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Hope for the Lost
HOPE FOR THE LOST
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
The tax collectors for the Roman Empire almost had the right to print money for themselves. Once he had paid Rome the taxes owed in his jurisdiction, the tax collector had the legal right to charge any amount of taxes above that figure for his personal gain. If the base rate was twenty per cent, you could easily be charged forty per cent. This system made the tax collectors very wealthy and very unpopular. Zacchaeus was such a man.
He epitomizes a conflict that continues to this day. How do we measure success? What are the values we choose to pursue? Success for Zacchaeus was measured by wealth and power. He made his money at the expense of others. While my own values judge his behavior as corrupt, it was his legal right. It cost him social stigmatization but compared to the nice house, expensive clothes and pedigree donkeys, it was well worth it. No matter how unpopular he was, people deferred to him and would have curried favor (anything to keep your personal tax rate down). Relationships were transactional. What can you do for me?
Into this scenario enters the wandering Rabbi, Jesus. We don’t know what about Jesus intrigued Zacchaeus. It is tempting to infer from Zacchaeus’ dramatic promises to make restitution that he yearned for another way to live but we don’t know. When Zacchaeus was running ahead to find a better vantage point, we really have no idea if Jesus was the equivalent of the circus coming to town or if Zacchaeus knew anything about his teachings. It is tempting to infer from Zacchaeus’ dramatic promises to make restitution that he yearned for another way to live—or at least that he was feeling the pinch of his social isolation and had an unarticulated hunger for something else—but we don’t know. All we know is that Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus. And I would argue that Zacchaeus’ motivation is irrelevant. I believe this is much more a story about the nature of God than the motivation or follow through on the part of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus runs ahead and finds a perch in a sycamore tree to get a better view. Then the man who was seeking to see, is seen. Jesus calls him by name and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. Again, there is a lot we don’t know. How did Jesus know his Zacchaeus’ name. Jesus was just passing through Jericho. Did someone tell him? Did Jesus recognize him from previous visits? We cannot answer the how question but we can acknowledge how powerful it is to be seen—and to be called by name. Linda Huffine, a new member to our FIRL group, has a wonderful story from her childhood. She told us that as children, they could tell who the real Santa Claus was because the real Santa Claus knew your name.
Over and over again, Jesus sees and invites without regard to secular rules of acceptability or human accomplishment. Zacchaeus’ response is dramatic—”he hurried down and was happy to welcome him (Jesus)”. Then, when the crowd starts to grumble about Jesus going a bridge too far with his willingness to accept people, Zacchaeus promises for all to hear that he is a changed man. “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.”
As a practical matter, these are promises that are unlikely and are perhaps mathematically impossible to keep. If Zacchaeus gives away half of what he owns, depending on how many people he has exploited, he is likely to run out of money pretty quickly. So get in line early if you want compensation. In this regard, Zacchaeus sounds like any politician seeking to curry favor. Don’t hold your breath waiting for campaign promises to become reality. There is no indication in the narrative telling us what Zacchaeus actually did. But once again, what Zacchaeus actually did has no bearing upon the invitation he was offered.
The invitation is to a new way to be connected to God and to his fellow man. Zacchaeus was lost when his relationships were transactional and his primary goal was to enhance himself on the backs of others. Jesus offered a relationship based upon regard and inclusivity. Jesus does not try to convince Zacchaeus of anything, he offers a better life. It is up to Zacchaeus to choose to enjoy that life. To put it theologically, we have no choice about whether God loves us. We can only choose whether or not we will enjoy it.
A real life example of the same principles are the 12 step recovery programs. They emphasize attraction over promotion. Human lives do not have to continue to spiral into isolation and despair—but they will if we remain self absorbed and self centered. There is a better way. Choose the way of humility, self regard and mindfulness of others. Trust that you can be fully seen and fully loved. In the scramble to ‘improve’ our lives we often get lost. We lose our way when we forget what is really important.
It is tempting to make this story about what we need to do. Do we need to demonstrate our sincerity by being willing to climb a tree? Do we need to prove our fidelity by giving away half of what we own? What I believe is important is that Jesus offers hope to the lost. He tells the grumbling crowd “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.” Jesus told the crowd Zacchaeus was just like them—a son of Abraham. They needed to see how they were like him instead of thinking they were better than him. When they were claiming moral superiority over Zacchaeus, they did not realize how they were as sinful as Zacchaeus. They were practicing the same values that allowed Zacchaeus to put himself above them financially by placing themselves over him morally. In both cases, human beings are lost when we fail to see that we all try to elevate and separate ourselves rather than living in the promise that we are all children of God. We, like Zacchaeus, can be seen for who we are and still be invited into connection with God and each other.
When and if we can truly accept such grace, we will be transformed. We will live a life of abundance rather than deprivation. Kindness, love and generosity flow from that new life. Let it be so.