When you’re traveling from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem in the south, as Jesus has been doing for several weeks, maybe months, the last town you come to before you go up the hill to the holy city is Jericho, and Jesus passes through there. For that whole journey, up until this point, Jesus’ ministry has sought out the poor and the sick, foreigners and social outcasts. And Luke, of all the gospel writers, highlights this perspective on Jesus’ mission the most. It’s the people at the margins—be they women, or children, or lepers, or non-Jews, who are lifted up as centerpieces of God’s kingdom. God’s mercy in Christ Jesus comes first to those who have been excluded, to those who have little relative power.
Then, suddenly, here in Jericho, when the crowd that is following him is at its largest, right before he enters the city that will claim him as king, his final encounter is with Zaccheus.
And Zaccheus is anything but powerless and poor. He is a chief tax collector, so he likely knows most everyone in the town and has some kind of influence over their financial well-being.
Zaccheus is wealthy. If he is like most tax collectors of his time, he has found a way to enriching himself somehow from what he has collected from the people. Along the way he has clearly been promoted, so he has probably earned favor from the Roman government and gotten kickbacks as a result of it. If you’re looking for the type of person that Jesus would reach out to based on the shape his ministry has taken so far, Zaccheus would probably not fit that bill. He is a person of great means and, in addition to that, many of Jesus’ more direct and unsettling teachings have been about the dangers of money.
Funny enough, the main thing that Zaccheus is known for is his size. He’s a “wee little man,” which was a character trait looked down on by people of that time (pun intended). Unfair though it was, one’s stature was thought to be a reflection on one’s personality. Right or wrong, I have always imagined Zaccheus to be like that short little guy Vizzini in The Princess Bride. He’s the guy who says, “In-con-ceivable!” If you’ve watched the movie, you know Vizzini’s got influence out of proportion to his size. He has some wealth, and he has some power, but no one really seems to like him. He’s not the type of guy, for example, that people are going to give up their front row seat for when a famous guy comes through town.
So, of all the people Jesus could have chosen that day to speak with, to make a point of extending God’s mercy to, Zaccheus would not have been the most obvious. It would have been…(wait for it)…in-con-ceivable! But Jesus is never going to be contained by our definitions and expectations. How often do we try to decide who Jesus is and is not going to approach and befriend, or direct what Jesus is going to do?
Based on their reaction, that is clearly what the crowd following Jesus is doing. This doesn’t fit their picture of what Jesus is. Up until this point he has tended to befriend the poor and the downtrodden and now, at the last, he is freely associating with this wealthy person, someone they see as a scoundrel. And Jesus doesn’t just approach and address this chief tax collector, he invites himself into his home, a very uncommon thing to do! By announcing he will come to Zaccheus’ house, he is essentially putting himself in Zaccheus’ debt. To be a guest in someone’s home meant sharing table fellowship with that person, which was the most intimate kind of public relationship you could have.
Zaccheus’ reaction to this gracious news is astounding. Because of this interaction with Jesus, becoming his friend, we hear of his generosity to the poor and his honesty in his business dealings. He gives half of his possessions to the poor and repays those he has cheated. “Today salvation has come to this house,” Jesus says, reminding us that God’s eternal grace and redemption is not something that only happens once we die. God’s kingdom is something that finds us even now, in this life.
It is not clear whether the two of them ever make it to Zaccheus’ house, but we may assume that they do, that Jesus and Zaccheus have a meal together. The joy and rich life that Jesus brings us is not something we must wait for. It comes to us now as Jesus meets us and transforms us with God’s mercy and forgiveness. We turn and serve our neighbor, for we meet the face of Jesus in her or him.
With Zaccheus, in this last stop before Jerusalem, we get the clearest, most direct description of what Jesus is all about. He says he has come to seek and save the lost. And the lost, as it turns out, can be anywhere. They can be along the side of the road of Jericho, down in a ditch, beaten and left to die. They can be at the top of a sycamore tree. We know this: there is nothing anyone needs to “be” in order to receive God’s mercy other than lost. You don’t need to be poor. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to be churched, fluent in the Bible. You don’t need to be unchurched. All you need to be is lost, distant, endangered. and the lost, distant, and endangered can be anywhere. In fact, they are us!
