“Responding to Jesus’ Invitation”
All Saints’ Sunday – November 3, 2019
In first century Palestine, tax collectors were recruited by the Roman government
to collect taxes from their neighboring villagers by whatever means they deemed necessary.
The Romans did not care how much the tax collectors received so long as Rome received its designated
Historians tell us that tax collectors would often collect far more than was due
and keep the extra for themselves, enriching themselves greatly off the backs of the poor.
They charged what they wanted to charge and gave harsh penalties – imprisonment, beatings, or worse!
to those who failed to pay their exorbitant fees.
They were considered traitors in the eyes of their people.
Tax collectors were often despised, mistrusted, unsavory characters.
The subject of our text for today is Zaccheus, the chief tax collector of Jericho,
a man most likely despised and rejected by his community.
But before we read today’s text, do you remember last week’s story?
Just prior to this text, in chapter 18 of the gospel of Luke,
Jesus tells a parable about a repentant tax collector who serves as a model of prayer
as opposed to a prideful, judgmental Pharisee.
Hear the Word of God from Luke 19:1-10:
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 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.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘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.’
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, the Sunday on which we commemorate those members of the church
who have died in the past year. The church sends a nice letter to each family,
inviting them to come and gather around the communion table,
remembering with others their loved one who has gone on before us.
And we are so glad that many of you are here today…
Later, during the communion prayer,
we will chime a bell as we recall the names of our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.
As I review the list of those who have died, I remember well their memorial services.
As the pastor, I have the sacred privilege of officiating at many of our memorial services.
For almost every service, I meet with the families a day or two prior to the service
to share memories and stories, and I learn all kinds of wonderful things
that I did not previously know about the person.
We talk about where they grew up and how they met their spouse.
We talk about family vacations and special traditions.
We share humorous stories and laugh together, and sometimes we cry.
If you have ever been a part of one of these family gatherings, you are aware of how beautiful it can be.
When it comes time for the memorial service in the church,
we share publicly some of what we discussed.
We do not talk often, if ever, about how much money a person made.
We talk sometimes about their job or career,
but most often in terms of what they meant to their community or to their co-workers.
We do not talk about someone’s stock portfolio or their pension plan.
What we do talk about are their relationships.
We talk about their love for their family and the appreciation of time spent together.
We talk about how their children or grandchildren remember them,
and about what characteristics they will always appreciate about them.
We talk about their service to their community and to their church.
We talk about their generosity, their faithfulness, their willingness to help others.
When people are asked on their death beds if they had any wishes about how they had spent their time,
no one I have ever met says, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”
No one says, “I really wish that I had not helped out that time at church.”
No one says, “That service on the community board was such a waste of time.”
No one says, “You know, I could have played golf that weekend or gone to the theater,
instead of keeping the grandkids.”
All Saints’ Sunday is a good day to reflect upon our own lives,
to consider how wisely, or not, we spend our days,
to consider which investments of time and money will mean the most to us when, ultimately,
we find ourselves in our last days.
The story of Zachaeus is a wonderful Vacation Bible School story.
Most children can relate to being shorter than adults and not being able to see
when a parade of people are passing by. (I can relate to not being able to see over a crowd!)
And many children love to climb trees and can relate to Zaccheus wanting to climb up to a high place
where he could see over the heads of all the adults.
What we might miss, if we do not dig a little deeper, is the utter shock! to a Middle Eastern audience.
We might think it humorous for a grown man to climb a tree,
but Middle Easterners find this behavior outrageous and absurd.
Grown men, in particular men of any means, do not climb trees!
Luke intends for his readers to be shocked by Zacchaeus’ actions,
just as Luke did with the story of the father of the prodigal,
the man who ran down the lane to welcome home his son.
Grown men in first century Middle Eastern villages simply did not run and certainly did not climb trees.
What we also might miss in the telling of this “cute” Bible story
are the challenging economic implications of Jesus.
In North American churches, Zacchaeus is portrayed as a fat little man who climbed a tree
in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus (there’s even a cute Sunday School song to this effect).
But such sentimentalizing obscures the challenging economic realities of this story.
The tax collectors extracted taxes by whatever means they chose,
burdening an already poor community. They were socially rejected by the community,
religiously excommunicated, and viewed as political traitors.
“Cute, little Zacchaeus” who climbed the tree would, as the chief tax collector,
would have been one of the most despised and feared men in Jericho.
Most translations depict Zacchaeus as “short” (19:3), yet the Greek term hēlikia
in other usages in the New Testament and various papyri means “young in age.”
This suggests that Zacchaeus could have been a young man who inherited
his Chief Tax Collector position, a young man wondering about his life and his future.
When Jesus calls out to him, Zacchaeus hurries down and welcomes Jesus “joyfully” (v. 6),
an unlikely and courageous step for someone of his social standing.
By welcoming this itinerant rabbi, Zacchaeus opens his elegant villa to Jesus’ entourage—
the fishermen, the women who travelled with them, the beggar from the previous story,
oh, by the way, a fellow tax collector from Galilee, a disciple named Matthew.
