Seeking Zacchaeus

A sermon from Psalm 119:137-144  and Luke 18:1-8 preached on November 3rd, 2013

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St. Peter was giving a guided tour of heaven to a group of its most recent arrivals. St. Peter, who insists on just being called “Pete” these days, was showing each new citizen of Heaven all the rooms in this huge palace they had just recently appeared in.

As they weaved in and out of each room in this tremendous place, the new arrivals come across the Baptists, and they were more than making up for it. They were all in one room dancing, which was forbidden during their time on earth.

The Methodists were in another room mixing the punch for their upcoming party, and a few doors down were the Presbyterians, who were in a large, spacious room enjoying unaccustomed chaos.

There were the Roman Catholics also. They were down the hall in their part of the palace enjoying their guilt. The Unitarians and the Quakers hated being confined to a room at all, so they roamed the halls of Heaven.

After guiding them through the room where the Episcopals were, the new arrivals approached the last room. Turning around, Pete whispered, “We need to be quiet now, we’re coming up on the Lutherans, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

There’s nothing like a good religion joke because even though they’re outlandish, they’re also partly true.

There are many who think they have a hold of who’s in and who’s out of God’s favor, but it only takes reading the Gospel according to Luke to upend all of our notions of who and what is important to God.

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The Gospel according to Luke is not kind to people like Zacchaeus. Throughout Luke’s gospel we have instances where the poor come out looking good and the rich are sent away empty.

At Jesus birth, it’s the shepherds who come to a manger to see the baby Jesus. The Gospel according to Matthew has no poor shepherds but rich Kings who bring really expensive treasures with them.

When Jesus preaches his beatitudes—“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…”—Luke has Jesus standing on “a level place”. On a plain among the people. Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, has Jesus standing high above everyone else as he gives his “sermon on the mount”.

According to Luke, Jesus’s opening line in his sermon on the plain is, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” While Matthew has Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

It’s the people who come to Jesus—rich Magi or poor shepherds. It’s the places where Jesus positions himself in relation to other people—whether above them in Matthew or on the same level as everyone else in Luke, whether poor or “poor in spirit”, it’s the small details that add up ,and make a huge difference in how each Gospel conveys a unique message about who Jesus is and who Jesus seeks out. And it’s no secret that Luke’s is the more social Gospel.

Luke tells the story of a savior who comes to free those among him who are living on the underside of society, like shepherds, widows, and children.

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As I mentioned last week, tax collectors were no one’s favorite people, and Luke doesn’t like them one bit, because their practice was to collect more taxes then they should have from hard working peasants. And whatever they collected that was over and above what the Roman government needed, they pocketed for themselves. They were leaches, and not one person who was prone to following Jesus had a good opinion about tax collectors.

Zacchaeus was like a billionaire in his day. He was rich beyond most people’s imagination and many assumed that his riches were ill-gotten. And they were probably right. Zacchaeus was not the kind of person who should be interested in Jesus. But he was interested. He was intrigued by this Jesus. He had heard about him around town. They were saying that he offered a new vision.

They said he talked a lot about something called “the Kingdom of God”. Jesus said that God was doing a new thing right here and right now. That the world was being reordered according to God’s desires for it. This Jesus was talking about how God was breaking in and restoring the earth to the way it should be, to the way God would have things—to the way things are in Heaven. This Jesus was saying that it is possible for heaven to happen here on earth, as long as we listen and follow what God wants. The injustices people experienced here on earth, Jesus said, would not only be corrected after they died, but also right here and right now.

As rich and as comfortable as Zacchaeus was, he was still hungry for something he couldn’t put his hands on, there was something in this message and something about this Jesus that peaked his interest, and Zacchaeus had to find out more.

Because Zacchaeus was not a popular man among the people who typically followed Jesus. He thought it best to sneak up quietly without being noticed, and try to hear Jesus speak. Word was that Jesus was coming into Jericho and would be here any minute.

As Jesus made his way in, crowds and crowds huddled around him to hear his words. There was pushing and shoving, and Zaccheaus got tossed to the side by people who thought he had no right to be there. “There’s no room for a rich tax collector in this crowd,” they said.

There was no reason why such a rich man should want anything to do with Jesus or his message of a new kingdom—one where the last would made first and the first made last. He got pushed to the back of the crowd. Because he was short, his vision was eclipsed; all he could see were people’s backs as they all crowded around listening to Jesus speak. But Zacchaeus didn’t come all this way to miss this. He couldn’t hear or see a thing. So he decided to climb a nearby sycamore tree to get a bird’s eye view of Jesus.

Climbing a tree was not the thing a stately chief tax collector should do. In fact in that day, no grown man should ever have thought about climbing a tree. It was undignified. But in that moment, more eager to see Jesus than to keep his dignity intact, Zacchaeus climbs the nearest sycamore tree.

Sycamore trees were perfect for short people like him. They had low-hanging branches that Zacchaeus could easy grab a hold of and climb as far up as he needed. His short legs dangling from one of the sycamore tree’s strong and high branches, he could see and hear everything Jesus was teaching.

