Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wee Little Man - 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 save the lost."

I love going to family reunions on my Dad's side of the family. Sure, it's nice to see family, the food is always great, but I will confess that I have an ulterior motive for attending: for the span of that afternoon, I am the tallest person in the room. By and large – perhaps I should say by and small – Thomases are short people. I have aunts and cousins who never made it to five feet, and as I move about through the room, I feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. However, I know better than to comment on their stature, because in the Thomas family, there seems to be an inverse relationship between a person's height and their toughness.

That brings us to Zacchaeus, the star of today's text. This was one of my favorite Bible stories growing up. I loved the little activity sheets that portrayed Zacchaeus as a goofy little cartoon character. I even loved the silly little song we'd sing about him, complete with hand motions. It’s a goofy, corny, cheesy little song, and yet lo, these many years later, I still remember it. Brenda and I sang the song together in my office earlier this week, but I’ll spare you the pain of having to re-live that.

However, we do this text a great disservice if we think it is only a children's story. I invite all us to put aside what we think we already know about this story, and allow it to speak to us fresh and new. May we pray.

Some background
Let me set up some background information that will help us understand the implications of what's happening in this text. The story takes place in Jericho – a thriving, prosperous border city known for its exports of dates and figs. There were two major highways in Israel, and one of them went right through Jericho. The Jews from Galilee would travel to Jericho and beyond on their way to Jerusalem. The main highway between Galilee and Jericho ran right through Samaria – which was a hostile place in those days for Jewish travelers. So instead of taking the main road, most travelers would bypass Samaria, take the back roads through the territory to the East, and then re-enter Roman-controlled territory through Jericho.

Jericho was the customs control station. If you have done any international travel, you know all about coming through customs. My parents’ home was three miles from the US-Canada border in Niagara Falls, and it was not uncommon for us to go to Canada to sightsee with out-of-town guests, or for dinner (there were some great Chinese restaurants across the border), or to visit my aunt and uncle, or even to shop when the dollar was stronger and the exchange rates were more favorable. Back during the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a friend’s grandmother was coming back into the US from Canada. As the car stopped for inspection at customs and immigration, they asked where she was from, and she gave the name of the small town in Western New York where she lived: Cuba. It turned out that was a very effective way to have an extended visit with officials at the border.
There were and still are very stringent regulations about the types of goods and merchandise you can bring back into the country, their value, and so forth, and this is all checked out at the customs station. And, for the value of the goods you bring back into the country, you may be subject to paying a tax.

Very similar things were happening in Jericho. Everyone coming into Jericho had to pay a tax on their entrance back into Roman-controlled territory. They also had to pay a tax on whatever livestock, merchandise, or goods they were transporting. For example, if you had a cart full of olives pulled by an ox, the authorities could stop you and tax you for each wheel on the cart, for the cart itself, for the ox that pulled the cart, and for the olives in the cart.

I don't know of anyone who particularly enjoys paying taxes, but we all pay them. For one thing, we have to. But in addition, we are in favor of many of the things our taxes support – things like good roads, public schools, and fire and police protection. That being said, I want us to realize what those taxes being collected day in and day out in Jericho were paying for. Remember, the Romans were the occupying force in Israel at this time, so the taxes went to them. The Roman army was a huge force that needed extraordinary amounts of money to keep going. So essentially, the people in Jericho were paying taxes to an outside government in order to fund the army that kept them under control.

And there, making sure the taxes were collected and paid to the Roman government, was Zacchaeus. He was not only a tax collector, he was the chief tax collector, which easily would have made him the most hated man in town. As if that weren't bad enough, the Roman tax system was ripe for abuse. They only told each province how much they needed to turn into the central government, and as long as they did, that's all Rome cared about. Tax collectors were free to collect in excess of this amount and pocket the difference, which they did.

A very small man
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and I’m sure he made up for these feelings of inadequacy in other ways. I’m sure he owned the largest villa in all of Jericho. I’m sure he drove the most expensive chariot he could find, and always parked it conspicuously in his driveway so that all who passed by would know that an important person lived there. But he was a small man in many senses of the word, not only in relation to his height. When it came to character, Zacchaeus came up short. Those whom he met were not seen as people; they were seen as someone he could exploit. He was a cocky little crook, a thief, and a con man. Yet, he was protected by the Roman government, so there wasn't a thing anyone could do about it.

