November 17, 2019
The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
This morning’s Gospel was originally scheduled in our lectionary rotation for November 3rd. But on that Sunday, we celebrated with the readings for All Saints Day. And since I did not want to let this little gem of a Gospel story escape us for another three years, we have heard it this morning slightly out of its appointed place. Which actually, I think, works well in terms of integrating form and function. Because this Gospel story itself is in some ways about being out of place, at least out of the commonly appointed place.
This morning’s Gospel tells the story of Zacchaeus. It’s a great name. Zacchaeus. It’s got girth and substance and it is not yet overused. In fact, a Google search of Zacchaeus reveals that it is used only once in our public sphere. Right here in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel.
Zacchaeus occurs only in Luke. And not only the name Zachaeus, but his descriptor as the “chief tax collector” also appears only here in Luke. Nowhere else in our New Testament is there a reference to a chief tax collector. Let us take note. Because Luke’s language skills are the best and most precise in all of the Gospels. No one other Gospeller uses their words better than Luke.
This story of Zacchaeus falls at the end of a whole portion of Luke that is unique to Luke. Most of chapters 15 to 19 are aptly called the “L” source section….as in, found only in Luke.
But it is also sort of the “L” section in terms of its content. Because most of the characters in section “L” are outcasts and sinners….losers in the social sense. Parables about the lost sheep, the dishonest manager, rotten rich men, lepers, the poor widow and the unjust judge, and this last parable about the unpopular, untall, head tax collector Zacchaeus. The “L” section. In one way or another, all of the characters in this section are social…..Losers.
Just the sort of folks that Jesus collects. The folks on the margins…..on every margin. Like Zacchaeus who, despite his affluence as a tax collector, is also an outcast. And the author of this text really seems to want us to think of Zaccheaus as a loser. Big time.
Elisabeth Kaeton (an Episcopal priest with a long and impressive resume of service to the church) – writes in her blog “Telling Secrets,” that this tale of Zacchaeus is perfectly placed around the time of Halloween. Because, she says, the whole story is about how we are tricked into treating Zacchaeus as someone who is……deplorable, someone who fails to measure up against the moral yardstick of the day.
No one else is deplorable enough in all of the Gospels to be called the chief of tax collectors. It’s not bad enough to be just a regular tax collector, like the one denounced earlier in the L section, the one praying at the Temple with a Pharisee. Here, Luke adds a layer of disgust. Zacchaeus is the chief of the dirty rotten scoundrels who collect tribute for the Roman Empire.
And, as the text says, Zacchaeus is rich. It is the supreme knock against his character in the ancient world where wealth was a zero-sum game. Those who were rich always got that way at the expense of those who were poor. A rich chief tax collector was virtually swimming in sin.
And as the icing on the cake, the text says that Zacchaeus is also short. Apparently he climbed the sycamore tree because he wanted to see who Jesus was and, “he could not see because he was short in stature.” Many commentaries take this insinuation that Zacchaeus was too short to see Jesus as another derogatory slur. But I think it is not clear whether the author is referring to Zacchaeus as short in stature, or to Jesus as short in stature. Could Zacchaeus not see because he was short or because Jesus was short?
It seems a small point (pun only slightly intended), but it is one of the reasons that I love this passage so much. There are so many seemingly innocuous unclarified nuances that invite the reader to ponder the very assumptions on which our faith is based. And in so doing, this story speaks to everyone. Everywhere.
It is jam packed with little teasers that challenge our most basic assumptions. What exactly is the stature of a loser in our society? What is the stature of Jesus? What do we need to do to get a better look at God? Does God know who and where we are? And who does God think we are? These are but a few of the deep queries we are called to consider in this, dare I say, short passage.
Anyway, regardless of whose stature was too short for Jesus to be seen without the aid of a sycamore tree, suffice it to say that Zacchaeus was unpopular in his shoes. And so right off the bat we are led to think of Zacchaeus as a rogue who needs a change of heart. We think of him as we think of the Pharisees, and rich Lazarus who tosses a single coin to the leper at his gate, and a host of other Richie Riches in the Gospels who loot the public coffers and take advantage of those who are on the margins.
So by the end of verse 2 we have a fairly poor impression of Zacchaeus.
Nevertheless, he wants to see “who Jesus is.” So he climbs a sycamore tree and waits for the procession. And when Jesus passes under that tree, Jesus looks up, as though he knows Zacchaeus is there. And somehow he knows Zacchaeus’s name. And Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry down out of that tree, for I must stay at your house today.”
Can you imagine? There you are, perched in a sycamore tree like a kid hoping for a better view of the parade……or maybe like a rogue seeking camouflage and safety from an unfriendly throng…. or both – another little uncertainty to chew on in this text. Why is Zacheaus in that tree? Because he literally cannot see Jesus otherwise? Or because he is so hated that he needs to hide? Or maybe a bit of both?
