Saint Zacchaeus

October 30, 2022 – All Saints Sunday

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When 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.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8Zacchaeus 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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:1-10, NRSV

Good morning! Today we celebrate all saints. So good morning saints!

My friend Rev’d. Dr. Mark Bozutti Jones who is the Director of Spiritual Formation at Trinity Wallstreet used to say that there is no difference between Christian saints and Jewish saints, except that Christian saints are absolutely perfect and Jewish saints are abundantly flawed.
And so the Apostle Paul, a Jew his whole life long, said that we were all born to be saints.

Every one of us. We all have a scoshe of the holy in us.

This morning’s Gospel invites us to think about the criteria for sainthood. It tells the story of the chief tax collector in Jericho named 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. And it is here in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel.

And, Zacchaeus shows up only in Luke.
And not only the name Z, but the very term, “chief tax collector” appears only here in Luke. Nowhere else in our New Testament is there a reference to a chief tax collector.

This story of Z falls at the end of a whole portion of Luke that appears only in Luke. Most of chapters 15 to 19. They are aptly called the “L” source section….as in, only found in Luke. But the “L” section is very aptly named. Not loser to God, but definitely on the margins of our own social scale.
Because most of the characters in this section “L” are outcasts and sinners….losers in the social sense. Parables about lost sheep, dishonest managers, rotten rich men, lepers, poor widows and unjust judges, and this last parable about the unpopular, untall, head tax collector Zacchaeus.
The “L” section.

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, also qualifies as an outcast.
Because he is….well, said to be short for one. And hated by everyone from whom he collectes taxes. And the author of this text seems to want us to think of Z 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 disgraceful, someone who fails to measure up against the moral yardstick of the day.

No one else is reprehensible enough in all of the Gospels to be called the chief of tax collectors.
It’s not bad enough to be a regular tax collector, like the one denounced earlier in the L section. Here, Luke adds another layer of disgust.
Zacchaeus is the chief of all of the dirty rotten scoundrels who collect tribute for the Roman Empire.

And so from the get-go, we know that Zacchaeus is rich.
The supreme moral 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 tax collector was virtually swimming in sin.

And as the icing on the deficiency cake, the text says that Zacchaeus 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 Z was short as another derogatory slur.
He’s rotten, and he’s short.

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. “He could not see because he was short in stature.”

It seems a small point (pun only slightly intended), but its one of the reasons that I love this passage so much. There are so many unclarified nuances that invite the reader to ponder our assumptions.
To question the many ways in which we are prone to judge a book, or a chief tax collector, by their cover. It is jam packed with little mirrors that challenge our most basic assumptions.

Like who is and is not a saint? Who is and is not a sinner?
But, we are led to believe that Zacchaeus is firmly in the latter category.
And if not a sinner, at least a wildly unpopular fellow.
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 less fortunate.

So by the end of verse 2 we have a fairly poor impression of Zacchaeus.
But 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, looks up, as though he knows Zacchaeus is there,
and somehow he knows Z’s name.
Jesus calls up, “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 a parade… or maybe like a rogue seeking camouflage, or both –
another little uncertainty to chew on in this text.
Why is Z in that tree? Because he literally cannot see Jesus otherwise? Or because he is so hated that he needs to hide as protection from the public mob?

And imagine how shocked he must have been when Jesus not only knew his name, but insisted on coming to his house.
“I must stay at your house today,” said Jesus.
And just like that, Z, guess who’s coming to dinner!

And so Zacchaeus scurries out of the tree and “joyfully” welcomes Jesus.
There is no grumbling on his part for the unsolicited self-invitation on Jesus’ part. Zacchaeus joyfully welcomes him. It’s the same word “joyfully” used by Martha when she welcomes Jesus to her home.
I don’t k now about you, but if someone I did not personally know announced that they must come to my house tonight for dinner, out of the blue, there might be a bit of grumbling.
Not Zacchaeus. He responds to Jesus’ unsolicited invitation with utter joy!

However, as the scripture says, everyone else grumbles.
Not just the scribes and Pharisees who are the typical grumblers in Luke. Here, everyone is grumbling, disciples and apostles and the whole 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’s no saint. He is a sinner! 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, offers a bit of a…..mistranslation.
But because Luke’s Greek is so precise, the translation needs to be precise.

The NRSV 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.
His heart has been converted.
He was a rich tax collector, but now he is found, was blind but now he sees. He was a sinner. And now he is a saint.

Almost every Bible translation that I have found, and the preponderance of commentaries
present this story as a conversion story. A story of repentance and reconciliation.
I was at the Massachusetts diocesan convention yesterday (because I am canonically resident there) And every committee presentation that referred to today’s Gospel passage, and there were several, Called it a conversion story.

One of my favorite theologians, Frederic Beuchner agrees.
His commentary says: Zacchaeus was taken so completely 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.1

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 to the poor” and “I will pay back what I have defrauded.” No. Because both of these verbs in verse 8 are in a present active tense.
It literally says: “I already give to the poor,” and “I am already paying back four times what I have defrauded.” According to Luke’s Greek, Zacchaeus is already doing the right thing.
Not for nothing, but in Hebrew “Zacchaeus” literally means “righteous.”

He already shares his wealth and he makes amends if anyone is cheated. And he has been doing this all along. And so when we use this story to think about the criteria for sainthood, We need to be clear.

Zacchaeus is not converted to a righteous life, he is a witness to a righteous life.
Because I might suggest that saints are not spotless souls made exceptionally faithful by conversion. Saints are faithful souls who choose to live boldly as witnesses to that faith.
Saints are those among us who bear witness to the love of God.
Not those among us who are lucky enough to be converted into something we were not already.

And so when Jesus says to Z “salvation happens in this house,”
he is not talking about his own saving power.
Jesus is talking about the substance of salvation as the way Z has chosen to use his gifts and live his life. The way that Z has already chosen to share his wealth and his resources,
and to make amends for his trespasses.
This is the measure of a saint of God.

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 already here in his house.

I hear Jesus saying, Z, you are already a saint.

And that, dear friends is what I think you and I are called to on this All Saints Sunday.
Not to change who we are. Not to become better people, as it were.
But to become braver witnesses, to choose a life that boldly puts our faith front and center, even if we are short and unpopular.
Our faith in God and in God’s Son and in God’s Spirit will carry us through.
When we ooze God’s love, we are living into our birthright as saints of God.

From Abraham to Zacchaeus. We are all born to be faithful, flawed followers of a living God.

And the saints among us said: Amen.

1 http://frederickbuechner.com/content/weekly-sermon-illustration-zaccheus


© Octobert, 2022 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

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