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Reveille United Methodist Church
22nd Sunday After Pentecost – October 21, 2018
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
In this morning’s text we encounter Zacchaeus, a figure only found in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector” in the city of Jericho who has an encounter with Jesus that changes his life and vocation. In my humble opinion, it is disappointing that Zacchaeus never achieved the status of saint, especially since he is, as far as I can tell, the inventor of the tax refund.
In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire employed a method of financial management they had developed called tax farming. The way it worked was that rather than the Roman state bear the burden of collecting tax revenue, they assigned tax collection to private individuals or groups. These individuals or groups would prepay all of the taxes for a specific area and specific time, and then they covered their outlay by by collecting money or sellable goods from that area’s residents. The system initially worked well for the Empire, since it received all of its money up front and was not hindered in its collections by things like a poor harvest or famine. The practice was put into place in 123 BC by Gaius Gracchus and was so successful that it spread to the Roman providences, which is how it made its way to Jesus’ world. The people who collected taxes were called publicans. Saint Matthew (also called Levi) was a publican before becoming one of Jesus’ disciples.
In the satirical film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a revolutionary group called the Judean People’s Front decides that they need to overthrow the Roman Empire, and their leader, played by John Cleese, famously asks the group “What have the Romans ever done for us?” only to have the group respond with some pretty good answers. When they are done, their leader must ask the question a bit differently, saying “Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
However, as you might expect in Jesus’ day people were no more excited to pay for those services and innovations than we are, especially when they are provided by an oppressive, pagan, occupying force. Remember that the Jewish people believed that the arrival of the messiah of God would usher in an overthrow of the Roman oppressors and return the kingdom to Jewish control. As such, paying one’s hard-earned money to a government who you wish to exit your land was not something people enjoyed doing.
The other important point to remember is connected to the mechanics of Roman tax farming. The way these publicans would make a living was collecting more from the citizenry than was strictly necessary. Remember, they had already paid the taxes for the whole area to the Empire, and their motivation to do this work was to not only gain back what they had invested, but to make as much profit from the people as they could, for at this stage of the game they knew that whatever they collected, they could keep for themselves.
So when we combine how publicans were collecting money, and who they were collecting it for, one begins to understand just how unpopular these tax collectors were. The very fact that Jesus chose one among their ranks to be one of his twelve disciples can help explain both how radical his message was and, in part, why it took so little time for people to turn against him for the company he kept.
All of which brings us back to Zacchaeus, who Luke describes as a “chief tax collector,” which implies that he likely possessed enough wealth to have other tax collectors in his employ. Clearly Zacchaeus was good at making this system work to his advantage, and he had done very, very well for himself.
In my Disciple Bible Study class, we are making our way through the Old Testament prophets, and one thing we have noticed is how time and again, when the people prospered, they forgot about God, or at least forgot about Israel’s God, turning to other gods and idols. In a culture with no middle class, Zacchaeus had made himself very wealthy, with all of the presumed privilege that one would expect in his day that came from wealth and his cozying up to Rome. Unless he needed meaningful friendships from his neighbors, Zacchaeus did not need much of anything.
And yet, there was something about Jesus that drew Zacchaeus to him. There was something about Jesus that drew Zacchaeus out of the shadows and into the light, out of the crowd and up into the sycamore tree. Like the woman in Matthew 9, the woman with the severe hemorrhage, the woman considered unclean who thought that if she could only touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, she might be healed, Zacchaeus regards the crowd, discovers that it is indeed the rabbi from Nazareth, the one who he had heard about, the one with the power to forgive sins, the one who even has a publican like Matthew among his ranks, and Zacchaeus wonders if only he can catch a glimpse of this man, a mere glimpse, then he might discover that it is all true.
So Zacchaeus does something uncharacteristic for men in his culture, he runs. He runs ahead of the crowd and realizing it is his best, if not only option, he climbs a tree and peers through the branches at the one man in town who might not hate him, the one person in town who might meet him right where he is.
This morning’s text is so full of risk.
There is risk for Zacchaeus: risk from the crowd, risk that Jesus might condemn or make an example of him, humiliate him or worse yet, turn the crowd against him. And yet, there is perhaps even more risk for Jesus in this encounter. Just a bit earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has taught that he is the Good Shepherd, the one who leaves the flock of ninety-nine to search for and rescue the one lost sheep. He has given them the parable of the lost coin and the woman who rejoices over finding that single lost coin. He has taught the story of the prodigal son and his brother, and how the father rejoices and celebrates over the return and repentance of his lost son.
