Zacchaeus, Luke’s Gospel in Miniature
We are almost done with Luke. The church year is almost over, Advent is around the corner and a whole new cycle will begin with the Gospel according to Matthew. We proclaimed the concluding chapters of Luke’s gospel already, during holy week, Easter and Pentecost earlier this year. We will be concluding our hearings from Luke just as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and then hear one last chapter about his crucifixion on the last Sunday before Advent.
However, before we leave Luke behind we have this wonderful story of Zacchaeus from the nineteenth chapter. In case we missed the full flavor of Luke’s perspective, and if we want a summary of the primary themes from Luke’s gospel, today is a great day to hear them. Here in the 19th chapter Luke highlights some of the main themes about what an encounter with Jesus looks like and what the world looks like when the Kingdom of God comes.
Luke packs his best gospel messages into this tight, little, memorable story about a short man that people despised, his view from the a tree branch, and a controversial dinner party. Through this story, Luke makes sure we have hear that Jesus welcomes the outsider (those we don’t expect), that we see what an act of faith and repentance looks like, that we are to respond to our encounter and transformation with our money and possessions and, lastly in this story, to make sure get a glimpse of what the in-breaking kingdom of God looks like as Jesus sits and eats, especially with those we least expect.
We know this story. We have probably heard it since Sunday School. Since the days of children’s chapel our kids have been singing about the “wee” little man Zacchaeus. Even now as adults we remember he was short, that he climbed a tree to see Jesus, and after hearing today’s telling we might clue in to the fact that it was a sycamore tree. Perhaps we might have recalled that he was a tax collector, or at least that there was something disagreeable about him and that he and the crowd had an antagonistic relationship.
We find ourselves with Jesus walking through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. At this time Jericho is a big city, full of commerce, a thriving hub of people living more complicated lives than those we met in Gallilee. Here in Jericho there are financial opportunities, people with big city hopes and possibilities and then there are those who prey on them. Zacchaeus had started his life and career here in Jericho. He certainly had a knack for knowing these people and the pressure points he could put on them, and how to play the complicated, city system.
What was it about Jesus that attracted him so much? Was it the fact that everyone else was going out to see him and Zacchaeus didn’t want to be left out? Was it the healing of the blind man on Jesus’ way into Jericho that Zacchaeus had heard about? Maybe. Maybe something in the back of his mind said told him that this Jesus, healing force moving through his home city might actually be of help to him too. Maybe there was healing for a man who had become a stranger to his own people. Maybe he could be healed from his blindness of heart? Maybe his heart could feel again. Maybe. But he would have to see Jesus for himself, and that was going to be hard with the crowd,
In Jericho, like any an urban center where city planning would have been a help, there are crowds, 1st century versions of traffic jams, clogged streets and loud voices. Jesus was a star attraction in this venue. Unlike being on the outskirts of towns or in a hilly, open place, buildings and streets made it harder for crowds to move around for the best view.
Zacchaeus may have been short, but it may have been that the crowd shunned him or blocked his way because he was a scapegoat to them. So he ran ahead on his short legs, faster than the others and did something no self-respecting man of the town in expensive clothes should do. He left any shred of respectability behind and made his way to the best view he could find. A sycamore tree.
He may have hoped few would notice. He may have hoped just to see and hear what Jesus was about without being picked out of the crowd. Having climbed the tree he had already demonstrated he was no one special but another crowd gawker. You know when you walk into a store and don’t want to be noticed, “Just looking around” you say to the nice greeter. That was Zach. But then it happened. He didn’t just get noticed. He got caught. He got convicted. Jesus looked at him and stopped the whole momentum of the crowd. This was the last thing Zach thought he wanted. His embarrassment and shame, his complicity in the complex, city system crept up on him. Then something else:
The feelings and emotions he has been suppressing and repressing for years as he built his wealth come rushing back on him, from the blush of embarrassment in the tree comes the burning conviction that he is known and loved deeply by the one who will put everything right again. He has a name, and he has a face, and he is calling out to Zacchaeus. “Dinner, tonight, your place?” Who does that? Jesus who knows us. Family today barely does that.
I don’t think Zacchaeus remembers how he got out of that tree, the crowd is still standing there shocked that a man they despise is not only hanging precariously by a branch in most undignified position, but that Jesus, the one they left their shops to come hear is giving the mean, little, rich man positive attention. Zacchaeus probably clambered out of that tree with even less dignity than he climbed up into it, trying to keep his eyes focused on Jesus. He probably stumbled over his words as he said, “Yes, dinner will be ready at six.”
This is transformation. Luke wants us to know that when the real comes, when healing and wholeness convicts us, then Jesus, especially as Luke understands him, produces a response in us that changes everything, especially how we relate to our money and our possessions in the system around us.
This would make a good stewardship sermon if this were the right time of year. Oh yeah, it is, isn’t it. Giving is so much more than just supporting the church to do God’s mission in the world. Giving is about transformation, joining our healing to the restoration of the world around us. That’s what Luke reminds us of in this compact, little story.
What has gone cold in you? What complex system do we participate in that we’ve gone numb to? Are you still eager to climb trees? Are you still eager for conversion and change? Are you still eager for transformation, wanting to get a glimpse of Jesus? Can you still taste the freedom of giving things away?
When he calls out to you, when he calls you by name, what do you need to let go of, what do you need to make restitution for, what do you need to give back with interest? What does salvation look like around your dinner table? What does freedom look like with the stuff you’ve acquired through the years? What does restitution look like for you, for the complex, city system of oppression you’ve been a part of, from your vantage point? What do you want to do with the freedom and forgiveness and transformation that Jesus is inviting you to?
If you have even a small glimpse of this, then you are ready to say you got a good, beginning comprehension of Luke’s gospel. We might be leaving Luke behind after this next month, but hopefully the good news as he has passed along stays with us.