Jesus and Zacchaeus
Presbyterian Church of Chestertown – August 11, 2019
John T. Ames
There are many wonderful things about summer – one of them is summer worship here. We have very little agenda, there are fewer committee meetings and no holidays to plan for, we can sort of do what we want. Caitlan pretty much sticks with the lectionary for her preaching, though she has a relaxed approach to it and deviates when she wants to. Alison and I rely on it less, and you can never predict what a guest will do.
As you might have noticed, one of the things I most like to do is tell bible stories – perhaps in lieu of preaching. It’s easy, it’s fun for me – and maybe for you – it doesn’t require any huge mental effort on either my part or yours. And so today, the wonderful story of Jesus and Zacchaeus.
Vacation Bible School songs have been upgraded since I was a kid, but some of you, who are of a pre-rock-and-roll generation, may remember the VBS song:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he;
He climbed into a sycamore tree,
The Lord he wanted to see.
Well, Zacchaeus was a small man – and that’s a disadvantage for a man in any profession. But he was no wimp. He was a tax collector – one of the most hated and feared men in Jericho. He was also one of the richest men in town. Zacchaeus is a fine old Jewish name. It means “the righteous one.” An ironic name for a tax collector. As one writer said, “better that the town prostitute should be named “Chastity.” Tax collectors were simply crooks who had a government license to eat free at the public trough.
The Romans didn’t have fixed tax rates as we do. We complain about taxes, but we are pretty confident that sales taxes, property taxes, income taxes are fairly apportioned. And we are very angry if we know or suspect otherwise. If you buy a dress that costs a hundred dollars you pay the same tax as the next customer who buys a different dress at the same price. The Romans had minimum rates in their colonies, and the tax collector was free to get as much more as he could and keep the profit for himself. That was the way HE got paid. It was a system designed to institutionalize both extortion and bribery. Tax collectors were hated because they were crooks, because they were rich, and also because they were regarded as collaborators with the Roman occupation government. Not surprising that Zacchaeus usually ate and drank alone.
Luke describes Zacchaeus as “very rich.” He does not use the word “rich” lightly. It doesn’t just mean “prosperous,” “self-supporting,” “well off.” It means “really rich.” Luke puts the story of Zacchaeus right after the story of another man who he also describes as “rich.” The so-called “rich young ruler” met and talked with Jesus, and went away sorrowful when Jesus told him that his riches were standing between him and God. This inspired in Jesus the side comment that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to have a good relationship with God.
There is a very obvious prejudice in the gospel against the rich. We may as well face it. It’s there. So there are two strikes against Zacchaeus – he was a crooked, collaborating tax collector, and he was rich. Actually there is a third strike against him: he was very short.
But the amazing thing about this story is what happened next. Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming to town. We don’t know what possessed him to try to meet Jesus. Was it a guilt feeling? Simple curiosity? We aren’t told.
Anyway, Zacchaeus went to see this Jesus. He was something of a celebrity already, and a huge crowd had already gathered. Zacchaeus, being a very short man, was at a disadvantage in a crowd. But he was resourceful – which may account for his business success – and resisting the tendency to try to pull rank and get a front seat, Zacchaeus scampered up a sycamore tree; and, unwittingly, readied himself to meet the Kingdom of God.
Incidentally, the bible translation in our pews calls this a “sycamore-fig tree.” I like that. Every other translation calls it a “sycamore” tree, and that is probably what the text literally says. But the sycamore trees that I’ve seen have tall straight trunks with pretty high branches. The fig tree that grew in my grandparents’ yard when I was a child was very large and strong and had very low branches that were very easy for a child to climb. We used regularly to climb up the fig tree and onto the porch roof – which was forbidden, but happened anyway. If this was a fig tree – or anything like the fig tree of my childhood – it would be easy for Zacchaeus to climb.
Jesus and his traveling companions came into the town from the Jerusalem highway. The crowd pressed around; anxious to greet the young rabbi about whom they had heard so much. Suddenly, Jesus saw Zacchaeus up in the tree. Jesus walked over to him, called him by name, and said: “Zacchaeus, come down from that tree. I’m going to your house for lunch today.”
Zacchaeus went to find Jesus and discovered that Jesus was already in search of him. That is the surprise of mercy, the miracle of grace. Before we search for God, God is already in search of us. And when we encounter God, we will often discover not that we have found God, but that God has found us. That’s when salvation came to Zacchaeus – when Jesus called him by name, stuck out his hand, and invited himself for lunch.
And if in chapter 18 Luke quotes Jesus saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, then in chapter 19 Luke tells us of a time when a rich man DID enter the kingdom. It happened through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Wouldn’t you have liked to see the expression on Zacchaeus’ face? People who are unpopular – as Zacchaeus certainly was – build up a public façade of not caring. They are sometimes rude to people in order to get a hostile response and thereby justify their isolation. Frederick Buechner – whose wonderful and sometimes hilarious descriptions of biblical characters have often been quoted from this pulpit – sometimes without acknowledgement – says: “It is not reported how Zacchaeus got out of the sycamore tree, but the chances are good that he fell out in pure astonishment.”