And as he continues up that hill out of Jericho into Jerusalem, Jesus will increasingly feel lost, himself. He will become abandoned by the crowd that currently loves him and the disciples that he has called to help him. Eventually Jesus will even feel abandoned and lost from God, his Father. To the top of another kind of tree Jesus himself will climb, rejected and ostracized by the people. He becomes all of our lost-ness, all of our estrangement from God. All of that gets nailed on the tree of the cross so that God can transform us all into his found people.
|"Jesus receives Zaccheus" Church of the Good Shepherd,|
“To seek out and save the lost.” It strikes me that this is the core message of the Reformation, the banner that Martin Luther held high as he tried to re-direct the church back to its gospel center almost 500 years ago. He thought that the church of Christ had adopted some practices and beliefs that sent the message that people were not saved by God’s grace alone. People had to pay a certain price or go through certain rituals not found in scripture in order to be assured of God’s love and redemption. And Luther knew this flew in the face of what Jesus does in the gospels, especially with people like Zaccheus. Jesus says, “Come down, Zaccheus. I know your find it inconceivable that you could host me in your house, around your table, but that’s where I want to be.”
Five hundred years after Luther’s efforts at reforming the church, Christians, at least in the West, find themselves in very interesting times. Tomorrow, to kick off the 500th year since the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis will be participating in a worship service with Lutherans in Lund, Sweden. It is the first time in history that a Pope will mark this event in such a way. People are calling it ground-breaking, saying that it may open up new ways for Lutherans and Roman Catholics to be people of faith together. Already, in the last twenty years, all the condemnations and accusations that these two religious groups formally hurled at each other have been repented of and repealed. Significant progress is being made for our two church bodies to one day come together in some way. And that will have major positive implications for all of Christianity and the world.
We are also in interesting times because our societies are becoming more and more fragmented, socially, politically, and economically. There is a whole host of reasons for that, but suffice it to say we all feel that in some way. The church as an institution may not be powerful or influential in the same ways that it used to be. Some of us may lament that, wishing for the good old days, but we must remember that in any day the church always has the gospel. Into our fractured and pluralistic societies and world we get to announce what Zaccheus hears: “Come down. I’m coming to your house today.” Jesus is still traveling, walking, calling people together from the bottom and the top of the world to unite around a table where he is the holy guest, where he gives his body precisely because we don’t deserve it.
There was this story earlier this week about a mom and dad with a son in the Washington, D.C., public schools who found out that one of his friends often came to school hungry. The parents told their son to invite him home for dinner and to sleep there, if he needed it. As it turns out, that kid knew someone else who didn’t have a stable home life, and he, too, started to show up at the Frantis’ house for supper each night. Pretty soon they started hosting sometimes up to 20 kids from the area, most of whom were dealing with homelessness, poverty, and the wounds of abuse or assault. In a word, they all feel lost, and they find around the Frantis’ humble table a warm meal, a loving community, and a place they feel found, where they belong.
What an image for the church—an always reforming church—as we enter these exciting and interesting times! A church that is constantly being renewed by God’s word, is a church that concentrates on seeking out the lost, that is not doing something for its own members but widening the circle to bring down even the people from the sycamore trees, giving them a place to gather and be fed. Grounded in Scripture, encountering a crucified and risen Lord, we are all the lost whom Jesus has found. Whether we’re Lutheran, or Roman Catholic or Presbyterian or we’re-not-sure-yet, may Zaccheus teach us that Jesus comes to our house today. May we learn that God’s grace is beyond our understanding, defies human boundaries and borders. It claims all of us, in spite of our sinfulness.
May we learn from all our church leaders, Luther and Zaccheus, and mostly from Jesus on the cross, that God’s grace is, quite literally …in-con-ceivable!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.