Sermon for Proper 26 C
I have mentioned in the past about the childhood Bible that I had, its images still figure prominently on the landscape of my spirit. I can still vividly recall the image of the chief tax collector Zacchaeus up in the tree, the illumined face of Jesus up-turned to him.
Today’s Gospel story is very familiar and it is featured in every children’s bible or comic gospel I’ve ever seen. I suppose that’s because children like climbing trees.
The way that we usually read this story is that Jesus invites himself to sit with Zacchaeus and the mere invitation and meal is enough for Zacchaeus to turn over a new leaf and give half his possessions to the poor and plan to give back four times what he may have cheated out of people. This reading makes sense to us because it fits our normal understanding of how God works in our lives, we confess our evil, repent, and then are forgiven. Jesus says, "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." Cause and effect. It makes a whole lot of sense: Zacchaeus, that short man in both stature and social standing, is a sinner in need of repentance.
Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. As we know the tax collectors worked for the empire and could add a little to the bill for their own payment. They were especially hated by the natives probably because the tax collectors themselves were natives. It’s one thing to be the occupying empire, it is quite another to collaborate with them. In the first century the people commonly referred to the tax collectors as sinners, as a group, because for them the activity of collecting taxes was especially heinous; it was a sin against God and neighbor to do what they were doing and they became rich from it. Tax collectors were sinners because their livelihood was enmeshed with their sinful actions.
The usual reading of this passage has Jesus, the forgiver, walking into a sinful life in order to redeem it. I like that reading because it makes sense to me, I have lived that life. I have found myself to be living out of right relationship with God or my neighbor, or even myself, I have confessed and I have felt God’s forgiving love. Haven’t you?
But I don’t think that is what’s going on in the story. And the reason I don’t think so is, unfortunately, for grammatical reasons. I’ll get to that in a minute, first let’s look again at the story.
The passage says that Zacchaeus is short, but the Greek word there (elikia) could mean short in stature, age or time of life, or even maturity. So Zacchaeus could just be young, or maybe he’s grown-up, yet immature! Maybe that’s why this rich, up and coming tax collector, who manages a bunch of other tax collectors sees nothing at all wrong with climbing a tree: he’s young at heart and just doesn’t care what people think. When my kids climb trees they certainly aren’t worried what people will think, they climb trees because they want to!
So Jesus spots him, Jesus looks up to the see the small Zacchaeus. Jesus is able to spot Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. It seems that this is the first lesson of this passage; Jesus will always find those who seek him. If you want to find Jesus, you will find him.
Anyway, Zacchaeus accepts Jesus’ invitation to invite Jesus over for dinner and as soon as they get inside, once they get through the crowd that is scandalized that Jesus is eating with such a sinner, Zacchaeus announces that he will give half of his things to the poor and he will pay back four times as much to anyone he may have cheated.
Except that’s not what Zacchaeus says.
I know that what the text says, but that’s not what it says.
You see, as part of my weekly discipline, to actually pray with the scripture, I have to force myself to read slowly, and the best way that I have found to do that is to read it in Greek, and because my Greek is not nearly as good as it used to be; I have to look words up. So to read and understand these ten verses it might take me a half hour of slow, plodding, yet revealing effort.
What I found was that Zacchaeus doesn’t say that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and that he will pay back those who he has cheated, instead what he says is that he gives half of his things to the poor, he pays back anyone he has cheated. It’s all in the present tense. In fact in the grammatical structure of Greek what Zacchaeus says is called the iterative-present, he has been doing those things in the past and he is doing them in the present.
In the version of the Bible that we almost always use in this church, the New Revised Standard Version, the translators have decided to place Zacchaeus’ statement to Jesus in the future tense, he will do these things. The implication is that because of his encounter with Jesus he will change his ways. He is having his Ebenezer Scrooge moment, he will change.
The notion of whether Zacchaeus is doing the good deeds in the present or will in the future, to me is crucial. Once I discovered that the Greek used the present tense, I did a quick online search and found that 6 out of the 24 most used translations of the Bible in English use the future tense, and the remaining 18 use the present tense. Zacchaeus says, “Lord I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I find that I have cheated anyone, I pay them back four times as much.”
Who cares? Why does all this matter? Why does all this comparison and grammatical rigmarole matter?
It matters because if Zacchaeus has this encounter with Jesus and then promises amendment of life, well that’s actually a really good thing. But if we see that Zacchaeus has been giving to the poor and making right with those he may have accidently cheated all along, well that’s a whole other kettle of fish. If we hear the past and present activity of this sinner, this person who the entire community reviles, if we see that he is in fact more than simply just, that he is living a salvation-life, well then we have a problem.
You see, when we read Zacchaeus as promising some future event, then when Jesus’ statement that “Today salvation has come to this house,” we read that as centered on Jesus only. Now, that’s not bad, and I’m no heretic, as you may have noticed, I am a huge fan of Jesus.
But when we read the Zacchaeus has been just and giving all along, we find that Jesus is in a place of discovery, he exclaims, perhaps loud enough for those who are outside and wouldn’t be caught dead with someone like Zacchaeus, “Wow! Salvation has come to this house! Here is a son of Abraham!”
Indeed the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost, but Zacchaeus’ lost-ness has more to do with the fact that his community and the system in which they are forced to live has made them all take up sides. In Jericho the people could not even conceive of a situation whereby a chief tax collector could be anything other than a sinner, a traitor, and a collaborator.
Most of us who know this story from of old might think of Zacchaeus as a sniveling little miser who finally got right with God. But the story actually shows this very righteous, good person who is also very hated by his community. Jesus then is the bystander in the story who recognizes the wonder that God has been at work even in the evil system of taxes, military occupation, social stratification, and judgement. Jesus is there to recognize and declare that salvation is there, that God seeks people through whatever boundaries a society has set up.
Jesus then is the one who accepts the invitation to witness to God’s work in the most intractable, divisive situations. And since that’s what Jesus does, then you can bet that that is precisely what we are meant to seek: God working in unlikely places.
Now, if only we were, I don’t know, engaged in a sharply divided political landscape. If only we had an economic situation that pits us against them, where we judge each other harshly. If only we had a system in our city whereby we demonize certain groups with zero sense of history or even common sense.
It’s simple folks: Who is your enemy? Who is the one that you know is sinful? I’ll give you a sec to figure that out. Who is sinful, who, in your mind, is clearly working against the purposes of God? Now, invite yourself over to their house. I can guarantee that God is up to something in that person’s life, and you will get the joy of discovering it just as Jesus did.
Jesus knew exactly who and what Zacchaeus was: a rich, chief tax collector. He had every right to dismiss Zacchaeus as less-than. But he decided to see what Zacchaeus was all about, and he discovered that God was already at work.
Are you brave enough to be like Jesus, to be willing to enter the life of the one our community knows is oh so very sinful? Are you brave enough to listen for God even in dark corners?
Don’t be surprised by the way if you find that someone else thinks you’re the sinful one.
You don’t have to actually go over to their house, but you might. Enter their lives, see what they are about, above all listen. Look for God, and just as Zacchaeus looked for Jesus and found him, you too will find God.
Y’all we need this right now. We need this. Our community is hurting just as much as Jericho was hurting 2000 years ago. The election is not going to fix our problems either, in fact I think it will make things worse. The only thing that can heal our community is if there are a great many sinners going out and looking for Jesus, looking for God at work in each other’s lives.