For Jesus to eat with Zacchaeus was much more significant than it may appear to us. Eating, among pious Jews, is a process fraught with ritual significance. A good Jew would never eat with a traitor, or an apostate. One of the crimes with which Jesus was officially charged at his trial was that he ate with sinners. No doubt this incident with Zacchaeus is one of the items in the bill of particulars of that indictment.
And can’t you imagine the reaction of the other people? Jesus was so highly regarded that a great crowd had gathered to greet him. No doubt everyone there would have been thrilled to have been invited to a private meal with the renowned guest. Many would have fallen all over themselves to entertain him in their home. But to invite himself to the house of Zacchaeus! The tax collector! It was outrageous.
I can imagine the local gentry – they saw Jesus stop, and they saw him glance up in the sycamore tree. Then they saw Zacchaeus hiding among the leaves, embarrassed to be seen there at all. Doubly embarrassed to be seen doing something rather childish. The crowd – all of whom hated Zacchaeus for his evil tax collecting technique – were delighted. “Now he’ll get what’s coming to him,” they’ll say. I can see them licking their lips in anticipation: “Come on! Give it to him, Jesus! Denounce the sinner. Tell him to repent.” Hellfire and damnation is always a crowd pleaser. It’s also fun to see the rich and powerful get what’s coming to them.
Anyway, the crowd was first disappointed and then enraged. What they heard Jesus say to Zacchaeus was not a condemnation of his sins, but a self-invitation to lunch. At first you could have heard a pin drop. Then the murmuring and grumbling began: “He has gone to be the guest of the tax collector. He has violated one of our sacred rules.’
Who is this Jesus? How can he be so free with God’s love? How can he offer grace to one so obviously undeserving?
For the Zacchaeus story is another story of pure grace. It is an absolute denial of the works salvation theology that has always been so attractive, especially to church people. Zacchaeus had done nothing to merit Jesus’ favor. Indeed, he had done everything possible to deserve condemnation. He was a crook, a cheat, a traitor. Yet it was to this sinful tax collector – rather than to the pious Pharisees – that Jesus said: “friend, come down; I want to have lunch at your house today.”
The story of the rich young ruler in chapter 18 might lead some to conclude that if a rich person were generous enough, he could get by that way. This story makes it clear that God’s grace is sufficient to the rich as well as to the poor. And that is certainly good news to those of us who are not poor.
For there, at Zacchaeus’ house, salvation was completed. For though it always begins with God’s initiative, it necessarily ends in a human response. Grace is free, but it must always be accepted. And the acceptance is never merely an intellectual response – never simply an acknowledgement: “yes, I believe that.” It must always have concrete, life-changing consequences. Salvation may begin in the eternity of heaven, but it is complete in the every-day-ness of earth.
And in the case of Zacchaeus, it was conversion in the most literal sense. It was a total about face. A complete change of mind and heart – and presumably, a career change as well. Zacchaeus could have been the author of the line: “O how I love Jesus – because he first loved me.” He wasn’t, but he could have been.
Zacchaeus said: “Look, Lord, I’ll give half of everything I have to the poor; and for everybody I’ve cheated, I’ll repay 400 per cent. Contrast that with the rich young ruler in the previous chapter. Walter Rauschenbusch, the great social gospel theologian of the 19th century, commented: “here a camel passed through the eye of the needle, and Jesus stood and cheered.”
Here salvation moved from the arithmetic of law to the extravagance of grace. The law required that a person of ordinary circumstance should pay a tithe – 10% – to help the poor. It also required that a rich person should give a double tithe – 20% – did you know that? Not many people do. But Zacchaeus offered 50%. The law – clearly stated in Leviticus – required that if you cheated someone you were required to repay the principle plus 20%. Here Zacchaeus offered to repay 400%
I suppose there’s a stewardship lesson here. The greatly increased contribution came as a result of Zacchaeus’ encounter with God and his experience of grace. It was not the cause of Jesus’ favor – it was the result of it. In the case of the rich young ruler the refusal of generosity was an example of spiritual deadness. Jesus said: “give all this stuff away and come back and see me.” He wouldn’t do that. To Zacchaeus, Jesus said: “come, follow me;” and Zacchaeus said, “I’ll give half of it away.”
“Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house.” Salvation was not something that Zacchaeus could look forward to after death. He was not saved from hell; he was saved from himself.
Think again about the rich young ruler. Jesus demanded that he sell everything and give it all to the poor. Zacchaeus got away with giving away only half. Did he get a better deal? How come this inconsistency? This inconsistency shows the difference between law and gospel. The rich young ruler said: “What I have to do to be saved?” And Jesus said: “You have to give it all away.” That is the voice of law. To Zacchaeus Jesus said: “Come, follow me.” And Zacchaeus responded: “Lord, here is half of all I have.” That is a voice touched by grace.
The camel went through the eye of the needle, and Jesus stood and cheered.
This sermon is printed for free distribution to the members and friends of the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown. Since it may contain quoted material under copyright, it may not be published, widely distributed, or posted electronically without the permission of John T. Ames