When Zacchaeus makes his bold statements about providing reparations to the poor,
he is alluding to the Torah principles of restitution for thieves:
Exodus 22:24: “When someone steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it,
the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”
Verses from Leviticus demands restoring what has been “taken by robbery or by fraud” plus 20%.
Luke shared the commonly held assumption that Zacchaues had become rich by stealing from the poor,
as still happens often today. (see Ched Myers, RadicalDiscipleship, Salvation as Wealth Redistribution)
The story of Zacchaeus represents the culmination of several Jesus’ narratives in the gospel of Luke
specifically related to rich men needing to “turn their lives (and assets) around.”
As today’s story makes clear, this impressive sequence of stories reminds us that Jesus was aware of
and intent on disrupting systems of economic disparity,
in order to save both those who perpetuated them and those who suffered from them. (Ched Myers)
Ched Myers, in his commentary on this story, argues that this section of stories in Luke 18-19
“succinctly articulates why Jesus is inevitably headed to the Cross.
That is, it demonstrates, in deed and word, the economic and political character of Jesus’ ministry,
which was (rightly) perceived as sufficiently subversive by the local and imperial authorities
of occupied Palestine that they felt compelled to execute this prophet.”
Our first world churches do not like to talk much about the economics of Jesus,
particularly when he makes claims about the disparity between rich and poor.
Though Zacchaeus is portrayed as a fat little man who climbed a tree to see Jesus,
such sentimentalizing obscures the economic reversal that Jesus was encouraging.
The political and economic structures strategically advantaged the elite,
and they were getting richer as the poor were getting poorer – sound familiar?
We read the Zacchaeus story with the keen awareness that, for the last forty years in our nation,
the rich have gotten richer, while housing costs have risen astronomically,
and the poor and middle class have not had an effective pay raise for decades.
Notice that Jesus addresses Zacchaeus directly in the story.
Jesus calls him by name, and calls him to come down from his perch high above the crowds.
Then, unexpectedly, Jesus invites himself to the chief tax collector’s home for dinner –
a strange and shocking turn of events, especially given Jesus’ harsh stories about rich men
in his teachings and parables.
“All who saw it began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (v. 7).
Apparently, Zacchaeus can sense the tension from these poor villagers
who resent the prospect of Jesus dining at the home of their oppressor!
So Zacchaeus “stood still” (v. 8a; Gk statheis), that is, he stopped in his tracks. (Ched Myers)
Then comes the greatest surprise of all:
“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor….” (19:8b).
and if I have defrauded anyone, I will pay back four times as much.”
Zacchaeus realizes that Jesus is interested in more than hospitality,
and expects more than a change of heart. So Zacchaeus offers reparations, not simple charity.
This unlikely scenario of Jesus and his impact upon Zacchaeus is nothing short of miraculous.
So, in celebration, Jesus offers a threefold response:
First, he proclaims that “today salvation has come to this house…” (19:9a) –
the wholeness and wellness of a life reconciled with God has come to the home of Zacchaeus.
Second, Jesus says: “…because he too is a son of Abraham” (19:9b).
Zacchaeus is restored to the community of people that has despised him.
Third, “For I came to seek out and to save the lost” (19:10).
Rich Zacchaeus was lost until he repented, which for him means a concrete redistribution of his wealth.
With the Jesus of Luke’s gospel, a change in heart is necessary, but not sufficient.
True conversion requires that the economic structures be reconstructed.
Are you familiar with the book “The Power of Half” by Hannah and Kevin Salwen?
The book describes the story of a family who lived just miles from here.
After some soul-searching questions from their teenage daughter about their resources
in relation to the needs of the poor, the family sold their house, downsized into a smaller dwelling,
and gave half of the proceeds of the home to the poor.
It all started when fourteen-year old Hannah Salwen had a “eureka” moment.
Seeing a homeless man in her neighborhood at the precise second a glistening Mercedes coupe
pulled up next to her family’s car, she said:
“You know, Dad, if that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal.”
Until that day, the Salwens had been caught up like so many of us in the classic American dream—
providing a good life for their children, accumulating more and more stuff,
doing their part but not really feeling it.
So when Hannah was stopped in her tracks by this glaring disparity,
her parents knew they had to act on her urge to do something.
As a family, they made the extraordinary decision to sell their Atlanta mansion,
downsize to a house half its size, and give half of the sale price to a worthy charity.
What began as an outlandish scheme became a remarkable journey that transported them across the
globe and well out of their comfort zone.
In the end they learned that they had the power to change a little corner of the world—
and they found themselves changing, too. (amazon.com)
What if everyone had this same mentality?
The growing disparity between rich and poor would no doubt be reduced.
Crushing poverty would eventually come to an end.
All persons would have their basic needs of food and shelter and healthcare addressed.
“Jesus looked at (the rich young ruler) and said,
‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
Indeed, 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.’
Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved?’
Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.’ (Luke 18:24-27)
By the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ, people can change.
Zaccheus’ whole life and the life of his family was transformed –
from despised to appreciated, from outside to inside, from shunned to welcomed, from death to life.
By the grace of God, we can change. Our nation can reverse threatening trends.
The social and economic fabric of our communities can be transformed.
Let it be so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church