Today concludes our journey through the life and ministry of Jesus leading up to Holy Week as presented in Luke’s Gospel. In each of the four years of the Narrative Lectionary we will take that journey through the eyes of a different Gospel writer. We have seen many of the stories which are unique to Luke, including the parables of the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Today we come to another uniquely Lukan story, that of Zacchaeus, as well as a couple of stories shared with other Gospel writers.
Putting these three stories together serves several purposes for us as we prepare to begin Holy Week next Sunday. They show the continued struggle of Jesus’ followers to understand what he is all about, and to accept the radical inclusiveness of Jesus. They bring together a number of the main themes of Luke’s Gospel. And they give us a sense of the chaos and the high emotions as Jesus and his followers prepare to make the last leg of the journey from Jericho to Jerusalem.
There is always the irony present within the Gospels about who is truly able to see and who is not. The religious “experts” are usually pretty blind. Frequently the disciples don’t seem to get it at all. The blind usually see clearly who Jesus is even before their eyesight is restored. Lepers get it, demons get it, tax collectors and other “sinners” frequently get it.
I hope the skits helped portray that this morning. Jesus teaches his disciples for the third time about what is going to happen in Jerusalem, and they are oblivious. As they enter Jericho, and Luke says there are a multitude traveling – after all it is time for the Passover and pilgrims would be assembling in Jerusalem from all over. A blind man sitting by the side of the road starts yelling at Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The leaders of the procession don’t want him to make a scene and drag down this joyous processional, so they try to hush him. He will not be hushed, though, and becomes even more insistent in his cries. He gets it, they don’t. Jesus stops and asks the man what he wants. The man says, “Lord, let me receive my sight.” Jesus said, “Receive your sight. Your faith has made you well.” He could see immediately and he joined the crowd following Jesus on the road. In amazement, the people also glorified God.
As they entered Jericho there was much excitement and an uproar over what had happened, and everyone was coming out to see what was going on. Luke tells us that a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus, who was very rich, wanted to see who this Jesus was, but he couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a tree from which to watch. Of course, Jesus called him by name and came to his house, and the eyes of Zacchaeus were opened. Many in the crowd did not approve of Jesus reaching out to Zacchaeus, and their eyes and hearts were closed.
There are several recurring themes here. One is that Jesus is interested in everybody, whether it is a child, a leper, a blind man, a Pharisee, a tax collector, or a woman with seven demons. Jesus gives sight to a blind beggar by the side of the road, then immediately gives meaning to the life of a rich but socially outcast tax collector. Another is that Jesus is willing to turn aside from a purpose to take care of needs. In this case he is journeying to Jerusalem for Passover with an intensity that leads Luke to say that Jesus “set his face” towards Jerusalem. He will not be deterred from his purpose. But that does not mean he will not do ministry and care for people along the way. Third, of course, is the fact that the disciples cannot understand or accept the idea that Jesus is going to suffer and die when they reach their destination. Fourth, we have another story about Jesus and a tax collector and more about the role of wealth in the life of the believer. I’d like to talk a little more about the last two recurring themes.
First, Jesus and tax collectors. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but let me try to help you understand the reason tax collectors were hated so much in Jesus’ day. Imagine that a day came when China controlled the United States and wanted to collect taxes from us. Imagine that they hired local people to collect those taxes. One of those would be the chief tax collector for Anderson, and he would be given the amount of taxes he was expected to send in from Anderson. He could get it however he wanted, and anything he collected over that amount was his to keep. So he recruits tax collectors to work under him and be responsible for a district, giving them an amount they were expected to turn in and they could keep whatever they raised above that. So the tax collectors become rich, the chief tax collectors become very rich, and the taxes are sent off to China to pay for whatever they want to do with it. How do you think you would feel about your neighbors who extorted this tax money from you and became rich working for China? This was exactly the system of taxation the Roman Empire used in Israel and its other subject states.
So it is truly amazing when Jesus walks by the office of Levi, or Matthew, the tax collector, and says, “Follow me.” How amazing it is that Matthew stood up and immediately left everything in order to follow Jesus. How surprising that the other disciples did not revolt and leave. And as they had a joyous feast with Matthew’s friends to celebrate this new beginning, how unsurprising that the scribes and Pharisees asked, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Later in his ministry it is the tax collectors and sinners who are crowding around Jesus to hear the words of life when the scribes and Pharisees again murmur, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” And in response, Jesus tells them the parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons.