Zacchaeus listened intently. Holding onto the sycamore branch for dear life and holding onto every word Jesus coming out of Jesus’ mouth.

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 Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.

This is the question asked to Jesus by a rich young ruler a chapter ago in Luke’s gospel. Jesus responds:

You know the commandments: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother.

I’ve kept all of these commandments since I was a boy, the rich ruler says to Jesus.

Then sell all that you have and distribute the money to the poor, Jesus says. Then you will enter the Kingdom of God.

The rich young ruler walked away unhappy because he liked his wealth. He liked his wealth a little too much to let it all go and spend his time chasing after the things of God instead.  As the rich young ruler walked away, Jesus said,

It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

This sounds like a harsh judgment on Jesus’ part. It sounds like Jesus is saying that just because a person is rich, he stands no chance of getting anywhere good with God. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here at all. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, there’s no membership to sign up for or tickets to grab a hold of. The Kingdom of God is not a place to get into; it’s more like a reality to have your eyes and ears opened to.

Jesus’s idea of the Kingdom of God is a new way of ordering our lives right here and right now—on earth as it is in heaven, as we pray every Sunday.

When Jesus tells this rich young ruler to leave it all behind to follow him, Jesus is testing him to see where this man’s true treasure lies—Jesus finds out what this man really pledges his allegiance to.

This rich young rule cannot enter the Kingdom of God because he pledges his allegiance to his earthly comforts rather than to the purposes and promises of God—and as long as his salvation belong with his bank account rather than in the promises of God, it will be impossible for this rich young ruler to see that the Kingdom of God exists right in front of him, so he is unable to enter.

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Zaccheaus, come down from that tree! Jesus says. I must stay at your home today!

Zaccheaus didn’t hear many friendly voices. This man lived with his family in a town full of people who did not like this tax collector’s practices, who disapproved of his lifestyle, and who had shunned him.

Zaccheaus was a short man, but he was small in people’s minds too. He was disregarded as a crook and a swindler, so when Jesus shouts out to him, Zacchaeus is stunned. Up until now, it’s been Zaccheaus who has sought out Jesus. But now, all the sudden, it’s Jesus who is seeking out Zaccheaus. Jesus seems to find the strangest people to befriend, Jesus’ followers must have thought.

In this long journey to Jerusalem, Jesus has stopped in villages along the way, seeking out the most unlikely characters and inviting them to become a part of this Kingdom of God. The Samaritan leper, children who Jesus claimed knew more about the Kingdom of God than any adult ever could, the rich man who walked away from Jesus’ invitation to join him, a blind man Jesus restored sight to.

Unlike the rich young ruler, Zaccheaus walks toward Jesus. Jesus’ simple gesture of reaching out to this man who had for so long been shunned by all those around him (maybe even for a good reason) was now being welcomed in to Jesus’ company. Enfolded into Jesus’ favor.

Made to be invisible by everyone else, this Jesus, a hero for the poor, has noticed Zacchaeus. Not blamed for what he had done in the past, but chosen by Jesus to be a part of the Kingdom of God from here on out. And out of pure joy for being acknowledged, Zacchaues does not hesitate at all to have Jesus as a houseguest for the day.

See, the Kingdom of God is about welcoming. God welcoming us in. Jesus inviting us to become a part. And like Zaccheaus, we can only respond in joy that we have been invited, only out of an act of divine grace to be a part of this ever-unfolding Kingdom of God.

Seeing that Jesus has just extended welcome and grace to him, Zaccheaus says,

 Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I’ll repay them four times as much.

Out of nothing but pure joy for the way Jesus has invited him in, Zaccheaus publicly promises Jesus and all the crowd gathered around him that he’ll repay more than what he’s taken from them, a generous act of restitution that more than makes up for the ugly practices of his past.

In this Jesus, Zacchaeus has found a new way to live his life where money is a meaningless first pursuit, where serving others first is the way to find real and lasting wholeness. Rather than walking away empty handed like the rich young ruler, Zacchaeus discovers joy in pledging his allegiance no longer to his bank account but to the God of forgiveness and salvation made known in this man called Jesus.

In this moment, Zacchaeus realizes that freedom and joy come not in collecting from others but in giving yourself away to others.In encountering the radical grace of God shown to him in Jesus, Zacchaeus finds a way for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God. But really, it was Jesus who seeks out Zacchaeus, calls him by name, offers him grace, and invites him into God’s every-unfolding salvation story.

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The Kingdom of God has no rooms. It has no partitions. No walls to divide us, no tour guides to show us around. The Kingdom of God begins right here on earth, just as it is in heaven, and just like Zacchaeus figured out the day he met Jesus, it is for us all.

May our eyes and ears open up so that we can better see how God approaches us and invites us to be a part.

It is indeed the Son of God who seeks and saves the lost. Who offers us salvation, a new way to see, a new path to follow, and a new Kingdom to order our lives around.

May we respond to Jesus’ invitation with as much joy as Zacchaeus.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful. Amen.

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