Still, imagine how shocked he must have been when Jesus not only knew his name, but insisted on coming to his home. “I must stay at your house today,” said Jesus. Not “I want to come to your house.” Not “can I come to your house?” But “I must come to your house.” Holy cow! God invited God’s self to dinner! Just imagine how that must have felt!
And so Zacchaeus scurries out of the tree and “joyfully” welcomes Jesus. There is no grumbling by Zacchaeus for the unsolicited self-invitation. Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes him. It’s the same word “joyfully” used by Martha when she welcomes Jesus to her home.
I don’t know about you, but if one of you announced out of the blue that you must come to my house tonight for dinner, I might respond with a modicum of grumbling. You would, of course in the end, be most welcome, but joyful would probably not be my first response.
Not Zacchaeus. He responds to Jesus’ unsolicited invitation with utter joy! However, according to the scripture, everyone else grumbles. Not just the scribes and Pharisees who are the typical grumblers in Luke. Here, everyone is grumbling, disciples and apostles alike, and the crowd in general…..everyone is passing a mighty judgment on this rich chief tax collector whom they all take to be unworthy of Jesus’ attention. He is a sinner, they exclaim. Not good enough for Jesus.
And it’s easy to see their point. What is Jesus doing going to the home of this elite money-launderer? Why is Jesus spending his time at the home of this rich guy? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be focused on the meek, the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness?
And here is where we really need a good translator to properly interpret this text. Because the next line can make or break the way we hear the point of this story. In my humble opinion, I think the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the one we heard this morning, and in fact most translations, mistranslate the next verse, verse eight.
In the NRSV it reads: 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.”
Halleluiah, we think. Jesus has changed Zacchaeus’ wonton ways. He will give to the poor and payback his transgressions. His heart has been converted by Jesus. He was a lost rich tax collector, but now he is found. He was blind but now he sees. Born again through his relationship with Jesus. It’s a story that I can imagine being used by the contingent of our Christian community who are most concerned with conversion through the acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior.
Because the NRSV translation presents this story as a conversion story. A story of repentance and reconciliation. Which is how almost every commentary interprets the story of Zacchaeus. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Bad guy meets Jesus. Bad guy turns himself around. Salvation is his reward. Go and do likewise.
One of my favorite theologians, Frederic Beuchner agrees. His commentary says: Zacchaeus was taken so completely taken aback by the honor of the thing that before he had a chance to change his mind, he promised not only to turn over fifty percent of his holdings to the poor but to pay back, four to one, all the cash he’d extorted from everybody else. Jesus is delighted.
According to this, this is a story about the repentence of an extortionist. According to Beuchner, a sort of divine impeachment story, if you will. (I couldn’t resist.) And I love Frederic Beuchner, but not so fast…..
Because the fact is, that the Greek verbs in this sentence are not in the future tense. The literal text does not read “I will give ” and “I will pay back” these monies in the future.
Rather, both of the verbs in verse 8 are in a present active tense. They more accurately say: “I already give to the poor,” and “I already pay back four times what I have defrauded.” Zacchaeus is already a righteous man. And not for nothing, but in Hebrew “Zacchaeus” literally means “righteous.”
He already shares his wealth. He already makes amends for his transgressions. And he has been doing it all along.
Zacchaeus is not being converted, he is being a witness….a model of righteousness. Outward appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Zacchaeus is already what God wants of us.
And so when Jesus says “salvation happens in this house,” I think he is not talking about his own saving power. I think Jesus is talking about the substance of salvation as it lives and breathes in the way Zacchaeus has chosen to live his life……his financially advantaged life. The way that Zacchaeus has chosen to share his wealth and his resources and his privilege. In this story, salvation is located in Zacchaeus, not Jesus. Salvation is already there.
I think it is worth noting that this is the only place in Luke’s Gospel (other than the infancy narrative at the very beginning) where the word salvation is used as a noun. That is to say, salvation is not something that Jesus is doing, it is something that already exists. Jesus tells Zacchaeus that “salvation is here.” Zacchaeus is a witness for salvation through the generosity and hospitality and just-behavior with which he lives his life.
I can’t think of a better Gospel for us to read on this Sanctuary Sunday, than this one.
And so this morning, I invite us all to come down out of the tree and be called Zacchaeus. Not Zacchaeus the converted. Zacchaeus the witness. Zacchaeus who joyfully offers his home to Jesus, the Son of God who must come over and see for himself the salvation that is happening there. Zacchaeus who defies the grumblers who judge him by his job, his affluence, his stature. Zacchaeus who gives what he has and pays back more than he has to. Zacchaeus who models salvation by living generously, hospitably, and with nothing but integrity. Let us be Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus. It’s a great name. It’s got girth and substance and it is not yet overused. I am hoping that we can change that together.
On a final note, Australian Anglican priest Brian McGowan has suggested that maybe a sycamore tree should join the cross, and the empty tomb as a Christian symbol.
What do you think he might have meant by that?