Later still it is Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, who in an undignified manner ran and climbed a tree because he wanted to see Jesus, and learned that it was actually Jesus who wanted to see him about something very important. When Jesus went to the home of Zacchaeus, it is the whole crowd which is murmuring this time: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
Shortly before the Zacchaeus story is recounted in Luke, Jesus tells a parable about two men going to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector. The Pharisee is the epitome of what a good church person ought to look like, but unfortunately he knows it and takes excessive pride in that fact. He prays this self-congratulatory prayer while the tax collector beats his chest and begs God for mercy for he is a sinner. Jesus concludes that the tax collector is the one who went home justified before God because he humbled himself.
In his encounters with and stories about tax collectors, Jesus shocked his hearers into questioning their preconceived notions about who is in and who is out in the kingdom of God. Who can enter? Why anybody, Jesus says, anybody with eyes and a heart to see, hear, and respond to the good news. And some who look like they are first in line are knocking at the wrong door.
Another recurring theme found in the Zacchaeus story is the rich man and his place in the kingdom. Just before the Zacchaeus story is the story of the rich ruler who came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to be saved. Jesus quoted the commandments to him, and the man assured Jesus he had lived by those all his life. So Jesus looked at him and said, “Then there is just one more thing. Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The man went away sadly.
Jesus reflected on this with the disciples, saying, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This was completely opposite of normal views about wealth being a sign of God’s blessing, as I told you last week. The disciples gasped and asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus said that what is impossible for people is possible for God.
How different is the story of Zacchaeus! Jesus invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus is overjoyed about that. He sees and hears and already knows anyway that the crowd despises him and resents Jesus going to his house. He is so moved by the kindness demonstrated by Jesus and the risk taken by Jesus that he announces he is giving half of his money to the poor and returning fourfold to anyone he has defrauded. Jesus responds, saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
The rich ruler was sincere, religious, a respected member of the community. He wanted to go by the book and make sure he was doing what was required in order to earn eternal life. What he learns is that it costs more than he is willing to pay; what he does not ask and therefore does not learn is that while he cannot earn what he is asking for, he does not have to earn it. He is asking the wrong question.
Zacchaeus was rich but despised, lonely, probably disappointed with how his life had turned out. But on this day he goes where his heart takes him. It takes him up into a tree so he can see Jesus; it takes him home where he can host Jesus; and it becomes so full in the presence of Jesus that without being asked first he made the announcement that his days of living for acquiring money were over. The generosity of Jesus toward him had that effect on Zacchaeus.
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. But almost immediately, in the story of Zacchaeus, we see the divine miracle taking place, enabling a rich man to hear the words, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, that’s nice, but you have to give everything away, not half.” He says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Remember that the Greek word translated salvation also means wholeness and healing. I expect it had been a long time since Zacchaeus had viewed his life in those terms.
Imagine the disbelief and disgust with which the crowd would have heard these words. All these years Zacchaeus has been fleecing us, and now you are going to let him off the hook just because he says he is changing his ways?
To all of these elder brothers and sisters, Jesus has a message. “Today salvation has come to this house, for Zacchaeus also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” He casts Zacchaeus in the prodigal son role, who is returning to his Father and his family. Jesus is attempting to restore community, to bring reconciliation not just between Zacchaeus and God but between Zacchaeus and his neighbors. Zacchaeus is making the first step by making restitution for his sins against God and against his neighbors. Now Jesus exhorts the neighbors to accept Zacchaeus as a son of Abraham just as they are – as a brother and a member of their faith community, not a traitor and outcast. That is asking a lot of the neighbors. Singing the praises of Jesus a few hours earlier, they must have been questioning his sanity now.
It’s really pretty easy to see how even the closest followers of Jesus sometimes caught a glimpse of the kingdom and sometimes had a hard time imagining or accepting his teachings and actions. The stories about Jesus in Luke are amazing and varied and rich in showing us what happens when Jesus enters people’s lives. It helps you feel joy and hope, makes you want to glorify God and make a difference, causes you to leave your nets or your tax collector’s office to be in his presence; inspires you to be generous with your money and possessions because you have found something more important and fulfilling; and challenges you to look at the neighbor through different eyes and consider relinquishing long held prejudices and stereotypes and hatreds.
So open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me. Open my ears, that I may hear voices of truth thou sendest clear. Open my heart, and let me prepare love with thy children thus to share. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes; illumine me, Spirit divine!
David J. Bailey April 2, 2017
Central Presbyterian, Anderson