David A. Davis
March 29, 2020
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I was taking an early morning solitary walk with my dog one day this week on one of the back roads in my neighborhood. (Okay it was this morning. Thursday. The day of this recording!) Day was just breaking. The milky white sky was turning blue as the sun was rising. Not another soul in sight (which was good). Just me and our black lab Rooney. Signs of spring were all around me. It was a beautiful morning and I found myself listening to the new day. All I could hear was Rooney’s claws on the street and the singing of the birds. The birds were singing a springtime symphony. I smiled to myself and thought about how the birds were so oblivious to the world’s plight. Maybe they were and maybe the weren’t. Maybe they were just determined to sing a song of creation despite the world’s plight. I smiled. I thought of all of you and the I started thinking about Zacchaeus again.
Zacchaeus was…. Zacchaeus was….Zacchaeus was….Zacchaeus was a misunderstood man. Zacchaeus was not a well thought of man. Zacchaeus was an isolated man. A chief tax collector and rich Luke tells us. It’s kind of a triple whammy. Tax collector, chief tax collector, and rich. The people, of course, had a negative view of tax collectors. They worked for the Roman government. They made money by inflating the tax bill and skimming off the top. In the gospel, however, tax collectors are not condemned out right. Early in Luke Jesus calls Levi the tax collector out of the tax booth and told him to follow him. Earlier than that, when John the Baptist gives his fiery “Brood of Vipers” sermon, Luke records that “even tax collectors came to be baptized.” It doesn’t say John refused to baptize them. No, he simply told them to “collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.’ You will remember the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector in the chapter just before Zacchaeus. It was the tax collector Jesus praised for his humble, contrite piety.
Contrary to the ancient court of public opinion, Jesus and the gospels do not portray tax collectors as all bad. But Zacchaeus was also rich. And we all know that when it comes to Jesus, the gospel of Luke and the rich, well that’s a different story. Think “woe to you who are rich” in Luke’s sermon on the plain. And the poor widow who put in all she had to live on. And the rich just giving out of their abundance. And the whole rich person, kingdom of heaven, and the eye of the needle thing. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and… he was rich. So yes, both the people and the gospel are highlighting how the reader is supposed to view Zacchaeus. Come to think of it, it couldn’t have been all that easy to live in Zacchaeus house either. His spouse getting nasty looks form others. His kids. Think how they would be treated on the playground. Especially the son built like his dad. Zacchaeus and his family and the scorn of their community.
“Zacchaeus! Zacchaeus!” Jesus said “You come down! I’m not just coming to your house today…I must stay at your house today! I am not just coming over. I’m staying. I am not just staying. I must stay” Must stay. Must. Not just a coincidence. Not just a passing by drop in. A must stay. Jesus signaling to Zaccheaus, to those who are with him, to those in the crowd, to Luke’s reader, and to you and me that there is something to pay attention to here. Something big and important going on here. It’s a “must stay”. The intentionality of Jesus is not to be overlooked. Like when Jesus intentionally crosses to “opposite side” of the Sea of Galilee after calming the storm and steps out of the boat in Gentile territory. Like when Jesus intentionally chooses to dine in a Pharisee’s house the night the woman called a sinner came to anoint his meet. Like when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” from Galilee and intentionally heads through Samaria instead of going down along the Jordan River. “Zacchaeus…I must stay at your house today”. And everyone should lean forward, watch, and listen.
Lean forward and listen to what Zacchaeus says. As I lean forward, I realize I can never hear Zacchaeus the same again because of what I have learned this week from New Testament Scholar Eric Barreto. If you haven’t clicked on this morning’s Adult Education here on the Sunday morning page, you absolutely have to now. Listen to Eric’s compelling and convince argument for the present tense in Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus. His response to Jesus and in response to the grumbling crowds. The translation I read earlier: “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.” Dr. Barreto and others suggest that the translating from the Greek in the present tense is just as acceptable. “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.” I give and I pay back. Well, that changes everything when it comes to how we have all read this story since 1st grade Sunday School!
It has always been read as a story of repentance in the presence of Jesus. Salvation is bestowed by Jesus upon Zacchaeus and his house because the eyes of Zacchaeus are opened to the power and grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ and he transforms his own sinful practice of tax collecting. But when you read it with a change of tense, you come upon a whole other story of salvation. Zacchaeus hears the grumbling from the crowd about Jesus going to stay with such a sinner. It was not the first time he heard it. After all, he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. So he turns to Jesus and says loud enough for the crowd to hear: “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.” Look! Listen! Please! I am not the person you think I am. My family and I. We are not scoundrels you all think we are. Of course, Jesus already knew that. That’s why he called up to Zacchaeus. That’s why he told him to come down. That’s why it had to stay at Zacchaeus’ house. That’s why it was a “must stay”. Jesus knew we were all wrong about him and his family.
“Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Yes, salvation is in the house in the person and work of Jesus. Yes, salvation is also in the house because Jesus is telling Zacchaeus and his family know they are not outcasts. Indeed, not only are they not who all the people think and say they are, they are children of Abraham. Children of the promise. Heirs of salvation. Sheep of his fold. And yes, Jesus is telling the crowds, the readers, that the salvation in this house is the restoration and welcome of the Zacchaeus household into this community. That the community of the people of God was incomplete, not as God intends when the man who was chief tax collector and rich was ostracized and judged by their humanity. Jesus on the way to Zacchaeus’ house announces this community has been transformed today. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” And it might have been the community, not Zacchaeus who was lost that day.
Early at the break of day on my walk, when I thought of you, I found myself imagining sitting in my seat in the chancel in the front of the sanctuary. You know that I know where you sit. I saw individuals and children and choir members and families and young adults and couples and yes even visitors whose names I don’t know yet. At first I found it helpful to prepare myself to preach to you from this spot and in this way. Then I started to think about how our community will be different when we gather again. How grateful we will be to be together! What we would have learned about our community and our experience of it. And how, even now, in these days, our community can share the transforming power of salvation in Jesus name. Our community can be transformed; striving to more complete in the way God intends. And maybe learning from Zacchaeus and Jesus today, this fifth Sunday of Lent, that by God’s grace and in God’s spirit, we can see each other, we can see everybody as God sees them. As Jesus sees them.
I often close a committee or Session meeting at church with the words, “Bring us back again on the Lord’s Day to worship you in Spirit and in truth.” We are worshiping together today. And God will surely, one day, bring us back together again in the sanctuary at 61 Nassau Street on the edge of campus and in the heart of town. Regardless of that the President says, we won’t be there in two weeks on Easter morning. We will be here. But when that day comes, when we are all together again, what an Easter celebration that will be. Singing. Shouting. Crying. Laughing. That Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!
Until then, church on the edge of campus and in the heart of town, keep proclaiming God’s love in word and deed! Proclaim God’s love in word and deed like never before. Live in and share the love of the Son of God, our Savior in creative ways like never before.
“For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”
Seek out and save you and me.