Now, Passover was approaching, which meant an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for many Jews. That also meant many people would be passing through Jericho and paying their duty taxes there, and Zacchaeus was having a very good month. Jesus and his disciples were among those making the pilgrimage toward Jerusalem for the Passover. This was Jesus’ march toward Jerusalem and the events that would play out during Holy Week. The crowds soon discovered that Jesus would be passing through town, and everyone wanted to see him. Word was spreading through the region about this rabbi from Nazareth. Everyone was amazed at his teaching. He had been performing miracles of healing left and right. Zacchaeus even heard that he had told a story in which a Pharisee was the foil, and a tax collector the hero.

A large following had accumulated around Jesus. Have you seen the movie Forrest Gump? Do you remember toward the end of the movie Forrest decides to start running back and forth across the country, and this inspires people, and a group of people just naturally begin to follow him? Jesus was headed through Jericho with the same sort of army of supporters.

For some reason, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. We’re not really sure why. Maybe he thought there was some money to be made by following him around. Surely Jesus would need someone to handle his publicity, or charge an appropriately modest fee to get into the venues where Jesus would be speaking. If people will pay good money to get into the funeral of a pop culture icon, just imagine how much they’ll pay to get in to see the son of God! Maybe he’d play the faith angle, telling people that God wanted them to pony up some money as a sign of their faith so that God could then bless them, knowing he himself was the only one who was likely to get rich from such a scheme. Zacchaeus, knowing he was too short to see Jesus, does something incredibly crafty – he races ahead and climbs into the shady branches of a sycamore tree, pulls out his bag of pomegranates and Mountain Dew, and waits.

Along comes Jesus, with the army that has gathered around him, and the crowds who have pressed in just hoping to catch a glimpse. Jesus is in the middle of the crowd making its trip to Jerusalem for the Passover. But Jesus draws a particularly intense crowd right around him. All around him are believers and skeptics, curiousity-seekers and onlookers, and merchants selling buttons, hats, t-shirts, chariot stickers, and giant foam fingers, all trying to make a fast shekel.

Zacchaeus has a front-row seat to the action, but he has no idea he is about to be the center of the action. Jesus stops right under that sycamore tree, and he says the line on which the whole plot turns: "Zacchaeus, come down from there. I must stay at your house today." This pleased Zacchaeus greatly, but it sure ticked off the crowd. "Yes, Jesus, come to my house. The prettiest villa in all Jericho, down there, overlooking the river, nestled in a grove of date palms." Strutting like a peacock with a very healthy ego, Zacchaeus led Jesus down to his house, the hateful stares of the crowd boring into the back of his head the entire way.

You can just hear the murmur running through the crowd. “There goes Zacchaeus, all high and mighty again. Look at him. He thinks he’s special because Jesus is going to his house. As if he wasn’t already full enough of himself, now he’s going to be even worse. He’s probably got some crooked business deal he wants to talk to Jesus about. I wonder why Jesus wants to spend time with him?”

It’s a good question. Why would Jesus want to spend time with Zacchaeus? He wasn’t a shining example of moral fortitude. He was a con man and a thief. He wasn’t the kind of person that any good, self-respecting, upstanding church-goer would ever spend time with, let alone be caught in their house. Why would Jesus want to spend time with Zacchaeus?

Why would Jesus want to spend time with any of us, for that matter? Certainly not because we’ve proved ourselves worthy. Certainly because of none of us is quite as special as we’d like to think we are. For some strange reason, Jesus continues to seek us out, as well.

Jesus gets in and changes things
In reality, Jesus made his intention quite clear, but I think Zacchaeus didn't catch the implication of what Jesus said. Neither did anyone else in the crowd.. Jesus said, "Come down." Jesus said, “Come down” not only to Zacchaeus; Jesus says come down to each of us as well. Come down, not only from the tree, but come down off your high horse. Come down from thinking more highly of yourself than you ought. Come down from thinking you’ve got it all together even as you wag your finger as people you perceive to be inferior to yourself. Come down from seeing other people as the objects of your exploitation. Come down from your own agenda, come down from saying, “It’s my way or the highway.” Come down from thinking of yourself as the center of the universe and recognize that there are people all around you – real people – whose lives your actions have a direct impact on. "Come down, for I am going to your house today." I am going where you live. Into your personal space. Into what is valuable to you. Into your private domain and the place you keep entirely to yourself.

