The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, October 30, 2016. Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 119:137-144, II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10.
This story is overly familiar. Like me, many learned about Zacchaeus when we were little children through a song in Sunday School or Bible School.
Zaccheaus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree –
And he said, “Zaccheaus, you come down.
For I’m going to your house today.”
It’s not a great song as songs go. The last two lines don’t even rhyme. I think it became popular in children’s ministry in a certain era in the church because it emphasized the love of Jesus for small people. Wee little children were taught to sing about a wee little man who was noticed by Jesus. The implication for children is that Jesus notices them and wants to stay with them, too.
I tried to find the origin of the song, but I couldn’t find much. I don’t know who wrote it or for what setting or why. However, in looking for an author, I did find another verse I didn’t know –
Zacchaeus came down from that tree, as happy as he could be,
He gave his money to the poor, and said: “What a better man I’ll be.”
This additional verse highlights the theme of conversion in this story. One way to read this story is that it is about the conversion of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector. We have talked about tax collectors before. They had a reputation for lining their pockets on the backs of the poor. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, in fact, so he was the worst of the worst. The most popular reading of this story says that somehow, this sinful, hated man was drawn to Jesus. He wanted to see Jesus so badly he was willing to climb a tree and make a fool of himself. As a result, Jesus noticed him and came to his house. And in that encounter Zacchaeus was changed, so changed he volunteered to give half of his possessions to the poor.
If this is what happened, it truly was a remarkable conversion. In Luke 18, just before this story of Zacchaeus, we read, 1”A certain ruler asked Jesus “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19Jesus said to him, “You know the commandments.” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 23But when he heard this, the man became sad; for he was very rich. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The contrast is striking. A faithful man who kept all the commandments was not willing to give up his possessions. But Zacchaeus, a supposedly evil man, the chief tax collector in fact, was willing to give up half. He was the camel going through the eye of the needle.
But what is even more interesting is that Zacchaeus likely was already doing this even before he met Jesus. For some reason, most translators insert the word “will” into his response to Jesus. The translators seem to assume Zacchaeus was talking about something he intended to do in the future – “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor.” But the Greek text is clearly in present tense. Zacchaeus spoke about something he was already doing. In response to the grumbling of the crowds, those who complained about Jesus going to the home of a sinner, Zacchaeus surprised them. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” The better reading of this story is that Zacchaeus, a tax collector, was already giving and sharing and helping more than the law required before he met Jesus. He defended himself and Jesus against the accusations of others.
Maybe that’s why Jesus wanted to go to his house in the first place. Maybe Jesus had heard of this tax collector in Jericho who was like a camel going through the eye of a needle. Maybe Jesus wanted to meet him and eat with him to prove to others that they shouldn’t prejudge him and assume he was evil without knowing more about him. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today.”
Paul will later write about Jesus – “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” (Ephesians 2:14-17)
And so maybe it was not Zacchaeus who needed to change that day but the crowds. The crowds assumed Zacchaeus was evil and they were good. The crowds saw a dividing wall between them and someone like Zacchaeus. But Jesus tore down the dividing wall. The crowds were not happy about his encounter with Jesus. They murmured. It is the same word used when the Israelites complained to God in the wilderness. The crowds murmured because they couldn’t see goodness in a tax collector.
But Jesus was clear. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Remember the recent story of the preacher in Louisiana? In 2015, he and others said Hurricane Joaquin, which devastated parts of the Bahamas and later threatened Washington DC, was a sign of God’s unhappiness over abortions and the legalization of gay marriage. “God is trying to send us a message,” he said.
In 2016, his home flooded in in the massive storms of this summer. When it happened to him, he didn’t say anything about God’s judgment. Instead, he described the flood as “an incredible, encouraging spiritual exercise to take you to the next level in your walk with an almighty and gracious God who does all things well.” I hope he was right. I hope the storm taught him not to judge others so quickly.
Sometimes, those who want others to convert need a little conversion themselves. Jesus went to the home of Zacchaeus not just to change Zacchaeus, but to change the crowds as well. They assumed Zacchaeus was outside the circle of God’s embrace. Jesus showed them the circle was wider than they ever imagined. It gathers up tax collectors and hypocrites and judgmental people and all of us.
I became Episcopalian and a priest because I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people. God is working to save and redeem us all. There are no distinctions.
I came to St. Thomas because from the beginning this has been a church that seeks to embrace all people.
I was willing to serve as a bishop for the sake of this gospel. I was interested in helping the church bear this kind of witness over a wide geographic area.
I am still committed to that work. It will be in this geographic area for now. I hope you are too.
So I propose an additional verse to the song.
The crowds complained when Jesus came
To that “sinner’s” house for tea.
They couldn’t stand to see this man
They criticized set free.
But Jesus helped them realize
What we all need to see –
Salvation is for everyone
God embraces all lovingly.
God embraces all lovingly.
The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards
Illustration By Duccio – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15453124