I didn’t think it could still happen. I’ve been preaching regularly for seventeen years. I don’t know how many sermons I’ve preached over the years—some might say I preach the same one every week. I’ve been through year C, this year of the three-year lectionary cycle, 6 times. And over all those years, I’ve never preached on this gospel passage. It’s not like I’m avoiding it; or that I always take off the last Sunday in October. Rather, it’s that because we observe All Saints’ Sunday on the first Sunday in November each year, the texts for that observance take precedence over the texts for this Sunday, Proper 26. To top all that off, in all my years of teaching bible before becoming a priest, this was not one of the texts that made it into class discussion for Intro to Bible or Intro to New Testament.
So this week I read the gospel with an openness and with no preconceived ideas that I usually bring to the text. It’s kind of a strange feeling not to have all of that history with the text. Really, the only history or preconceived notions I have about it are my faint memories of the song we used to sing in Sunday School when I was small: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Truthfully, that’s all I remember of the song. Although it turns out, Deacon Carol can sing all three verses.
The story of the encounter of Zacchaeus and Jesus comes at the end of Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem. That journey began when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” back in chapter 9; and Jericho is the last stop. In a few verses, Jesus will enter Jerusalem in triumph, and by the next Friday will be crucified.
With that on the horizon, the story of Zacchaeus takes on more significance. And while there’s nothing in the story that seems to foreshadow the events of the coming week, there’s a great deal that hearkens back to earlier episodes and themes in the Gospel of Luke.
The first of those themes is sight or seeing. Immediately preceding this story, Jesus heals a blind man just as he is about to enter Jericho. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus had healed a bent-over woman in the synagogue after seeing her. Now, Zacchaeus, the short man, runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a sycamore tree so that he could see Jesus; and when Jesus sees Zacchaeus, he says to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus’ desire to see Jesus, and Jesus seeing him, leads to their deeper encounter.
Second, Zacchaeus is a tax collector. Throughout the gospel, Jesus spends time with tax collectors and sinners, eating in their homes, conversing with them, welcoming them into the new community he is creating and into the Reign of God that he is proclaiming. Often, Jesus’ behavior arouses anger and opposition as it does here. Bystanders grumbled that Jesus was going to eat at the house of a sinner.
Tax collectors in the Roman empire were especially reviled. It’s not just that they worked for the IRS and were feared because they might call for an audit. The entire system was profoundly unjust and oppressive. Tax collecting was farmed out; you could buy the franchise for a province or an area; and then subcontract to others beneath you. The way you made money was by extracting more in taxes than you needed to send up the food chain and finally to Rome. So if you were a tax collector, you wanted to squeeze as much as you could out of the people. And you were seen as a collaborator with the empire, not a member of the community. For Jesus to invite himself into the home of a tax collector was to put himself on the side of extortionists and collaborators.
All of which brings us to a third theme—sin, repentance, forgiveness. And that’s where it gets a bit tricky, at least in the story. At the end of it, Jesus commends Zacchaeus, saying, “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.”
Seems rather straightforward, doesn’t it? Jesus says this in response to Zacchaeus’ statement: 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.”
What complicates things a bit is that what is translated here as the future tense: I will give half my possessions to the poor, could also be translated in the present tense: “I am giving half my goods…” In other words, Zacchaeus’ actions may already be taking place before his encounter with Jesus, not as a result of his encounter with Jesus.
It becomes a rather puzzling story then, with a tax collector who does more in response to the law of Moses than expected or demanded. In response, Jesus does not declare that he has faith, but rather acknowledges him as a son of Abraham, a member of the Jewish community, no matter what his neighbors might think.
And one more thing. Think about that tax collector in last week’s gospel, who went to the temple and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The word sin does not appear in the story of Zacchaeus, and we don’t see clear signs of Zacchaeus’ repentance, or words of forgiveness from Jesus.
What are we left with, then? Well, this. Seeing. Zacchaeus climbs up a tree so he can see Jesus. He is so desperate to see Jesus, so excited, that he will do anything to accomplish it, even something as silly or un-behooving an adult male as climbing a tree. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I climbed a tree, and I can’t imagine doing it. But Zacchaeus did, in his excitement and in his joy.
And because he does so, Jesus can see him. But not only see him. Jesus calls him by name. He knows him. Who else of all those who Jesus engages with in the gospel of Luke have names? The people Jesus heals, the people who come to ask questions, most of them remain anonymous, but not Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ joy and excitement are rewarded, even while the crowd grumbles around him. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, so that their brief encounter becomes a longer one. Zacchaeus becomes the honored and gracious host and Jesus the honored and gracious guest.
That might be the take away for us. This joyous, joy-filled encounter takes place just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The mood shifts suddenly and dramatically. But now, for a moment, Zacchaeus can have his excitement and joy and Jesus can relax in a stranger’s home.
We live in times where joy often seems distant, a faint memory. The weight of the world lies on our shoulders; our own problems, the world’s problems seem intractable and worsening; divisions deepening. Our political institutions seem on the verge of collapse; old hatreds that seemed long-dead have returned as virulent and violent as ever. We may feel overwhelmed with fear.
But Jesus comes to us. Do we want to see him? Do we want to have that life-changing encounter, to see him? He is calling our names, inviting us to be with him, inviting us to enter his presence, to see him. May our encounters with him fill us with joy and may his presence transform our lives.