But on this day, nothing that is happening is a parable, nothing is merely symbolic. None of it is hypothetical. There is a real, legitimate, honest-to-God sinner up in that tree, a bona fide pariah. Jesus is popular enough to draw a crowd, and now this publican in the sycamore tree is going to test everything, because it has all suddenly gotten very, very real.
It would have been easy enough to keep going, to stay with the crowd, to even ignore Zacchaeus and just keep walking. You see, the day that the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus is not just any day. Luke tells us that the day on which this morning’s text takes place is actually nothing less than earlier in the day of Palm Sunday. Remember, the story of Zacchaeus takes place in Jericho, and Jericho is sixteen miles from Jerusalem, the holy city where Jesus is going so that he may be crucified, crucified for sinners, sinners like Zacchaeus; sinners like you and like me.
So Jesus calls out, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And Zacchaeus is overjoyed.
Luke tells us that the very next thing that happens is the response of those who see this act. Luke tells us that it is not just the Pharisees, not just the Sadducees, not just the scribes, but everyone turns on him: “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner,'” Luke tells us. Once again, Jesus reveals the kind of God we have: not a God who simply tolerates sinners, but a God who seeks them out to save them with a ferocity so great that God even sends God’s only son to do the searching.
Jesus characteristically finds possibly the most unpopular man in all of Jericho and says “Him. This is my kind of person.” In a world where holiness meant knowing who to avoid, Jesus demonstrates holiness by showing who to embrace.
You heard me say last week that the first church I served out of seminary was an urban congregation in Newport News. While I was there, our youth director discovered that the city was selling old full-sized school buses at a price of two for $400, on the condition that we would cover the name of the school system with fresh paint and disconnect the red blinking lights. This was how we transported our students to events around the area.
One afternoon Larry, the senior pastor of the church, heard a noise in the parking lot, and when he went to investigate it, he found two boys, each with large pieces of broken asphalt in their hands, smashing each and every window out of our church bus. All of them. I thought this would be the final straw. We had already caught teenagers using drugs in the woods behind the church and doing other things I will not mention here.
And now the parking lot was full of glass.
Soon thereafter, the leadership of the church met one night to talk about the “neighborhood situation,” as it was sometimes called. I honestly did not know what to expect. Then, early in the meeting, someone mentioned how in the afternoons, just after the final bell, the high school across the street locked its doors, and as a result, there was no place for students uninvolved in clubs or athletics to gather or study. “No wonder they are always in our woods,” said another, “they are probably just looking for a place to hang out.”
There was a pause. “What if we could offer a place for tutoring after school?” said third person, “You know, with a computer lab.”
“We do have a lot of retired engineers from the shipyard in this church. ” We could offer them tutoring in math.” said a fourth.
“If we had a gym,” said yet another, “We could offer our own sports, you know, in a Christian way, like that Upward basketball program.”
I went to that meeting expecting fed-up, cynical, angry people to build a wall around that urban property. Instead, they looked at the situation from a different perspective, the perspective of the drug users and the vandals, a perspective that challenged their view of neighborhood and even the people who out of sheer malice had done them wrong, and they decided that what God was actually calling them to do was to challenge the congregation, pool their resources, and build those neighbors a family life center, with tutoring, and community events, seeker-friendly worship, and Upward Basketball.
Grace upon grace upon grace upon grace, the kind of little miracle one can only see from inside the life of the unique community that Jesus calls his church.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”
Sometimes, in order to begin to make sense out of Jesus, we have to take that next faithful step, a step that allows us to see him from a new vantage point, a new perspective. For Zacchaeus, this was quite literal, causing him to have to climb a sycamore tree. For us, it may be simple acts like the ones we do this morning: join the church, participate in a new ministry, begin learning the discipline of prayer or studying God’s word, making a new friend in a connect group, serving with Friends of the Homeless or Swansboro Elementary School. There are a hundred ways at Reveille to learn to see God from a new vantage point, and those new vantage points can better and transform our lives and the lives of those around us.
A hundred different ways, and this day, I am challenging you to choose one, one next faithful step towards that new vantage point, a step that when combined with the faithful steps of those around us, are God’s chosen means of changing the world.
While the crowd stood outside the house, grumbling about Jesus and the company he kept, with all of them turning against him, Luke tells us that inside the house, this was happening: “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’”
Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Thanks be to God for our savior. Thanks be to God for a savior who seeks us, who saves us, who sets our lives on a new trajectory of hope, where the past does not get to determine the future, and where the crowd does not get to determine who we are.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.