Pentecost XXI – Proper 26, Year C
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
October 30, 2022
In today’s familiar gospel lesson, Jesus encounters a wee tax collector named Zacchaeus in the city of Jericho. Tax collectors in the first century Roman Empire were, by definition, wealthy, and were seen as sleezy and immoral, as they got to keep any money they collected from the people above and beyond what was owed to the empire. Zacchaeus is “short in stature,” something I can relate to, and thus can’t he see Jesus through the crowds. He climbs a tree so that he might be able to see Jesus, even from a distance. When Jesus arrives there, he tells Zacchaeus to come down and then invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. The onlookers aren’t too happy about this. They murmur because Jesus had gone to eat at the house of “a sinner.” Upon seeing Jesus, Zacchaeus declares that he will give half of his goods to the poor and restore back fourfold those whom he has defrauded. Jesus then tells Zacchaeus that salvation has come to him, for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.
Traditionally, this passage is seen as a conversion story par excellence. The sinner repents and is saved and as a result behaves virtuously and gives of his wealth extravagantly. However, in verse 8, there is a Greek verb whose meaning is debated amongst scholars. The translation we just heard says “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Some of the newer translations change the verbs to “will give” and “will restore”, implying future actions, despite the use of verb forms indicating that Zacchaeus is already doing these things. The traditional interpretation certainly is congruent with other parts of Scripture and isn’t a bad thing. However, if these were things he was already doing, the focus isn’t on Zacchaeus’ conversion, but rather Jesus’s actions in welcoming yet another sinner from the margins of society. Yes, he is rich, but would have been automatically rejected outright by the establishment because of his occupation and close association with the Empire.
This crooked, untrustworthy Zacchaeus is desperate to see Jesus. So desperate that despite being a wealthy government official, he humiliates himself by climbing a tree like a child in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus over the crowd. When he finally sees him, Jesus greets him by name and asks him to come down, and Zacchaeaus “receives him joyfully.”
Joy is not something the world around us associates with Christianity. In fact, I think many non-Christians think of us as being like the members of the crowd who murmur because Jesus accepted an invitation to be the guest of a “sinner” who is not pure or holy enough for our tastes. That’s probably because many of us are. Many Christians, and it’s not only the fundamentalists and the Roman Catholics, murmur like the crowd for many reasons: the person receiving God’s grace before our eyes is more successful than us, or has committed more serious sins than we have, or has an occupation like the tax collector that we may view as incompatible with or at least incongruent with Christianity.
When I lived in France from 2002-2004, I was struck by the fact that members of the clergy (which, in the French mind, generally means Roman Catholic) were portrayed in television, movies, and the media in general as dullards who hate anyone on the margins of society and don’t have the brainpower needed to add two plus two. Twenty years later, this is not an uncommon view of Christianity in our own society. It’s easy for us enlightened liberal Protestants to judge police officers or wealthy investment bankers because of their profession while smugly forgiving and loving those whose professions put them out of favor with the fundamentalists like abortion providers. Let us not forget that we too have the same human tendency to lump people together and judge the hearts of human beings based on whatever category is most convenient to put them in.
I don’t think we should make this story into a conversion experience like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus. Zacchaeus doesn’t confess his sins nor repent. Nor does Jesus commend his penitence, or his faith, or his change of heart. He merely pronounces blessing, blessing based not on anything Zacchaeus has done, but simply because he, like those murmuring around him, is a child of Abraham, a child of God.
Zacchaeus is an example for all of us. He desires to see Jesus and experiences joy in his presence. At first, he can’t see him because like me, he’s too short, perhaps both physically and morally. Yet he is desperate to see Jesus. So desperate that he humiliates himself by climbing a tree like a child in order to catch a glimpse of him over the crowd. When he finally sees him, Jesus calls him by name and asks him to come down, and Zacchaeus “receives him joyfully.”
The word used to describe Zacchaeus’ reaction to Jesus – joy, or rejoice – is the same word used a few chapters back in the three most famous parables. There is more joy in heaven when one lost sheep is found – when one sinner repents – than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance. There is rejoicing in heaven when the woman finds the coin she has lost! The Father rejoices and throws an extravagant party when the prodigal son returns home.
The Good News of today’s gospel reading is that if you truly want to see Jesus, you will, no matter your occupation or shortcomings or past sins. And more than that, you will be seen and known by Jesus and experience his unconditional love given extravagantly. This is the Good News of Christianity, Good News that the world needs so desperately. In the words of the hymn we sang before the gospel, “not to oppress, but summon all their truest life to find, in love God sent his Son to save, not to condemn mankind.”
While his body is no longer here on this earth, we have an opportunity to see Jesus in a moment at the altar in the consecrated bread and wine. Not only see him, but receive him into our innermost being, all while kneeling at the altar rail alongside someone we may have judged negatively for some reason or another. Like Zacchaeus, let us receive our Lord joyfully, and let us carry that joy with us so that the world may see and know the Good News of God’s extravagant love.
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