outside. We don’t know. And it means that while Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, it was really Jesus seeking out Zacchaeus.
- Another thing that is different is Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus’ recognition. In the joy of his acceptance, we have this effective confession of all the things everyone was grumbling about. He repents and announces this change in his life. He is no longer that man anymore.
Jesus has retrieved another lost sheep.
Is this all fair? Is it fair for anyone? If it was fair, none of us would be reconciled through Jesus. Who are we to decide who is worthy and who is not? The truth is that it is easy for us to want to exclude people for much less than Hitler, Stalin, Dylann Roof, or Zacchaeus. We are not the ones who get to decide. Jesus came to save the Lost. Who could be more lost? Jesus comes after us when we are lost.
Every single time it’s a miracle. For every single person it is bringing someone from death to life. I don’t think that we get excited enough about that. When Jesus chose you. When Jesus chose me, it was a miracle.
The church hasn’t always done a good job of bringing people to the front of the crowd. It has often tried to shut people out for not living up to an expectation that none of us can live up to.
If you feel like you have been an outcast, someone who is too afraid to come out of the tree to meet Jesus because of the crowd, I would like to apologize to you. We all in the church are here to celebrate everyone who meets Jesus!