A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The Lectionary readings for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost are here.
When you hear the name Zacchaeus, what is the first thing that runs through your mind? What about Jericho? I bet one or both of those songs will be running through your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome. Now, besides the songs, what do we know about this man and this place?
Jericho is a city on the northwestern edge of the sea of Galilea and almost due east of Jerusalem, with settlements dating back to 9000 BCE. It claims to be the oldest city in the world and the city with the oldest known protective wall. Most famously known from the Old Testament from the story of Joshua and the destruction of the wall around the city brought about by a marching band of priests.
Whenever a specific place is named in the stories of Jesus, it is good to recall the stories known about the city from the Old Testament. In the battle against Jericho, Joshua was instructed to march his army around the city daily for seven days and on the seventh day to march seven times, when the priests blew their horns, the wall would come down. This is also the story in which we meet the prostitute Rahab who saved the Israelite spies because she had heard of their God. She and her family were not destroyed in the Battle of Jericho and she is the great great great great great great … grandmother of Jesus.
In the time of Jesus, Jericho was a major customs and trade city. Our friend Zacchaeus was there as Jesus was passing through. Zach, we are told, was a chief tax collector meaning he managed a group of tax collectors. From what they collected they had to pay the Empire first and give their ‘chief’ his cut, keeping what was left for themselves, so they would set the applicable tax rate to whatever they needed it to be to have enough of a profit to maintain the lifestyle they chose. And we complain about the IRS.
As we saw last week, tax collectors didn’t have a very good reputation in first-century Palestine. Their fellow Jews considered them traitors because they worked for the financial gain of the Roman Empire. Way back at the beginning of Luke’s telling of the good news story, a group of tax collectors ask John the Baptizer how they should conduct their business and he tells them to collect nothing more that the amount prescribed. Luke also tells us that Jesus frequently eats with tax collectors and even calls one to be in his inner circle of disciples.
And today, we have the story of Zaccheaus, the chief tax collector. Zach knew Jesus was coming through his town and he tries to work his way through the crowds just to catch a glimpse of this great teacher. But, alas, he was a wee little man, short in stature, our translation more politely puts it, and the crowds paid him no notice. Being ever so resourceful because he’s had to learn to live in a world built for people taller than he – I understand his plight well – he runs around the crowd and climbs a tree.
Now, Luke doesn’t give us anything about Zach’s motivation beyond he just wanted to see who this Jesus he had heard of was. Jesus had other plans. He looked up to Zach and invites himself to Zach’s house. And, as typical, the crowds begin to grumble. Why didn’t Jesus come and eat with them? Couldn’t Jesus see they are much more worthy of his time and attention? A tax collector, the chief tax collector, really?
Zach doesn’t give into their attempt to shame him. He stands, full stature, in front of Jesus and refutes the bad reputation the crowd has forced upon him. Our translation has Zach speaking in the future tense but the Greek text is in the present tense: instead of “I will give” and “I will pay”, Zach declares “I give half of what I make to the poor, and if I defraud, I pay back 4 times.” Zach isn’t declaring he will change his ways, he is claiming he already follows the rules, and more than that, he’s a bit of a Robin Hood figure. He makes up for the defrauding done by the collectors he manages, giving half of his cut to the poor and returning 4 times what was taken above the standard tax.
So, in this city once destroyed by the power of God through Joshua’s marching band, Jesus destroys the crowd’s ideas of who is righteous and who is not and empowers Zach to overcome the shame they force on him. The salvation that has come to the house of Zaccheaus is the power of living out the love of God by loving our neighbors well, exercising the justice of God’s Kingdom in all that we do.
Jesus came not to establish a great political, cultural, or even military power but to seek and save the lost. This is not what most Israelites expected in the promised Messiah; they had lost the plot of God’s story. They didn’t want mere salvation, they wanted retaliation and revenge over the powers that be.
The Israelites didn’t expect to capture the city of Jericho with a marching band and the Israelites of Jesus’ day didn’t expect a Messiah who would overcome evil with kindness and compassion. They didn’t expect Jesus to show up as he did – as an ordinary person, not seeking political or military power but gentle, loving influence, transforming the lives of those he spent time with – those on the margins, the ones whom the crowds often overlooked.
How and where do we expect Jesus to show up? Do we, in spite of the crowds, position ourselves to see him better? Do we attempt to look beyond the crowds to see who Jesus would see? Or do we, like the crowds, grumble when we see those we consider short in stature freely receiving the blessings we’ve tried so very hard to procure for ourselves?
The salvation that Jesus brings isn’t at all about social status or political prestige or military might or physical power but about living on earth as in heaven. It is, in the words of the prophet Isaiah “ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow,” in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. In our jobs, in our volunteer work, in our business dealings, in our neighborhoods and community, regardless of whatever political party is in power, regardless of whomever our neighbors voted for or who they love or how they dress or wear their hair, the color of their skin or their country of birth.
Salvation, as Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica is living in the understanding that it is God who makes us worthy and God’s power that enables us to do the work of faith so that in all that we do, God is glorified. Salvation means we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow his example of loving well, being freed from the power of shame, coercion, and fear in this world.
Together, as the good people of St. Francis and with God’s help, we walk in the faith of following Jesus on earth as in heaven, offering up all that we are and all that we have and all that we do for God’s glory so that the people of our Canyon Lake community, like Zacchaeus, can see Jesus in us just as we look for him in others. Imagine all the possibilities. Amen.