And by the end of the story, we realize that's exactly what Jesus has done. He has gotten into the personal spaces in Zacchaeus' life, and completely transformed them. He has been changed. Something happened over lunch – something happened when this man joined the Lord at the table that changed his heart. He was changed from a taker to a giver, and all of a sudden is passing out checks like he's the United Way of Jericho. This is the overnight change from Mr. Scrooge to Uncle Ebenezer, from the Grinch who stole Christmas to the Grinch who saved Christmas. Personally, I would like to know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus over lunch. If we knew the words he used, I would say similar words to you on Stewardship Sunday in the hopes that you will also become even more generous than you already are.

But the text simply doesn't give us those details. Luke wants us to know that Zacchaeus had a real encounter with Jesus, and his life was changed because of it. And I think that's the point: when Jesus calls us by name, when he gets into our personal space, when we share a meal with him, our lives are transformed. Zacchaeus looks around, and rather than seeing people he needs to exploit, he sees people with real needs who could use his help. And so it happens that Zacchaeus, the biggest dirty rotten scoundrel in town, whose name means "the pure and righteous one," finally lives up to his name.

Let me tell you what happened over lunch. As Jesus and Zacchaeus ate and spent the afternoon together, Zacchaeus felt something he had not felt in a long time – love. Jesus was the first person he encountered who did not treat him poorly or malign him or withhold love because of the way he had treated others. And the love got to him. And as they reclined at the table together, he looked into the eyes of Jesus, and he saw reflected there the Zacchaeus he was created to be.

Zacchaeus had an encounter with Jesus, and he became the person God created him to be in the first place. This is how it works for each of us. The way we have tended to present the Gospel – the good news of what God continues to do in our lives through the grace and power of Jesus Christ – has often overlooked this truth. Too often, our focus on a need for Jesus is focused solely out of the book of Romans, as we are reminded that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This is certainly true, we have all sinned, we have all been distant from God, things in all our lives stand between us and God. But that’s not the whole story.

Before we sinned, we were created in the likeness of God. Creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good. God’s image was stamped indelibly on the heart of every man, woman, and child who ever has and ever will live. That image may be marred, it may be faded, it may be hidden, it may be incredibly difficult to see.

But everyone who bears the image of God was created to reflect that image, and no one was created who does not bear that image. Every person was created with the hard-wiring to be reflectors of God. And when we encounter Jesus and Jesus comes in and changes our heart and restores the image of God within us, no matter how marred or faded that image may be, we live into our God-given potential. Like Zacchaeus, we become the person God has created us to be. There is no distinction here between saints and sinners. We’re all sinners, those whose hearts are being transformed by the grace of Jesus are simply redeemed sinners. And we’re all saints, those who have yet to meet Jesus are simply waiting for the image of God to be restored within them.

As a church, our task is to recognize and celebrate the image of God in those we encounter, to believe that no life of God’s creating is beyond God’s redeeming, to believe that each and every life is an arena for the glory of God to be revealed. Our task is to help people encounter Jesus, knowing that Jesus will get in and transform each and every heart he touches.

Jesus not only got into Zacchaeus' house that day. More importantly, Jesus got into his heart. In the end, he declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus, that he, too, is a son of Abraham. He was just lost. He had gotten confused about why he was here, and whom he was to serve. Like you and me, thank God Jesus comes looking for each of us and invites us into a new and transformed life.

Friends, this is far more than a nursery room tale. It is a vivid reminder of the love of God at work in the human heart. Even when we are at our worst, even when the world has turned its back on us, Jesus continues to call us by name and invites us to the table. And sure enough, we find ourselves transformed.

This story begins with the littlest man in town. It ends with the biggest heart Jesus encounters in all Israel.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the (only slightly) anachonistic description of the setting for this story. It really is a very powerful story, and you do a great job of letting us see it through fresh eyes.